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Caribbean Connection: San Antonio visual artists working to build cultural bridge with Cuba (San Antonio Current)

Anjali Gupta

Jan 10, 2024

Two events this month will help introduce the concept to the San Antonio community.

Where the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic converge lies a tiny island subject to one of the longest-running sanction policies in U.S. history. It is also the birthplace of some of the most influential conceptual artists in history — Coco Fusco, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Ana Mendieta, among others.


"Cuba — well, Havana specifically — is really different than most impoverished places," San Antonio artist Gary Sweeney said. "Sure, you can go to Kingston or any number of beautiful places, but the people are genuinely pissed off — and armed. The people you meet in Havana are warm and beautiful."


Sweeney's latest trip to Cuba, his third thus far, was not as a tourist. Rather, it's the first step in establishing a cultural bridge.


"My role was akin to carnival barker," he explained. "This is 100% Angela's baby."


By that, Sweeney means Angela Martinez, proprietor of Slab Cinema Outdoor Movies and Arthouse Cinema at Blue Star, brought a small group of San Antonio-based artists together to test the waters, make connections and, ultimately, establish long-term cultural exchanges centered around the visual arts, which she dubbed The San-Havana Project.


Literally flying by the seat of their pants, Martinez, Sweeney, painter Ricky Armendariz and photographer Anthony S. Garcia recently traveled to Cuba as unofficial cultural emissaries. Travel restrictions were relaxed during the Obama administration but ramped back up under Trump and continue to this day, creating a process filled with mind-numbing redundancies and rubber stamps in triplicate.


Luckily, artists and art lovers draw the short ream of red tape right now, thanks in no small part to the upcoming 2024 Havana Biennial.


As project lead, it was Martinez's job to forge institutional connections, secure venues and deal with logistics — not an easy task in a foreign country with patchy phone service and unreliable internet. However, she quickly made inroads with some art collectives and the organization Havana Espacio Creativos, a multidisciplinary laboratory for the creation and display of contemporary art.


The SA group pulled off an exhibition and interactive artmaking workshop at Espacio Creativos, with Armendariz teaching the audience printmaking and Garcia shooting and giving away portraits. They next day, they followed with a pop-up exhibition in the space where they were staying. That's where Sweeney's role kicked in.

While Armendariz and Garcia were upstairs doing print demos and portraits, Sweeney stood on the street getting any passers-by he could to go see the show — a great strategy until it turned into an ad hoc block party.

"We were having so much fun, we kinda forgot that we were operating in a police state," Sweeney said.

Police arrived, and the gathering was deemed unlawful. Guests filed out of the building, thankfully without incident.


Many artists fall on the wrong side of the law in Cuba, ending up under house arrest, in exile or in prison. Some simply disappear.


Tania Bruguera is a prime example. A conceptual artist whose ethos and performative practice are steeped in political actionism, Bruguera has been placed under house arrest on multiple occasions. One of the latest charges she faced was "organizing a demonstration with the intent to overthrow the Cuban government," an allegation that made the artist laugh out loud at its overblown absurdity. However, those who create apolitical, abstract and traditional art in Cuba can become quite successful.


"Our guide explained to us that in an economy that has no real financial sector — in which doctors and professional sports players make a state mandated salary, which is squat — an internationally known artist, oddly, can make it to the top of the food chain," Sweeney explained.


The four Alamo City emissaries experienced that phenomenon on a visit to the palatial studio of painter Nelson Domínguez in Old Havana, Sweeney and Martinez recalled. Upon entering a courtyard fit for a five-star hotel, they were served coffee and seated. As they looked around trying to get the lay of the land, they were told that the entire third floor is Domínguez's painting studio.


After a tour of said space — a studio any artist would kill for — they asked if they were going to meet Domínguez. His assistant informed them that they already had. He was the quiet, unassuming gentleman who served them coffee upon arrival.


The San-Havana Project isn't intended to be a one-time effort.


"I've got all these talking points about the project and my goals, but they don't quite capture the thrill of creating this thing that is so beautiful and challenging at the same time," Martinez said.


To that end, two events this month — a pop-up at Pearl retail shop Dos Carolinas featuring Garcia's photography from 5-7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 11 and an artists' talk at restaurant Pharm Table at 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 21 — will help introduce the concept to the San Antonio community.


Tickets for both events are available on the project website, san-havana.com.


"Art is a universal language," Martinez said. "This is about long-term community building. Once you get past the handshakes and logistics and focus on art, people change. They drop their guard and communicate on a very human level, and that is where lifelong, meaningful relationships begin."


Source: San Antonio Current

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