Located on a tourist trail in Cuba, an art gallery is fighting against stereotypical representations by promoting the work of young artists. But things aren’t always easy. Contemporary And (C&) América Latina visited the gallery Poco Bonito in Cienfuegos.
In Poco Bonito. Courtesy: Poco Bonito.
“Reggaeton-free area” reads the welcome sign at Poco Bonito, an art gallery located in the historic center of the Cuban city of Cienfuegos. As you enter through the doorway, the bright, tropical colors jump out at you. Even more stunning however is the variety of topics addressed in the works on display for sale. Here, in the middle of the new tourist trail, this alternative space intends to be an island of powerful art in a sea of souvenir shops.
With hip-hop beats playing in the background, we chat with Carlos Infante, one of the main movers and shakers on the art scene and co-curator at the gallery. With thin, brownish dreadlocks, a piercing gaze and a wide smile, Carlos pulls up some chairs and waits for us to begin the interview.
His involvement with art started in 2013 when a friend invited him to collaborate with an art co-op, where he worked for a year and a half. After several months of working in the field, his own artistic interests were stirred, and in 2015, the idea of starting a gallery that would allow him and several like-minded artists to develop independent projects became a reality. Soon afterwards, the artists Alberto Veloz, Carlitos Herón, Amet Laza, Osmany Caro, Miguel A. Albuerne, Mumito, Roly and Pepe also joined the project.
“We didn’t come up with the name Poco Bonito ourselves” says Carlos. “The credit belongs to rapper Etián Brebaje Man from Havana. It’s this humorous trait which characterizes Poco Bonito, and that is what we want to do here: uncommon art of unconventional beauty, ‘not quite pretty’ in regard to pure aesthetic and traditional perspectives. Beauty is not important; it’s about the artist creating artistically and sharing a message.”
Art for larger audiences
The gallery project is accompanied by an initiative to organize concerts, where images of the participating artists’ work are projected during the show. To the sounds of reggae, hip-hop, jazz and other related rhythms, the Poco Bonito gallery is becoming a significant presence on the Cienfuego art scene. “The story behind combining music and art evolves from a need to bring art to much larger audiences,” Carlos explains.
However, the curator tells us, the gallery has not yet reached the public attention it is hoping for. Although not specifically directed at tourists, far more foreign visitors than local Cubans make their way to Poco Bonito. “Few Cubans consume art and even fewer are likely to purchase it,” he says. “They don’t stop by the gallery even though the entry is free.” To achieve success, the curators have created a space closer by and more attractive to the public, and the reception has been much better. “If you spend the day with us, you’ll see that we create a great environment because we play music that is very different from the reggaeton dominating the national scene, and we play all types of music. This way, we create a kind of microenvironment here.”
For Poco Bonito, art contributes to music and music contributes to art, which explains their aversion to reggaeton – a genre widespread in Latin America and the rest of the world which often promotes machismo and misogyny – and their rejection of artistic works they consider as devoid of content.
Their critique of reggaeton is in line with their refusal to reproduce thousands of pieces created only for tourists wanting to take home the typical island souvenir: Pictures of classic American cars from the fifties, portraits of Caribbean beaches, or Afro-Cubans smoking cigars, sipping on rum, and wearing supposedly traditional clothing. Instead, Poco Bonito tries to present an image of Cuba that isn’t already out there. “The market is flooded with the same repeated topics,” says Carlos. “I asked [the artists] not to address those topics. We don’t want the over-exploitation of political figures like Che Guevara. If it is a well-thought out piece on Che, then that’s OK, but the massification of Che all over the place is really annoying, as well as American cars.”
One wonders how easy it is to be an artist in Cuba, a socialist republic that has focused on promoting cultural development in society and has excelled in bringing forth great writers, painters, musicians, and filmmakers. In Cienfuegos, there seems to be a thriving artist on every corner, be it a poet, a painter, a performer or a musician. Every person we meet introduces themselves as an artist.
Gallery Poco Bonito. Courtesy: Poco Bonito.
“A place visited by tourists, not an art market”
According to Carlos, making a living as an artist is very difficult in Cuba. The sheer complexity of resolving basic needs results in many artists preferring not to try their luck in art, despite having real talent.
In Cuba, there is no culture of investing in art, and the majority of the more than four million tourists who visit the island each year expect to pay souvenir prices and so are not willing to pay a decent price for works of art. “This is a place visited by tourists, it is not an art market,” says Carlos Infante. “Tourists walk by with a few pesos in their pocket, looking to buy cheap things, and when you show them a piece for 500 dollars – it’s very difficult to sell.” Tourist demand does not help the growth of new forms of expression outside of artisan crafts. “We have tried, but our prices don’t even come close to a price tag on the art market. And it’s not like we demand thousands of dollars, but selling something for more than one hundred dollars takes a lot of work. I am not an artist, but I work with them and I know that creating these pieces takes time, and time translates into money. If people aren’t willing to pay a price that allows you to be an artist, you end up producing artisan crafts, where you don’t have to think. You simply reproduce and that’s it.”
Developing a critical discourse on the Cuban cultural construct is a complex task which requires talent and dedication. It is an even greater task if you add the African identity to the mix, since, despite its far-reaching popularity, Yoruba culture is not always valued or welcomed.
Nevertheless, the Poco Bonito gallery accepts the challenge and continues to create a space for artistic coexistence that serves as a platform for the country’s cultural diversity and multiple forms of expression. It is an example of the persistent necessity to overcome classical images and stereotypes, to show Cuba’s other facets, including a Cuba where the expression of its African identity goes beyond cigars, rum, and rumba.
Translation from Spanish by Zarifa Mohamad Petersen.