Cuba is full of the unpredictable. With the loosening of restrictions on travel, free enterprise, and artistic expression, the country has experienced a remarkable boom in cultural production. Even more unusual is the warm welcome that was extended to artists from the Northern Hemisphere to participate in the Havana Biennial, which until recently was restricted to artists from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. In the spring of 2012, we were among more than 25 artists invited to participate in a hub for social practice projects connected to the biennial: the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de San Agustín, or MAC/SAN, situated in the largely working-class, suburban neighborhood of San Agustín.

Cuba’s New Political Art

The Cuban art scene is far more nuanced than the predictable monumental steel portraits and murals of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and other heroes of the 1959 Revolution, and the biennial showcased artworks that express that depth. Examples include the Cuban artistRoberto Fabelo’s Se Soltaron Los Leones: a giant red steel cage whose gaping door gestures longingly toward the blue Straits of Florida where a red lion “roars” back from the shore break; and an architectural landmark, the Teatro Fausto, whose façade is “crawling” with giant fiberglass ants by Rafael Gomez Barros (Colombia).

Among the overtly political pieces was a collaborative
project by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (Russia/USA), Ship of Tolerance, which consists of a full-scale sailing vessel whose sails are quilted from paintings made by over 500 Cuban children. The U.S. govern-
ment initially denied the artists a license to bring U.S. children to Cuba but overturned the decision on appeal. Thus, Ship of Tolerance opened with a classical music concert performed by children from both countries.

Strolling the Malecón, a popular pastime, one encountered a
variety of works, including a contribution by Cuba’s prominent artist Kcho. People of Giants (2012) is a gigantic pair of wood and metal oars leaning against the seawall and referencing the bittersweet refrain of emigration. This theme of displacement was dramatically echoed on the lawns of Havana’s fine arts school, the Instituto Superior de Arte, where José Ángel Vincench’s piece Exile (2011–2012) consists of five mini mobile homes that spell the letters of the work’s title.

A Social Practice Laboratory

It was not the theme of exile but of belonging that occupied those who participated in MAC/SAN, under the auspices of Laboratorio Artistico de San Agustín (LASA). During the past three years, Cuban artist Candelario and his French partner Aurélie Sampeur, LASA’s founders, have invited a range of international artists to San Agustín and challenged them to respond to the history, traditions, and material conditions of the local residents.

MAC/SAN, a LASA project launched during the last biennial, occupies an abandoned industrial structure and confronts Cuba’s lack of a formal museum dedicated to contemporary art. “But there are no walls, no roof!” exclaimed the interested bemused neighbors. “Where will you hang the paintings?” Precisely.

Instead, the repurposed structure was defined as a “social
sculpture” by its core planners, who included, in addition to Candelario and Sampeur, the artists Stefan Shankland (France) and Erik Göngrich (Germany), and curator Catherine Sicot (Canada). Access to the roof was provided by a playful stairway created from scrap metal (Andrés Victores), and the street façade was crowned with an illuminated MAC/SAN logo (Stefan Shankland), inciting curiosity and excitement among local youth and their families, who quickly made the space a destination for relevant, provocative ideas and images.

Those of us invited to participate in the current biennial shared meals and workspace in the organization’s home base: a repurposed former laundry. Artists from France, Germany, Canada, and Colombia were paired with local artists or architects, who guided,
facilitated, and assisted with fabrication and installation during a furiously active ten-day prep period.

This daily regimen of on-site creation contributed to an intimacy with the neighbors, who were generous with their time, humor, and any small surplus they had to share. When no truck arrived to transport materials, a family member would chauffeur us in a three-wheeled van. There was always a solution to material shortages, and this good-natured improvisational mode was integrated into the process of each piece.

Previous LASA projects had prepared San Agustínians for surprises: tropically colored breads in their local bakery, an edible scale model of the town, experimental sound chambers on their lawns, and public “criers” who poetically renamed the numbered streets. For the 2012 biennial, LASA queried these now seasoned neighbors about what public offerings they would like MAC/SAN to host, thus activating a very real connection to the social imagination of San Agustín.

The results of these collective efforts were rich and varied, and are documented on the MAC/SAN blog (mac-san.blogspot.com) and in a forthcoming publication. Among the undertakings were a videotaped oral history documentation project; a fruit-drying project that distributed food dryers to residents; a theater and dance production featuring local performers; and an exchange of herbal folk medicine.

Inspired by Urban Farming

During our January 2012 research visit to San Agustín, we had discovered a rich texture of urban agriculture knit into the fabric of the neighborhood, the site of several organopónicos, state-sponsored farms that produce affordable organic fruits and vegetables. Joining these farms are newer, privately owned enterprises: orchards, vegetable plots, and goat and pig farms, neatly maintained by independent urban farmers who are taking advantage of Cuba’s tentative embrace of private enterprise.

We were inspired by these farmers, who welcomed us to their porches and barnyards, to make food a central theme of our work for MAC/SAN. Riffing on the cliché of the museum coffee shop and bookstore, we decided to create a café and a combined map- and book-making project, both of which featured the urban farmers of San Agustín.

As artists and foreign visitors, we assumed the dangerous mission of “messing” with people’s culinary tastes and habits. Our methodology was simply to use commonly available foodstuffs, recombining flavors and textures and re-presenting familiar recipes. The introduction of intensive urban agriculture during the Special Period (1990s) has resulted in relatively more abundant food resources for the Cuban people. Our local collaborators helped us select pork, fruits, and vegetables from roadside stands. Fields of bok choy, lettuce, squash, herbs, eggplant, onions, and beets provided an opportunity to explore how these ingredients could be combined, seasoned, prepared, and presented in a way that provoked surprise, pleasure, or enthusiasm.

Five local families volunteered to help with SANcafé by sharing various styles of predominantly vegetarian cooking for a series of tasting events at MAC/SAN. Our goal was to create appetizing dishes that would celebrate creative preparation of fresh, seasonal produce. At each event, the crew wore custom-designed delantales, 1950s-style aprons that became their prized personal possessions, as did a recipe book that documented each chef’s inventions. A spirit of generous competition resulted in a dazzling banquet at each tasting.

The San Agustín Farm Map and Guide to Flavors, which could be folded as either a map or a book, served as a companion piece to the café. The lushly colored guide had several purposes: to help producers network and buyers to locate the farms, and to serve as “gallery guide” of the café’s food sources. In addition to a hand-drawn map of San Agustín’s farms, the book included portraits and stories to honor

the farmers; nutritional information on local cuisine; and a space to write one’s own food stories, dreams for the neighborhood’s future, and songs or dichos—folk sayings about food, like the popular “If you cook like you walk, I’ll eat every bite.” Hidden in the book were ladybugs and tiny jokes for children, who enthusiastically searched them out with magnifying glasses.

A third component of the project, Biblioteca SANcafé, grew from our discovery, during our January research period, that residents of San Agustín wished for a local library. Back home, we collected donated laptops and uploaded Spanish-
language articles on urban agriculture for distribution by memory sticks and DVD. Ultimately, the laptops were donated to the closest public library, where residents continue to download their contents.

Sowing Seeds for Future Practice

We returned home with even greater respect for Cubans’ ability to maintain their ingenuity, humor, and camaraderie, even after decades of economic hardship.

We also returned with a renewed faith in the transformative power of social practice—wherever it happens. MAC/SAN’s long-term impact has yet to be gauged, but we have seen the first signs of continuity: A dance-theater group formed during the engagement has committed to ongoing rehearsals; a domestic cook referred to herself with pride as a “culinary artist”; and the local cultural council has committed to support similar initiatives in the future. Candelario writes that the next round of residencies will be for workers who want to frame their production as an art process. What’s the next course on the menu?

By Lauren Elder, Kate Connell, and Oscar Melara.

LAUREN ELDER, an environmental artist and landscape designer, trained at UCLA and UC–Berkeley Extension. Her community-based projects alternate between sites in North and Latin America and respond to localized needs and desires. Food, water, and climate change adaptations are her special interests. KATE CONNELL and OSCAR MELARA, collaborating as Book and Wheel Works, map edge neighborhoods and document stories of working people’s lives. They create intimate libraries, often of artists’ books, for public use. Handmade games, most recently the Potrero Puzzler, are their way of engaging fellow urbanites with humor and play in order to discuss the possibilities inherent in our shared living environments.

From Public Art Review #48, where this article originally appeared as “Viva la Evolution.”
Purchase original print issue