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San-Havana: Bridging creative communities between San Antonio and Havana (San Antonio Report)

Angela Martinez

Jan 5, 2024

San Antonio group starts new collaborative project

Last month, three San Antonio artists held two pop-up art shows in two days in Havana, Cuba. It sounds simple enough in concept, but the reality was anything but. 

The logistics of going to the island are no longer complicated. There are direct flights to Havana from a few U.S. cities, but you can’t go just for the sake of travel. The trip needs to fall under one of 12 permitted categories. Creating an international art project was not the obvious answer, but it definitely checked a few of the boxes.

In April, artist Bygoe Zubiate and I rented an apartment in Old Havana and set out on a walking trip, in search of studios. We conversed with artists and made some friends. I returned to San Antonio with several short video interviews, a stack of limited edition prints we’d show at Blue Star and a plan for a new cultural exchange project called San-Havana, designed to bridge the creative communities between San Antonio and Havana. 

What I needed next were willing accomplices. 

Enter Gary Sweeney, whose text-based, humor-driven conceptualist art has shown throughout the United States and abroad. Also game was photographer/videographer Anthony García, who has built a career photographing local creatives and who recently showed five giant prints at the San Antonio International Airport. Ricky Armendariz, who carves/burns cultural and historical references into his paintings, is also a veteran of several international art exhibits and perfectly wrapped up the triad. Our idea was to take a group on a five-day venture into the Cuban art scene culminating with a San-Havana pop-up show.

Initially, things went smoothly on the trip. San Antonio artist Jorge Villarreal has connections in Havana and helped us secure a gallery space. Arts and Culture Reporter Jack Morgan heard about the project and ran a feature on Texas Public Radio (TPR) a few days before we left. 

At this point, everything took a turn. The day after the TPR story, I was contacted by a reporter for NBC who wanted to share our story. We were thrilled, but the network TV request ended up throwing a monkey wrench into our plans. 

In looking for a venue, we’d learned that depending on the event location there could be a lengthy permitting process. We didn’t plan to sell any art — or employ any Cubans — so we thought we were OK. It might have been easier with Wi-Fi and a better command of the Cuban vernacular; however, we had neither. 

Despite assurances that NBC was authorized, the gallery declined to let us film. Our contacts had other suggestions and took us on a fun adventure through Havana, but none of the venues would agree to cameras. Running out of time, we decided to pivot and host a second show at our apartment. This plan resulted in a visit from the police, but that’s a tale for another time.

Artist Katie Pell once said, “Something has to happen next for there to be a story.” Ours would have been much less magical had the original venue worked out. 

After multiple dead ends, our translator took us to the Habana Espacios Creativos, a community art space and creative laboratory for innovation and entrepreneurship with several garage doors that open on a busy street in a bustling part of Havana. 

Communication was tough at first, but we secured our show for the next day. As trite as it may sound, when we started hanging the art for the show, I saw firsthand that art really is a universal language. 

In addition to their work on the walls, our artists added interactivity to the show and created art with the patrons. Armendariz pressed over 80 woodblock prints. García set up his studio, took portraits and printed them in real time.

Another one of our travelers was Michael Soto, former associate vice president for academic affairs and professor of English at Trinity University who is now provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at Point Park University. His recollections of Havana as “a study in contrasts — with stunning beauty and equally stunning deprivation,” have stayed with me. Our band of travelers agreed that the challenging logistics of the trip were far outweighed by the music, the art and, most of all, the people. It’s the start of something very special. 

Over the coming year, we plan to display work from Cuban artists locally, and plans are in the works for another pop-up in Havana. Our first show, featuring photos taken by Anthony Garcia, will be on display at Dos Carolinas on Jan. 11. On Jan. 21, Pharm Table will host an artists’ talk.

Source: The San Antonio Report

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