Art diplomacy: San Antonio artists forge friendships in Cuba

One woman’s ambition to create a dialogue between San Antonio and Havana artists is blossoming.

By Jack Morgan, Texas Public RadioJanuary 2, 2024 10:00 am, ,

From Texas Public Radio:

If good art is the byproduct of talent and suffering and opportunity, it should come as no surprise that Cuba is a natural hotbed of art.

A group of San Antonio artists and art lovers just returned from a trip to Havana to help spread the magic of an arts interchange between both cities. It’s called The San-Havana Project.

Havana is a city where musicians on a street corner playing for change is not unusual. A walk on the Havana beachfront called The Malecón reveals more street performers playing and singing on the beach.

Gary Sweeney is a participating artist in the San-Havana Project. He said the idea of putting on that art show didn’t seem at first so difficult a task.

“We’re trying to bridge the gap between the artists in San Antonio, the artists in Havana,” Sweeney said.

JoJoDancer Photography

Angela Martinez, Ricky Armendariz, Anthony S. Garcia and Gary Sweeney.

In theory, that shouldn’t be so tough, though Sweeney noted the U.S. and Cuba have had a contentious relationship. “There was the Bay of Pigs invasion. We tried to assassinate Fidel Castro,” he said.

There was also the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Soviet Union built rocket launchers in Cuba. President John F. Kennedy explained to the world the gravity of the situation.

“This urgent transformation of Cuba into an important strategic base by the presence of these large, long-range and clearly offensive weapons constitutes a specific threat to the peace and security of all the Americas.”

A war was averted by a U.S. naval blockade, and the missiles were quickly removed from Cuba. Various presidents since then have increased, and at times decreased the tension. While the relationship between the countries has serious baggage, Cuba does still welcome U.S. visitors, especially artists and art lovers.

Anthony S. Garcia / JoJoDancer Photography

A street scene in Old Havana.

The idea for the San-Havana trip came from Angela Martinez, who said once she secured approval from the Cuban government to go, there was still a gauntlet to run involving QR codes.

“From San Antonio, you have to give him the code to get on the plane in San Antonio to get to Houston, once they know you’re going to Cuba,” Martinez said.

Photographer Anthony S. Garcia of JoJoDancer Photography went too. He thought Cuba’s travel difficulty was also part of its charm.

“Part of the experience for me was all the roadblocks. With all the different situations that we had to go through just to have a show,” Garcia said.

Anthony S. Garcia / JoJoDancer Photography

Cubans pose as part of a series of portraits Garcia took during his time in Cuba.

And that was the trip’s purpose: to bring San Antonio artists and their works to Havana for an exhibition. Garcia was there to document the trip, but also to display his photographic art. Engagement with Cubans was the trip’s objective…but how best to connect with them? Take their picture, of course.

“I set up a photo studio up in there and I gave the people the proper photos and all that came with it, all the fun,” he said. “And when I photograph people, I make sure everybody’s having a good time.”

Martinez said the idea was to induce visitors to come into the San Antonio artists’ exhibit by taking fun portraits of every visitor and giving them away.

“And we printed those portraits and we put them in little cardboard frames and gave them as gifts,” she said.

Sweeney’s job was to get Cubans in the front door.

Anthony S. Garcia / JoJoDancer Photography

The exhibition featured works of several San Antonio artists.

“And I was standing there like a carnival barker saying that they could get free photographs of themselves and then they could look in and see him taking pictures of families and stuff,” he said. “So that brought in people. And then when they were in there, they said, ‘Oh, by the way, upstairs, we also have a lot of artwork there!’”

The works of three San Antonio artists had been hung upstairs, and after posing for a picture, Havanans were flocking in to see San Antonio art. This exhibition was for viewing only; sales of American artwork was prohibited.

Cuba itself has a very active, very accomplished art community and Sweeney says they really know what they’re doing.

“All of the art students there are like academically trained and stuff. So they learn the basics, they learn figure drawing, they learn all of the foundations,” he said.

Sweeney said the best Cuban artists actually do extremely well.

“Artists bring in more money to Cuba. They are revered there. I asked our tour guide, what’s the pecking order of finance of success is financially and without missing a beat, he said artists. And I thought he was joking, but he said no. You know, our athletes don’t make money. The doctors don’t make any money at all,” he said.

They visited the studio of artist Nelson Dominguez, who is one of the island’s most famous artists. His work though, doesn’t just stay in Cuba.

“Nelson told me that he’s traveled all over the United States. He was in San Francisco. He’s having a show in Tampa.”

A trumpet player blew jazzy, island sound during their time at Dominguez’s studio. Sweeney says the Havana studio where he creates his art is a sure sign of his success.

“He has a cavernous studio that’s filled with his work. And apparently, he is very successful and famous,” Sweeney said. “And then he’s got this massive courtyard that would be like in a Four Seasons hotel. And then we went upstairs, and I thought, ‘well, he lives upstairs.’ Well, no. That’s his painting studio! The downstairs is where he displays his work.”

Garcia said a cigar-chomping man in shorts and t-shirt had been guiding them around Dominguez’s studio.

“He has guys showing me stuff and he’s guiding me around. So then I asked the other assistant, ‘Where is Nelson?’ –“Well, that’s him.’

That casual studio assistant was actually the artist himself!

‘He was the guy making my coffee?’ Garcia asked.

Anthony S. Garcia / JoJoDancer Photography

Angela Martinez poses at Fusterlandia, a neighborhood remade by artist Jose Rodriguez Fuster using architectural ceramics and tile mosaics.

The most unusual place in Cuba by Sweeney’s measure was a neighborhood re-made by an artist named Jose Rodriguez Fuster who creates massive architectural ceramics and tile mosaics.

“In 1975, he moved into this impoverished neighborhood, and he started doing these ceramics, folk art, and he covered his compound in this whimsical, colorful art,” he said. “And it’s massive. It’s like, let’s say it’s an acre.”

Inspired by Gaudi’s art in Barcelona, Fuster’s art is fantasy-like and incredibly ornate. After turning his studio into a fantasy land, he went to work on its surroundings.

“And after he got done with that, he started going down the neighborhood,” Sweeney said. “And this neighborhood is completely covered. The neighborhood is covered with ceramic folk art.”

Pictures from what’s called Fusterlandia are amazing.

Anthony S. Garcia / JoJoDancer Photography

Attendees mill about the art exhibit.

The San Antonio art lovers’ rushed five days and two art shows in Cuba came to an end, and now that they’re back, Martinez says they’re planning for the next trip in the San-Havana project.

“We’re hoping to have a show next December. And we’re trying to work to see how to get those different artists here, like we can get support on this side,” she said.

In other words, the idea is to bring back Cuban Artists and their work to San Antonio for a show. Will they be able to pull it off? Martinez is looking for the best way forward.

“I think that we can work with the artists, and they can work with the government, and we can find ways,” she said. “You know, part of that involves us finding funding and initiative.”

Whether or not they can pull that off or remains to be seen. In the meantime, these unofficial emissaries are finding new ways to keep the artistic dialogue going on between these two adversarial countries.

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