We left the center of Havana and Old Havana with their grand buildings (some of them in disrepair) and went to an outlying neighborhood that was obviously quite poor.
We navigated around the potholes and cracks on streets with few sidewalks to arrive at a surprising intersection. On the corner was a unusual round building decorated with murals and sculptures that formed a procession up the street.
We had arrived at the Casa Communidad Cultural or El Tanque and it was to be very different from our earlier visits to the Merger Studio and the grand Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. It would hold treasures of a different kind.
The guidebooks tell us that Cubans have a strong sense of family and community – often putting them ahead of the individual’s own needs and desires. It is all the more surprising in the aftermath of the terrible years of hardship in the 90’s that fragmented Cuban society and drove many into an “every man for himself” mentality. Consequently it was interesting to talk with Cubans about their lives now and observe how they lived this newly developed sense of community.
Three artists called Merger Studio, embodied this communal sense of purpose. They collaborate o all their pieces of art in a variety of mediums.
Unfortunately I was not able to ask them to elaborate on their process, but I understood from my own experience, that even working with only one other person on the same canvas or paper requires the development of a deep process of relationship and trust. How much more it would take with three artists to produce a body of art.
Our visit to Casa Communidad Cultural and the work of Muraleando, a group of artists, opened our eyes even more to a complex and joyous collaboration..
Over 10 years ago the Muraleandos saw the need for arts for the children and young people of in this poor neighborhood of Havana, and with the blessings of the neighborhood, began to hold classes wherever they could. The artists worked with children in various open spaces and even in the street. As one artist said “when it rained, we had to stop”. They needed shelter from the frequent rains.
El Tanque is the name of a hundred year old water-tank which was used for steam engines when they were an important form of transportation.
Now the engines are museum pieces – a couple of them adorn the entrance of the Havana Art and Crafts market and the tank sat derelict for decades on a street corner in the neighborhood.
The community and the artists saw the old water tank in a new way – as a possible center for the arts. The artists put their own work on one side and began the huge task of cleaning out the tank with help from the parents of local children and many other neighbors. One of the artists, a musician, said El Tanque held fond childhood memories for him, as he and the other kids used to go there to play and sometimes dare each other to swim in the tank.
The vision of El Tanque as an art center was so compelling that it inspired them to work for years on its restoration and transformation of into a habitable building for classes and shows and sales of work. They drained the tank and cleaned out decades of refuse from the interior, using everything from backhoes to small shovels. They cut windows and doors into the walls and cleared the area around it. Then several out-buildings, a stage and a dining room on the roof were added.
Murals and sculptures went up constructed with the same dedication – artists directing the community members – as together they created symbols and stories in many different mediums. They used a wide variety of repurposed materials to bring the arts out of the building and along the street. In a country where “nothing is disposable and everything is useful, broken typewriters, old telephones, tire rims, wrought-iron chair parts – all were fair game to weld and paint and turn into sculpture.”(Henri Ewaskio, July 2004
See the story on You Tube and at http://www.muraleando.org
The children and youth of the area now take classes in movie-making, dancing, performing, painting, print-making, murals and sculptures. Sometimes their parents also attend or drop in to relax and talk in their center
I was moved by visiting this center and talking with the artists of all ages. When the children started to sing and dance for their audience of parents, artists and visiting Americans we witnessed the strong sense of community and sweet pride in their creation.
Whether it was recently come or not, the arts brought it vibrantly to the surface, and inspired and transformed the neighborhood. No experts were needed to “prove” that the arts contribute to community, education and awareness, the whole community was already convinced. The director proudly pointed out to us that government had also recognized their work by resurfacing the roads that intersected outside El Tanque.
Inspired by the joy of the children who performed for us, we joined the simple and delicious feast on the roof café and danced to Beatles and Rolling Stones songs mixed in with Cuban salsa.