By SHANNON PHILLIPS | Vue Weekly
Under Castro, visual artists are allowed a level of freedom of expression that the rest of the country would envy.
The conversation has swung around to politics, and I fish around in my bag for the minidisc recorder, trying to be discreet as I plug in the microphone and hit record. I know she sees it, but she doesn’t object; as she says the words “freedom of the press” in Spanish, Cuban artist Yami Martinez glances furtively at the recording device, but continues talking without missing a beat. “The press in this country is not free,” she says. “The mediums of discussion are not free. TV, radio, newspapers, 100 per cent not free. Here, no one can say what they want.”
I’m in an artist-owned gallery in Trinidad de Cuba, and have struck up a conversation with Martinez thanks to my partner’s fluent Spanish. Martinez makes critical paintings and sculpturesóher work focuses on Cuban women, their invisible labour and invisible pain. Her female figures have no arms or faces; they’re always accompanied by a frying pan and a coffeemaker, two ubiquitous symbols of women’s work in a place where the socialist revolution hasn’t managed to overcome machismo and a male-dominated military and state apparatus.
Her paintings also use clippings from the state newspaper, the Granmaówhich form the textual basis for interpretation. Martinez uses the Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist party (one of the three written sources of information that are tolerated in Cuba), as a vehicle of criticism and a way to use revolutionary symbols critically, in a country where Che Guevara iconography and state billboard slogans rule the visual landscape.
“The newspaper text is fundamental to the significance of the work, and it is often inside the frying pan,” Martinez explains. “It is showing a society that promises women change, but the women are still asking, �Where are the solutions [to problems like family violence and alcoholism]?’ The text reflects what we are told, and the woman is asking, �What do I put inside my frying pan? Am I just going to have this political shit to put in my frying pan, or is someone going to actually solve what is going on here?’”
Martinez has opened the front room of her house to the tourists who descend on this small city every day, and makes a tidy living peddling her wares. Trinidad is a colonial gem about 300 kilometres southeast of Havanaóand with one of Cuba’s best white sand beaches only 12 kilometres away, Martinez’s gallery on the cobblestone main street sees its share of American-dollar-wielding rubberneckers.
The way Martinez makes a living, and the kind of art she produces, can be directly attributed to the post-Soviet era in Cuba. The massive economic depression that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union necessitated adjustments, among them the 1995 decision to allow artists to open galleries in their homes. Artists now earn a better living than most other professions. What followed was a renewed state emphasis on the arts, and Cuba’s artists have carved out a post-Soviet aesthetic that is critical, political and multimedia. Artists have been given much more leeway than writers, journalists or poets, and that permissiveness spawned works that explored Afro-Cuban heritage and racism, spirituality and the problem of individuality in a collective society.
Until the 1980s, many Cuban artists left the country for the United States, Europe or Mexico. Young artists like Martinez, however, are staying in Cuba, as they can both make a living there and enjoy a certain degree of social status. In a country where everyone is educated and the government has aggressively supported culture since the 1959 revolution, Cubans are not the type of folks that sniff at painters or sculptors as layabouts who need to get real jobs. The notion that the visual arts are somehow superfluous or airy-fairy does not figure in the cultural imagination in Cuba, as it often does here at home in Alberta.
The Cuban government’s support of art stands in marked contrast with what John Mahon of the Edmonton Arts Council calls “a policy of aggressive indifference” on the part of the Alberta government towards art. Constantly having to justify funding for the arts in terms of its economic spinoffs like jobs and contribution to the GDP has become “kind of tedious,” says Mahon. “The province is about to release another economic impact study of the arts. It’s just a given that there are economic benefits. But art is also good for society and for our spirit, and that’s hard to describe. One gets perilously close to being dismissed when one makes arguments like that.”
Not so in Cuba. Art school is free, and those who exhibit a talent for it are encouraged to develop it from the very beginning. “I am very satisfied with what I have been given by the state,” Martinez says. “There is more opportunity for artists, more than a doctor or a professor. The fundamental function of art in society is to criticizeóthat is, to have a cultural position against things that are unjust…. I am not this great revolutionary in that I like what is happening here, no.”
Martinez’s comfortable criticisms of the Castro regime are surprising in the current political climate. After a period of relative political liberalization, the first few months of 2003 saw 75 dissidents arrested and sentenced to up to 28 years in prison, giving the Bush administration even more ammunition in their global propaganda war against Castro and prompting the European Union to sever diplomatic ties. It’s difficult to get a straight answer on who the 75 dissidents are, but the consensus amongst progressive organizations like Amnesty International is that they were simply writers and political organizers, not armed insurgents. Amnesty has therefore added them to their list of global prisoners of conscience.
As the Bush administration has tightened the economic embargo, it has also taken on a more belligerent policy of funding and supporting anti-Castro groups within Cuba. Some of the 75 dissidents attended dinners and functions at the U.S. Interests Office in Havana, and it is likely that some are indeed American lackeys, as the Cuban government claims. But for others, including poet and journalist Raul Rivero, it is clear that control over the written word is still not up for discussion, and its harsh treatment of writers has earned the Cuban government condemnation from countries and organizations normally sympathetic to it. By the end of 2004, 12 of the 75 dissidents had been releasedómostly on medical groundsóand most of the EU restored diplomatic relations.
Castro’s crackdown, however, has not extended to artists; rather, the state has taken on an aggressive policy of supporting the arts. “I agree with many things here and I disagree with many things here,” explains Martinez. “I am not complaining, because I have never had to fight for any of my themes [in my art]ówomen, machismo, aggression against women. It is true that women have more opportunity now [because of the revolution], but in the family things are still happening. And I can say whatever I want about that. It’s difficult, in fact, to fund an artist that doesn’t say what he wants.” Because of the delicate nature of talking about dissidents in Cuba, I did not ask Martinez why expression was so severely limited for some but not for others.
In December 2004, the Bush administration’s top official in Latin America declared they are pursuing policies that will “liberate Cuba within the next four years.” This proclamation comes at a time when U.S.-Cuban relations have scarcely been tenser: President Bush has tightened economic relations in addition to closing most avenues of travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens. The Americans’ plans for a post-Castro Cuba include a full blueprint for ensuring that “vestiges of the regime don’t hold on.” Clearly, Cuba’s crossroads is coming; at 78, Fidel Castro cannot live forever, and the social frictions created by tourism, a double economy and an extraordinarily odious neighbour are not sustainable.
State emphasis on the arts is one of the many things that Cuba seems to have gotten right. Particularly when compared to the rest of Latin America, Cubans enjoy education, healthcare, arts and culture and sports that are the envy of other developing or post-colonial societies of the global south. But it’s unclear whether Cuba is prepared to allow political freedoms as well, as the domestic political scene shifts and American investors lick their lips at the prospect of post-Fidel upheavals.
Preserving economic sovereignty will be one challenge, and perhaps taking a page from artists, who are allowed to sell their works privately, will be one example the Cuban government can follow. But the country’s policymakers need to reckon with political freedoms, and in that area, they may want to examine their experience with artists. Artists have been allowed to ask the difficult questions, criticize and give voice to topics that are distasteful to the governmentóand the country has not fallen apart. In fact, artists are building a post-Soviet Cuban cultural sensibility that can only strengthen national identity and resolve through the expected upheaval.