by Peter Calder | New Zealand Herald
A chance meeting in Manhattan led to the establishment of an Auckland gallery devoted exclusively to Cuban art.
New Zealander David Walker was on holiday in New York when he wandered into a show by the self-described “lyrical abstractionist” Rigoberto Mena Santana. He had long been fascinated by the history and culture of the island barely 100km off the Florida coast, where a Communist revolution has flourished - and occasionally faltered - under the outraged noses of eight United States Administrations.
“But I didn’t really know anything about the place and I’d certainly never been there.”
All that changed when Walker, who was making a living as a location manager for American tele-movies, was invited by the artist to stay with him in Havana.
On that visit, and on a return trip to the 2000 Havana Biennale, he met dozens of gallery directors and curators, many of whom expressed regret that there was no outlet in Australasia devoted to the work of artists from Cuba.
His response was to open the Havana Gallery, which celebrates its first birthday on Sunday with a sale running until Christmas Eve.
“The Cuban art movement is well known in Europe and more in the US since a Supreme Court decision which held that the blockade could not apply to cultural exchanges,” says Walker. “But nobody was representing Cuban art in the Southern Hemisphere.”
Walker is aware that his small, plain gallery just a few steps along Great North Rd from the Ponsonby Rd corner, is not on the city art circuit - which is why it has been largely ignored by critics. But he sees it as a launching pad for forays into Australia and Asia with the work of the artists he champions.
Much of the public art to be seen in Cuba - the hoardings and murals - is still quaintly revolutionary. It seems oddly dated, like American painting before pop art began to poke fun. But galleries abound in Havana and provincial cities and artists often sell their work on the street.
The visual environment - the urban landscape unblighted by Coke and Nike ads - generates a particular sensibility. Artists belong to a European tradition but aesthetically they live in a pre-modern environment.
Artists enjoy a social status in Cuban society that some here might envy, although their self-expression is rather hedged.
The grim joke about the high literacy rate that does the rounds there (“Everyone can read and write but there’s nothing to read and you have to be careful what you write”) would resonate for the visual artists too, and you will look in vain on the walls of the Havana Gallery for a piece that makes an explicit political statement.
The closest might be Avila Gendis’ Lost Boat Over A Black Hole, an impressionistic depiction of a heavy-framed boat lost in the mist and spray as the ocean depths yawn at its keel: it speaks of longing for escape and the fear of exile.
Elsewhere are engaging charcoal-and-chalk works on paper by Angel Baez, not unlike rock paintings in their line, and finished with a wash of coffee.
The Havana Gallery offers a fascinating glimpse of artists caught in a time warp. Walker, who keeps in touch with developments in Cuba through a local foundation called the Genesis Project, says there is plenty more to come.
“To a lot of people, Cuba is very romantic,” he says. “They have the image of Che in their heads which is based on the famous Alberto Korda photograph. The reality is somewhat different.
“But countries that are in religious or political or economic turmoil always tend to produce great art. Look at Ireland - you haven’t seen much from there since the economic boom.”
* What: Havana Gallery, 17 Great North Rd, ph (09) 360 1414
* On the web: [url=http://www.havanagallery.co.nz]http://www.havanagallery.co.nz[/url]