Impressions of Cuba: An Afternoon at the Taller Experimentál de Grafica by Soy Cuba

By Francesca Bolfo

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At the center of Old Havana just off the Plaza de Armas lies one of the city’s greatest artistic troves: the Taller Experimentál de Grafica. An experimental print workshop, the Taller offers a shared space for local printmakers to create and sell their work. One hot Tuesday afternoon, we ventured down a short side street lined with touristy tchotchke shops and cafes towards the Taller. We entered through a pair of massive, open loft doors, our eyes slowly adjusting from the bright, sundrenched streets to the cool, cavernous space of the workshop. The initial sight was almost overwhelming: myriad etchings, lithographs, woodblock, and multi-process prints hung on the walls and sat in stacks on wide tables lining the walls. The artists milled around, some talking to potential buyers while others worked or simply chatted with one another. Yet the space is not only dedicated to contemporary art—I realized that on display towards the front of the room were original lithostones bearing the marks of Cuba’s earliest cigar, produce, and rum labels. These designs really epitomize the fluid ontology of prints in general; they are simultaneously commercial advertising products, archival documents, and fine art works, demonstrating how integral printmaking is to Cuba’s sociopolitical, economic, and cultural history.

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After some serious browsing, I wound up speaking to two artists whose work I was particular drawn to. After some softball bartering, I bought four small prints. Eager to learn more about their practice, I continued to plague them with questions in my cobbled Spanish, and both eventually wrote down their information and said to get in touch…via Facebook. For the first time in two years, I regretted having deleted my own account. But, more importantly, I was once more reminded of the complexities underlying life in Cuba and the opaque technological boundaries isolating the island. Alas, my chances of staying in touch with these artists, of keeping my finger on the pulse of such nascent Cuban art, are therefore slim. Yet every time I see their prints—now hanging on my apartment walls—I’m reminded of our interaction. Perhaps the most valuable thing about these images, then, are the memories they carry of a hot afternoon in Old Havana, imprinted just as firmly on the thick cotton paper as the artists’ marks themselves.




See a short video showing the space here:

Havana's Azulejos by Soy Cuba

By Marie McFalls

Cuban Tiles on the Streets of Havana . Photography by Luiza Repsold, 2018.

Cuban Tiles on the Streets of Havana. Photography by Luiza Repsold, 2018.

Cuban tiles can accompany habeneros throughout nearly their entire day. They pave the hallways and floors of homes, they ascend to decorate the walls of commercial buildings, they even rise overhead to decorate the name plates of the city’s streets and plazas. The three-dimensional landscape of the city thus appears almost canvased by these silky coverings.

The relieving sensation of cool tile underfoot seems countered by the fiery explosions below - dozens of trapezoids and circles emerging in unison from their disparate, pinpoint origins. A geometric kaleidoscope seems to turn with every step. In their fecundity, these forms coalesce with their neighbors to form the mesmerizing visual bass-line of the city of Havana.

Tiles in the Studio of Pedro Pablo Oliva.  Photograph by Luiza Repsold, 2018.

Tiles in the Studio of Pedro Pablo Oliva. Photograph by Luiza Repsold, 2018.

Perhaps, buried in each of these microscopic epicenters, lies some vestige of their origins, a single segment of the thread of the passage of time and space. Here, the modern Cuban home collapses the voyages and aims of those conquistadors who first set foot in Cuba, and before them the Moorish conquerors’ ships which first pulled ashore in their own Al-Andalus. The humble, complex and ubiquitous glazed tile provides links to the pathways of these grand voyages, and the quotidian journey from one side of the plaza to the other.

Each of these formations, however, assumes a tranquility despite the medium’s cataclysmic past. A near meditative sensation arises from gazing at them, as the eye becomes occupied and placated through a soothing engagement with repetition of shape and color. Their predictability seems to mimic and project the universal desire for the serenity in our quotidian lives. We awake, we eat, we work, we sleep. We generally do not wish for this cycle to be overly disturbed. This sense of visual fulfillment and satiation seems to exist as an oasis compared to the fluidity of Cuban society. If we see the tiling indoors as geometric both literally in its form and metaphorically in its exactitude and reliability, then the streets of Havana in some ways constitute organic forms. The urban environment appears ever-changing and complex, a cultural crossroads and a society, like many, still reckoning with the past.

Sign for Calle Muralla at Plaza Vieja, Havana.  Photography by author, 2018.

Sign for Calle Muralla at Plaza Vieja, Havana. Photography by author, 2018.

Photographing Cuba: Part One by Soy Cuba

Brett Robert,  El Jinete del Toro/The Bullrider.  2018, digital photography.

Brett Robert, El Jinete del Toro/The Bullrider. 2018, digital photography.

by Brett Robert

I recall the first moment I saw Cuba. It was 2016 and I was flying on a budget airliner from Fort Lauderdale to Bogotá, Colombia. As I stared out the window, I was mostly trying not to completely freak out about the fact I was headed to a foreign country alone. At the time I barely spoke Spanish, having had only a semester course in 2007 under my belt. I had been on airplanes alone dozens of times, but I was always meeting friends when I landed. As we cruised at 30,000 feet suddenly my mind became the most efficient machine in the history of humanity at creating disaster scenarios which would await me upon landing. My thoughts raced until suddenly I saw it, probably the largest island I had ever seen, and all I could think was ‘one day I need to go there.’ I could not stop staring at Cuba back then as I sailed above it, and I imagined life happening below me on that island. Ever since I have been fascinated and curious about life there and hoped that “one day” I would have the chance to visit.

“One day” turned out to come around in October 2018, when I had the opportunity to visit in the course of my studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

I’d like to tell the story of 3 particular photos I took: El Jinete del Toro, Las Escalaras, and El Perro y la Coppelia. Today’s post is about El Jinete del Toro/The Bullrider.

He was selling bull rides around a road side vista point in the Viñales valley, right off the main highway. Viñales is a town of nearly 30,000 in the Piñar del Rio province west of Havana. It is in a fertile hilly region where much of Cuba’s famous tobacco is grown. In recent years a local tourism industry has emerged. We spent the first two days of our week-long stay in Viñales. Right before I took this picture I went full tourist and bought a straw fedora and a couple souvenirs from a merchant at this roadside stand. As soon as I saw the bull I knew I wanted to take a photo. The rider came running over, probably hoping to sell me a ride, and I asked “permiso?” and he nodded that I was welcome to take a picture. I snapped four, adjusting the exposure and shutter speed slightly to account for the incredibly bright tropical light and the blinding white clouds. I often find myself taking 20-100 shots and fiddling around to get things just right, but I didn’t want to waste his time, so I snapped a quick four and paid him for his time and for allowing me to take a picture.

Usually I take hundreds of photos, and only a fraction end up worth editing. In Cuba this didn’t seem to happen; it was hard to take a photo that I didn’t find interesting in some way. The shot I liked most was the last of the four, with the f-stop on my 18-55 kit lens at 10 and the shutter speed at 1/1000th of a second.

Photographing Cuba: Part Two by Soy Cuba

Brett Robert,  Las Escalaras/The Stairs.  2018, digital photography.

Brett Robert, Las Escalaras/The Stairs. 2018, digital photography.

by Brett Robert

This shot features two Cuban icons: the University of Havana steps and a classic 1950s American car serving as a taxi—according to my friends, this is most likely a 1952 Ford, or maybe a 1954, or is it a ’53? The steps figure prominently in the film Soy Cuba that gives this exhibition its title, a film I have spent a year watching over and over. Fortunately, it’s a fantastic film that holds up to multiple viewings. The idea of seeing this place in person lit up my imagination before we left when I was told we were staying within walking distance. I took 29 pictures of this building, the main front entrance, in two different sessions on this day. Most of the pictures were taken either behind the columns up top or on the steps when we passed it in the morning on the way to a meeting with Roger at his studio. Afterwards, walking back with a small group of three of my colleagues I demanded we stop here because I had dreamt of shooting it for months. We took a few killer selfies on my phone, then I set up shop.

One of the best photography tips I can give anyone is to learn to wait. Shots like this where no pedestrians are visible on the steps and only one stylish car is in view don’t happen because there was no one passing by that day. This shot happened because my friends were kind enough to wait with me for several cycles of the stoplight until no cars were coming and the one or two people on the steps had passed out of frame. I snapped a couple shots with no cars in frame, then I saw this car coming and I snapped two as it turned right in front of us on the corner. I liked the shot of it exiting the frame more, and after a couple rounds of editing I liked it enough to order a print to hang in my kitchen. It’s the same kit lens set at f 4 and 1/640th of a second. There was less light this day because the clouds you can see in the sky are the outside edges of Hurricane Michael which caused massive damage a few days later as it crossed Florida. We were fortunate enough that the light drizzle we experienced far from the eye was only an inconvenience that gave the city a different look and feel.

Photographing Cuba: Part Three by Soy Cuba

Brett Robert,  El Perro y La Coppelia/Dog and Coppelia.  2018, digital photography.

Brett Robert, El Perro y La Coppelia/Dog and Coppelia. 2018, digital photography.

by Brett Robert

This last photo combines two of my favorite things: dogs and ice cream. I saw so many happy dogs in Cuba, both on the streets and in family homes that I passed by. There was even a loud chihuahua on the way to Roger’s studio who was an absolute sweetheart if you stopped to say hello and offer a scratch behind the ear. I didn’t bother disturbing this dog’s comfort.

Coppelia is sometimes called “Castro’s ice cream,” and this shot is from the Havana flagship location of featured in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s penultimate film, which he co-directed with Juan Carlos Tabío, 1994’s Fresa y chocolate (English: Strawberry and Chocolate). The Cubans I talked to about Coppelia all praised it as the best ice cream in the world. People queue up for lines that themselves are as legendary as its quality, so given my brief stay I did not want to spend time waiting in line. This was as close as I got to the ice cream.

The picture doesn’t really capture the incredibly fun modernist architecture of the building, which is out of frame to the right, but it feels unmistakably Cuban to me for three reasons. First the bright blue color is so typical of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. I can imagine a house in Managua, Ponce, or Mérida painted this exact color, next to a red or pink or green one just as bright. The unmistakable Cuban-ness of the photo, that marks it a scene that could only be in Havana and not in the Nicaraguan, Puerto Rican, and Mexican cities I mentioned before, comes from the classic Coppelia font, and to a lesser extent the dog. I’ve met street dogs everywhere I’ve gone in Latin America. They are always wise enough to mind the traffic that surround them, but sometimes they are wary of people. I’ve met a couple that flinched when I raised a hand to pet them, and several who never stopped barking aggressively and baring their teeth until I left the area. Both of those reactions came from dogs in areas with high crime, where often the dog’s job was to serve as a burglar alarm and deterrent to would-be thieves. The dogs I met in Cuba were free from such burdens. They were indifferent to passersby, but would tolerate pets. These dogs weren’t working dogs, nor were they hungry. They were happy, well fed, and expected to be treated with kindness, even from strange humans. I asked one man if Cubans thought of their dogs as family members like most yanquis and Puerto Ricans I’ve met do, in contrast to many Europeans who see pets as animals distinct from pets. His answer was a smile, a nod, and what seemed to be a bit of amused confusion at why I would ask such a silly question: of course dogs are family.

This photo was the last of 6 I took of this dog. The f-stop was 6.4 and the shutter speed was 1/250th of a second, with the same trusty, cheap 18-55 mm kit lens.

Incidentally, I passed by the same spot three days later and peeked in to see the dog was there again, napping his day away in comfort and peace.

Road to Viñales by Soy Cuba

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The study of landscape painting warrants a concurrent study of landscape itself, to pair the representation with lived experience as a way of more deeply understanding the place in all its vivid fullness. We were lucky enough to do just this—to preface our encounter with Roger Toledo Bueno’s work with a visit to the Valle de Viñales, one of Cuba’s most spectacular and distinctive natural landmarks. In fact, we began our journey there right after arriving in Havana, setting off on the highway directly from José Martí Airport. As we drove, we were encouraged to embrace the silence, to rest, and most of all, to take notice of our surroundings, considering how they revealed certain details about life and culture here. I kept a running list of these details, all of which seemed so new and bewildering in contrast to the familiar urban landscape of Philadelphia from which we had just come: miles of arid plains, waving fronds, and spiky palms, red and yellow-tipped African tulip trees (Spathodea campanulata), trucks lacquered red and power blue like hard candy, diesel plumes, hitchhikers and roadside stands, the odd steer. The ride itself was like a gift- the chance to quietly absorb our arrival, our purpose, and our newness in this special place.

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Arriving in Viñales three hours or so later, we stood in awe together from a lookout across the valley. Rearing up from this verdant basin were the craggy faces of mogotes (haystacks), emblematic features of Cuba’s karst (irregular limestone) topography. The conical shape of these formations, rising so abruptly and strikingly from the otherwise flat basin, made me think of them as islands within an island. Innumerable lines were visible, eked into the soft, sheer sides of these mini-mountains. Lush growth clung throughout; apparently the porous texture of limestone allows for the penetration of various root systems of caiman oaks, sierra palms, and the rare cork palm (found here and nowhere else in the world). 

We were lucky enough to wake the next day to the brilliant blue skies for a hike through this otherworldly terrain. As part of this trek, we paid visits to several tobacco and coffee farms in the area, speaking with vegueros (tobacco farmers) to learn more about the richness of the ecosystem and the techniques used in the growth of some of the finest tobacco in the world. We explored one barn that housed thousands of tobacco leaves, painstakingly stripped and strung to dry, the air heavy with aromas of caramel; we enjoyed a cigar-rolling demonstration and took note of this particular family’s tradition of dipping the tip in honey before taking the first puff; we sampled guava fresh from the tree, drank the juice of sugarcane, and helped to grind coffee beans; we soaked up these stunning sights, sounds, smells, and tastes, each one immeasurably enriching our understanding of this unforgettable country. 

Roger accompanied us on this trip to Viñales, and the chance to observe the beauty and sheer vibrance of this area alongside him helped to illuminate for me an important part of the motivation behind his Soy Cuba series: to bring Cuba to light, to our field of vision. As I hope this post and these photographs have shown, it was a sight to see, and to remember.

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—Ramey Mize

Photographs by Brett Robert and Ramey Mize