My wife Deb and I just got back from a week in Cuba, touring the 12th Havana Biennial Art Exhibition with a group of "art professionals" from the U.S. This year the theme was, "Between the Idea and Experience." Indeed!. I'd never been to Cuba, but it's always been on my mind—at least since 1959. Both my parents were socialists (to say the least about the most), and union organizers in New York City. I'm what is, sometimes affectionately (sometimes not so much), called a "red diaper baby." And I love Afro Cuban music to death. To put those two concepts together for you, Ry Cooder once told me, "Robbie, you have to go to Cuba for the music and to breathe non-capitalist air." He might as well have added, "Before it's too late." (At least for that air.)


My wife Deb and I just got back from a week in Cuba, touring the 12th Havana Biennial Art Exhibition with a group of "art professionals" from the U.S. This year the theme was, "Between the Idea and Experience." Indeed!

I'd never been to Cuba, but it's always been on my mind—at least since 1959. Both my parents were socialists (to say the least about the most), and union organizers in New York City. I'm what is, sometimes affectionately (sometimes not so much), called a "red diaper baby." And I love Afro Cuban music to death. To put those two concepts together for you, Ry Cooder once told me, "Robbie, you have to go to Cuba for the music and to breathe non-capitalist air." He might as well have added, "Before it's too late." (At least for that air.)

Ahh, then there's the unfortunate-for-me fact that I'm an artist who mainly addresses social and political issues. Sooo, there we were—with about 400 of our new closest "art professional" friends, all lovely people, including approximately 5.7 actual artists. This is the first Biennial that is spread all over Havana—and I mean all over. Which means many rides in belching 1950's crazy cars. Legendary. (Mostly old Chevvies, by the way.)

Oh, and walking. A lot of walking.

Havana is...uh...funky. Contradictory. Great old buildings (especially if you're a big fan of excrescent "building jewelry")— monster monuments to monstrous Colonialism—and every kind of improvised shop imaginable—crammed next to crumbling shells of wackily, ingeniously D.I.Y.'ed, so-called apartments, jammed full of three generations of residents. All living mostly on that air Ry was telling me about. And Havana is changing. Right now. For better and worse. Because of, you know, Obama, Raul, and all that. The buzz is palpable. You can feel it everywhere.

Life is color. We know that, right? The streets of Havana, whether walkable or not, are all teeming with life. So, yes, thereʼs lots of color. And lots of old cobble stones, rubble and, thank goodness, massive amounts of rebuilding, stone by stone.

The history of the place is also palpable. As heavy as the 90 degrees, 90 percent humidity we practically swam through. Walking slowly (a la Habañero) around the city now—"the Experience", as opposed to "the Idea"—how the people manage to get it on in spite of and because of it all, got me very emotional. Honestly, I was laughing and crying at the same time.

When I was a kid, no matter what the Hell was going on in U.S. politics and/or the economy (most of which confused me), my parents would always say, "The people...it's THE PEOPLE, Robela!" In Cuba, it sure is. By the fourth day I needed a little break from our official tour. I took off to just wander around old Havana by myself to check out the peeps and, as a certain kind of "art professional," look for street art!

There are plenty of both. For fresh street art that doesn't have, say, Ché stencils all over it, you might have to scoot around some of the side streets and Dresden-like alleys—just like home! But, yowza! It's there, alive and relatively well preserved, considering the withering weather and economic conditions. From old skool bubble lettering to surprising knockout subjects like stylin' hairy legs and goofy feet! Giraffes!? A cat dreaming of...a fish? A blue mermaid riding a fish? I loved it. Wanted more. Wanted to DO SOME myself! Y'know, street artists are always packing. Always. I had some street posters and stickers with me, which I ended up donating to the Museo Casa de Africa. But thatʼs another story...(Mandela and all that). As for getting up on the streets myself, uh-uh. Maybe next time, buddy.

As for the Biennial, some of this spirit carried over into the gallery art brilliantly, and some did not. The European tradition, infected with old time Surrealism (akin to, but not as inventive nor— Heaven Forbid!—as indigenous as Magic Realism) is virulent in Latin American art. We can thank Christopher Columbus, on his scavenger hunt for the Orient for the Spanish Crown, and a long line of Catholic missionary priests, all the Colonialists (including big U.S. corporations and the mob) for that. The cultural/economic hangover has lasted 500 years. (If you need proof of the virus of cultural Eurocentrism, go to the National Museum of Fine Arts and check out some of the great old European masters' paintings the Spanish left behind!) Nevertheless, this is not to say there isn't very lively Cuban art all around town. In fact, it seemed like everybody was making something. Funky.

The most inspiring art scene I found was almost five miles outside old Havana. A people's art park developed by a terrific Cuban artist, Kcho, (collected by none other than MOMA, he's into rowboats as metaphor–he makes lots of rowboats—they're everywhere, both individual and in massive installations), is a bear of a man who, three years ago commandeered a huge defunct bus repair facility. He and his culture comrades set up art studios for the neighborhood: woodshop, metal works, ceramics, printmaking, an air-conditioned gallery, fruit and vegetable gardens, performance spaces for dance, street theater and, of course, music! Anybody can come in and make stuff. His space was also an official exhibit in the Biennial and included terrific artists from Wilfredo Lam (the "Picasso of Cuba"), to many really fine Latin American artists I'd never heard of—duh! I met Brazilian artist Sergio, who made a detailed, mostly cardboard and tin, model of a favela and stuck one of my little Mandela stickers on the side of one of his multicolored buildings. He was probably just being friendly, but to me it was such an honor.

There was even an Andy Warhol riff on a baseball card of Pete Rose! Best of all: A huge outdoor BBQ, followed by a mightily buzzing hive of about 35 neighborhood preteen kids, all dressed up as bumble bees, getting ready for their big performance.

Now that's what I was looking for! May I just say that this kind of project is not rocket science or string theory. If it exists in Cuba, every neighborhood in every country around the world could and, (though I dislike the word), should have a place like this. For THE PEOPLE.

—Robbie Conal, June 9, 2015. 

Robbie was featured in our November 2012 print edition, our Politics and Art issue curated by Ron English