The beating pulse of artistic creativity permeates everything in Cuba. I am not talking about souvenir art like papier-mâché 1950’s cars in chartreuse, red, and royal blue to be used as desktop ornaments, or Cuban flags or Che t-shirts. I am talking of art that transcends the bounds of the ordinary to reveal the extraordinary, art that draws back the veil.
A US citizen can still only enter Cuba from the US with a US-vetted educational group. My group was mainly Jungian analysts. I am not a Jungian analyst though I have my visions, and was as excited as the Jungians about the symbolism and archetypes of Cuban Christianity that overlay the African religions.
Sightings of Jamaya (Ee-mai-YA; also spelled Jamalla), the Cuban personification of the archetype of the Black Madonna, goddess of land and sea, led to ripples of excitement in our group. Her flowing robes, her golden aura, her white baby.
It rained every day except one, but even on the rainy days we went singly, in duos, threes and fours, or as a group to museums, galleries, churches, restaurants, and concerts, or strolled through old Havana, Cienfuegos, or Trinidad. We struggled to grasp the dichotomy to our Western minds—Jungian or not—between the vibrancy of the art, colors, tastes, and sounds with the dilapidated buildings, meager goods, and government repression.
I became obsessed with the question: Is creativity expressed most radiantly by indomitable people under duress? Perhaps because it is the carrier of life itself?
Even the most “transcending” art I saw, including of Jamaya, was infused with humanity, with human emotions, gestures, and instincts—humans merging with animals, Jesus sitting on a chair after the Crucifixion looking very worried.
Sometime a wry sense of humor, or not, speaks to the current political situation. In the center courtyard of the magnificent National Museum of Fine Art in Havana is a sculpture that is a masterpiece of ambiguity. A rusted iron smoke stack rises as a steeple out of a small Monopoly-style church. Sitting at the top is Christ on a cloud, seemingly all of smoke. As my Jungian analyst friend Jean Shinoda Bolen said, “Holy smoke!”
Yet, is it a write-off of religion as nothing but smoke? Or an embracing of the Christ spirit as generated by believers? Or something else?
Christianity has come back in force in Cuba, but remains vaguely frowned upon by some. Is this sculpture debunking religion or showing the tenacity of belief in something beyond the tangible, perhaps even manifesting something beyond the tangible? We went to a church service. The place was rocking.
We were told that Cubans have freedom of speech (and, thus, of artistic expression) but they don’t have freedom after speech. That is, for the most part you can say what you feel and think, though it might need to be somewhat camouflaged, but you cannot ask others to join you in a movement and you cannot do active protest. This demarcation holds social protest in place, supported by years of masterful maneuvering by Fidel that makes most Cubans feel grateful to him and the on-going government for what they receive, including full free health care, an excellent free education up through doctoral degrees, and government institutions that support advanced art education in painting, sculpture, dance, and music.
The poverty line has been lifted way above where it was before the revolution and the people seem happy, though income discrepancies are rampant. Hotel workers, through tips, earn more than medical doctors. (Cuban joke: A man tells a stranger he is a bellboy. His wife clarifies, “He has delusions of grandeur. He’s really a doctor.”)
To continue: housing is, by and large, very decrepit, and luxury goods are not available. There are no large grocery stores, or, it seems, large stores of any kind.
There are many car repair service stations, but you have the feeling every Cuban male has learned how to repair cars with tin cans and wire. The cars themselves are works of art.
Our hotel had a grand marble lobby and wonderful restaurants. Still, the light fell out of the ceiling of my bathroom and crashed in the sink, my coffeemaker didn’t work, and my curtains were missing a third of their hooks, and the apartment elevators were so slow I used the stairs from the fifth floor. We rejoiced with the general manager—a woman—the day the embargo on parts from the US was lifted so the elevators, and hopefully many other things, could be properly repaired. That said, the hotel spaces were filled with the best art—beautiful, creative, whimsical, celebratory, exquisitely painted—I have ever seen in a hotel anywhere.
Perhaps this containment of artists in a stratum of life where they can express themselves fully only through their art is like a greenhouse. The art is required to burst fully open, ignoring deprivations, expressing the world of beauty and so much more precisely because it does not have access to what is beyond the greenhouse. Then again, it could just be that Cuba is warm and sunny.
Surely it is the “warm and sunny” that has fueled the exuberant music that has supported Cubans throughout their history, but what blew me away was the choir Cantores De Cienfuegos directed by Honey Moreira. We had a private concert with this a cappella chorus of angels!
They have won international contests, which seems beside the point when you are lifted in their embrace. (You can hear them on YouTube to get an approximation of this extraordinary experience of musicianship.)
The last day we ate at a privately-owned restaurant that had three large prominently displayed paintings of Fidel Castro. On first look, even second look, they seemed simply to be photo-realistic paintings. Yet something was “off.”
Looking closer at the profile view, I saw behind the straggly moustache that Fidel’s tongue appeared to be sticking out like that of a silly yapper. Perhaps it was that he has a strange lower lip. Perhaps the artist was leaving the question open?
In the study of his hands, I realized his left hand is in his sleeve as though he has a trick up there and the thumb of his left hand has traces of red, like blood, on it. But then again, his right fingers have the same red. What to make of that? Nothing or something?
In the final painting the viewer sees Castro’s back with his arms raised before a crowd. His left hand points further to the left. He is exhorting his audience, which the viewer sees as faceless blobs as, the artist seems to be saying, Fidel saw them also.
Is this an artist “speaking” his truth?
Our group is gravely concerned about what will happen when the international hotels and luxury stores arrive, when Americans arrive by the tens of thousands, when ceiling lights no longer crash into the sink, curtains hang right, and new cars arrive.
I’m not sure the Cubans will know what hit them. How will their exuberant humanity hold against the onslaught? What will save Cuba from becoming Miami?
Perhaps there will be help from Yamaya who protects land and sea or Jesus who rises out of the ashes, but I suspect it will be up to the Cubans to save themselves and protect their humanity through their warmth, ingenuity, and creativity. For this, they do have one more god to help them, Elegua the Trickster, a direct import from Africa.
Elegua is a child, either male or female. Here she is in the all-white dress of the Santeria sect of Christianity, sitting in the entry room of a small temple to Jamalla nestled between shops in Trinidad de Cuba.
Elegua should not be confused with childishness. She is powerful and uses wiles to make things right. I place my bets on her ingenuity. I place my bets on Cubans. I place my bets on art. It matters. Cuba is a triumph of creativity and humanity over circumstances. We have much to learn from her.