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.
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.
Photographs by Brett Robert and Ramey Mize