Art as a Medium of Urban Transformation Processes Exploring New Horizons

Latitude – Acquisition of urban space: Muraleando is symbolised by the murals throughout the neighbourhood.
Acquisition of urban space: “Muraleando” is symbolised by the murals throughout the neighbourhood. | Photo (detail): © Natalie Göltenboth

At the latest since Raul Castro initiated reform plans in 2011, Cuban society has been seeking out a path between socialist ideals and a free market economy. A look by Natalie Göltenboth at the community projects “Muraleando” and “ArteCorte” in Havana reveals the potential that can be unleashed by art and collective solidarity in this context.

By Natalie Göltenboth

If you wanted to express Cuba’s current situation in a metaphor, the river crossing puzzle would be the obvious choice: a farmer wants to cross the river in a boat, bringing with him a goat, a cabbage and a wolf – however the boat only has space to carry one other item as well as himself. The farmer has to plan exactly which combinations are possible so that one passenger doesn’t eat another. On the African continent they know a version of this puzzle with a cheetah, chicken and rice, in Cuba you might read it like this: If the situation in the figurative “boat” before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Socialist bloc at the beginning of the 1990s was as crystal clear as the “navigation channel” of the Castro regime, then the passage of that rocking boat to the new shores of a transformed Cuban economy and society are far more complex now. What combinations of socialist ideals and free market economy can be found during this transit, and how can the core constants of economy, culture and social interaction in this boat be carried intact to the opposite shore without one element falling victim to another?  Cuban politicians and economists have been working hard to develop appropriate solution strategies for the Cuban river crossing problem since Raul Castro’s reform plans in 2011 at the latest. From the perspective of western societies, this struggle tends to be dismissed as a magical-sounding concept: opening – and linked with it the vision of a better life in Cuba, for all Cubans. The fact that this also causes a divide to open up within Cuban society, which had previously been relatively homogeneous, is something that’s often simply forgotten in the Western opening discourse.

The hour of the individual and of collective action

Into a thrilling scenario of proud small-business owners – taxi drivers, nail studio proprietors and artisans with access to currency, diligent workers and professors paid a pittance by the state, people resigned to their fate as they sit in rocking chairs and swat flies, tourists with buying power – a new character now enters the Cuban stage: the visionary. He or she stands at the centre of a merry-go-round of circling questions about the future and rolls out a plan in which the farmer, goat, cabbage and wolf arrive safely on the other bank. The means he or she uses are art, community spirit and entrepreneurship. It’s the hour of the individual, his motivation, the scope of his authority – and the hour of collective action instead of endless waiting. The magic word of the moment is empoderamiento (empowerment).

I drive down the Avenida 10 de Octubre in an old Buick – it’s a road that extends infinitely, linking the centre of Havana with the Lawton-Luyanó district on the outskirts. To the right and left lies Old Havana: the dust from the traffic, the façades of magnificent neoclassical buildings towering into the sky, although they are often roofless and bleached by the sun. Under the ramshackle balconies and columns, laundry is drying and there are people playing dominos, but above all they are improvising:  “no es fácil” – “Things aren’t easy” is a frequently heard mantra – repeated by everyone who feels overwhelmed by the new developments.  

At the junction with Calle Aguilera a sign proclaims: “Bienvenido al Proyecto Comunitario Muraleando!” – Welcome to the Muraleando Community Project!
Colour is the first thing you notice: the little houses have been spruced up with vibrant artworks and fresh coats of paint. The crossroads in the neighbourhood are marked with collages made from street junk. But Muraleando is symbolised by the murals dominating the entire area around an old restored water tank – the heart of the project. It wasn’t until 2011 that Muraleando first managed to acquire a space of its own. In a collaborative effort they emptied the mud out of the huge tank and turned it into a gallery, in which the artists of Muraleando sell their works today. A patchwork architecture of new buildings has sprung up around “El Tanque”, where they hold workshops for children, young people and the elderly. There’s a ceramics kiln, art studios, tuition in theatre, percussion and dance, a video workshop and a sewing room.
  • Latitude – Ernesto teaches young protégés © Natalie Göltenboth
    Ernesto, percussion maestro of “Muraleando”, teaches his young protégés – whose greatest desire is often to have an instrument of their own.
  • Latitude – Art workshops in “Muraleando” are free and everyone is very enthusiastic to attend. © Natalie Göltenboth
    Art workshops in “Muraleando” are free and everyone is very enthusiastic to attend.
  • Latitude – Artwork on a building in “Muraleando” © Natalie Göltenboth
    Artwork on a building in “Muraleando” – the unmistakable style of artist Victor Mora, shown here painting a ship that will later be mounted on the roof.
  • Latitude – Artists and residents of the neighbourhood admire their “creation” – the “Muraleando”  community project is a collaborative venture that was started in 2011. © Natalie Göltenboth
    Artists and residents of the neighbourhood admire their “creation” – the “Muraleando” community project is a collaborative venture that was started in 2011.
  • Latitude – Papito’s hair salon is also an art museum: an art collection entitled “To the last hair” features works by famous Cuban artists. © Natalie Göltenboth
    Papito’s hair salon is also an art museum: an art collection entitled “To the last hair” features works by famous Cuban artists.
  • Latitude – The author under a 50 year-old hairdryer hood in Papito’s salon “Museo de la Barbería”, Calle Aguiar, Old Havana. © Natalie Göltenboth
    The author under a 50 year-old hairdryer hood in Papito’s salon “Museo de la Barbería”, Calle Aguiar, Old Havana.
Manuel Baldrich Diaz, initiator of the project, is a visionary born out of necessity, as he says himself. He didn’t want to simply accept the rampant hopelessness in his neighbourhood. The project started in 2003 with art workshops for children, which were held on the street in the early days. Manuel activated his contacts to artists from Europe and Canada who were willing to support the project, which received the National Prize for Community Culture in 2016. Manolo’s recipe for success: a form of social enterprise through the means of art.

All the artists involved in the project can use the gallery space to sell their artworks, as long as at least one-third of the profits is put towards future development of the project. This includes the commitment to provide free art lessons for residents of the neighbourhood.  Cuban tourism agency Havanatur is supplying Muraleando with culture-loving tourists, and that guarantees sales in the gallery. A success story that’s reflected in the prospering rainbow neighbourhood and its active residents.

A new sparkle thanks to cultural values and social cooperation

Similar motivations were behind ArteCorte (cutting art) and Akokan, community projects also set up by visionaries who, faced with desolate conditions in their neighbourhoods, took it upon themselves to mobilise residents to make the most of resources and contacts and create a phenomenon that was new for Cuba: community projects that flourished yet were founded on social principles, taking over the urban space and changing it.

Fashioning a new Cuba in which economic growth goes hand-in-hand with cultural values and social cooperation – that’s the declared intention of Gilberto Valladares alias “Papito”, who has – thanks to his artistic hairdressing project – not only successfully brought a new sparkle to one of the most miserable streets in Habana Vieja (Old Havana), but also to the occupants of the Callejón de los Peluqueros (Barbers’ Alley), who run boutiques, small shops and restaurants. Some of the income goes towards Papito’s hairdressing school, where young people from difficult backgrounds receive free training that they will later be able to use to make a living. Papito himself cuts customers’ hair in a salon full of antiquated barber paraphernalia he has collected over the years, the Museo de la Barbería. Anyone getting a haircut here should expect some interesting conversation.

“A phenomenon that was new for Cuba: community projects that flourished yet were founded on social principles, taking over the urban space and changing it.”


Akokan, the newest of the projects, was founded in 2016 by archaeologist Michel Sanchez and his wife, who moved into the marginal neighbourhood of Los Pocitos in the south-west of the city and soon realised how much unexploited potential there was here. In cooperation with state-funded institutions they set up a community project, which like the others supports children and young people through workshops, but on top of that they have managed to persuade the locals to cultivate organic vegetables and medicinal herbs in a venture similar to Muraleando and ArteCorte in that it taps into a strong team spirit to reshape the urban space.  

All in all, these are successful and profitable future models for Cuba’s as yet unsolved river crossing puzzle. It should also be noted that in Cuba they have only just opened up to the free market economy and therefore the opportunity to generate income, which is made possible in the first place by social projects like this.
 

Literature

Natalie Göltenboth. 2019. “Muraleando: Artists as Social Entrepreneurs in the Cuban Transformation Process”, In: The Popular Economy in Urban Latin America. Informality, Materiality and Gender in Commerce; (Eds.) Eveline Dürr, Juliane Müller. N.Y.: Lexington Books.