See how Cuba’s passion for life spills into its visual arts.
In markets, on building facades, dotting street sidewalks, in independent galleries and boutiques: Everywhere you look in Havana, you’ll be bedazzled by magnificent artworks expressing passion and soulfulness. Here are some of the most beautiful and fascinating examples of Havana’s artful energy, both traditional and modern, which provide insight into a changing Cuba.
Havana’s buildings may be neoclassical in style, but as you stroll the cobbled streets, you’ll be entertained by fascinating contemporary sculptures—some whimsical, some provocative, all intriguing. Many are part of the Biennial, founded in 1984 and now a multi-venue venue for artists to showcase their works in nearly every nook and cranny of Havana. It takes place every three years or so (despite its name) and has become a critical platform for emerging Cuban artists. While many artworks are displayed only during the event, some remain permanent fixtures dotting the city. The next edition of the Biennial is slated for November 2018.
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
This national museum is actually two separate buildings, one focusing on international art and one exclusively on Cuban art. While both are excellent, it’s the latter that’s unmissable. In fact, it’s largely agreed that the Arte Cubano campus possesses the world’s finest collection of Cuban art. Arranged chronologically beginning with the colonial era, the artworks progress through Cuban versions of Impressionism, cubism, and pointillism into modernism. The second floor contains eye-popping works by first-rate Cuban modernists barely known outside the country. Look out for Raúl Martínez, Cuba’s answer to Andy Warhol; Servando Cabrera Moreno (especially his depiction of the Bay of Pigs); and iconic Wifredo Lam, considered the Cuban Picasso.
INSIDER TIPEnjoy a strong cup of Cuban coffee at the museum’s open-air café.
Inspired by Gaudì’s public works in Barcelona, Cuban artist José Fuster has turned his impoverished fishing village of Jaimanitas, on Havana’s northeastern edge, into a childlike world of whimsical, colorful mosaic tiles and statues. About 30 years ago, he started with his own modest home and studio, Taller-Estudio José Fuster, covering walls, gates, fountains, rooftops, stairs, benches, and anything else he could get his tiles on. He then offered to decorate his neighbors’ houses as well. There are now about 50 abodes that are joyfully alive with colorful mosaics. Fuster is also known for his paintings, Picasso-esque depictions of Cuban culture. His studio is part of his home and open to visitors.
Step into the light and airy Piscolabis Bazar-Café, just off Plaza de la Catedral, and you may think you’ve stumbled into a chic Tribeca boutique. Look closer, and you’ll see that the colorful plates and vases and pillowcases and lamps are all imbued with modern Cuban flair. They’re all created by designers in the workshop out back, as part of the owner’s hopes to revive the city’s thriving design industry that collapsed after the revolution. This is just one of the many entrepreneurial boutiques opening up around the city.
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Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas
One of the realities of the revolution was that citizens fled the country, leaving behind their homes, their furnishings, and their valuables. That was the case of María Luisa Gómez-Mena Vila, Countess of Revilla de Camargo and a pioneering 20th-century art patron and gallerist during Cuban painting’s golden age. After she fled, the state took over her palatial family home in the Vedado neighborhood and, keeping it largely as it was, opened it as a museum in 1964. Among the artistic pieces on display—spanning the 16th to 20th centuries—are Baccarat watches and glasses; Sèvres porcelain; and a Marie-Antoinette chest. Even the house is a piece of art, designed in 1927 by Paris architects in the French Renaissance neoclassical style. It’s a firm testament to the Cubans’ love and appreciation of fine art through the ages.
Cuba does not have a long-held tradition of producing handicrafts. But over the last three decades, artisans have devoted themselves to producing such specialties as leather goods, ceramics, woodworks, papier-mâché items, bongos, and straw fedoras, among other items. And the place to find them all is Almacenes de San José, the enormous portside market in Havana Vieja. For a smaller, even more authentic market, stop by Patio de los Artesanos on Calle Obispo. Meet local artisans as you wander the stalls.
INSIDER TIPBargaining is expected.
Palacio de la Artesanía
Occupying a former 18th-century colonial palace, small shops purvey artisan works, including woodworking, papier-mâché, paintings, clothing, musical instruments, and more. You can also try Cuban cigars and rum while listening to Cuban music in the breezy courtyard. It’s a little touristy, but there’s enough here to make it interesting and worthwhile.
Artist Galleries and Studios
Galleries and studios of painters, sculptors, and illustrators offering original works are sprinkled throughout Havana. Some are already highly acclaimed on the international art scene, including avant-garde artist Esterio Segura. And some are up-and-coming; check out the female collective 7y60; Factoría Habana, an experiential artistic center; Casa de los Artistas, showcasing some of Cuba’s most famous artists; and Galeria Carmen Montilla. Now’s your chance to get your hands on the next artistic trend before the world catches on. Studio tours are offered, and you can also make appointments at each studio.
INSIDER TIPIf you purchase a work of art directly from an artist or studio, be sure to get an export authorization (Autorizatión de Exportación).
As you stroll Havana’s streets, be sure to look at the walls and facades of its venerable buildings, where artists have left their own creative mark with paint, woodcarving, sculpture, ceramics, and mosaic tile work. On Mercaderes Street, for example, you’ll find a 985-foot-long mosaic mural that depicts notable people throughout Havana’s history. The artist, Andés Carrillo, soaked natural rock in acrylic resin to create the tiles; four basic colors (brown, coral rose black and beige) were mixed to create 13 different shades. But you’ll find more modern-style street art as well, an art form that’s relatively new and experiential. Look for the work of 2+2=5, who seeks to show Cuba’s lesser known cultures (aka, not classic cars or cigars); and the distinctive style of 5Stars.