During much of the Cuban revolutionary process, religious institutions were in conflict with the socialist state and African spiritual themes were conspicuously absent from the Cuban art scene, or expressed in folkloric language. Academicism ruled, even when the likes of René Portocarrero channeled the saints and symbols of a stylized imaginary divorced from real life.
The eighties and nineties saw a renewal of artistic expression, much of it experimental, critical of formalism and eclectic in its forms, which included Afro-Cuban sensibilities and augured an awakening of religious expression. Ruben Torres Llorca represented the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint with a storied past in the sixteenth century colonial slave society of Oriente. Practicioners of one of the several African-descended religions such as José Bedia and Ricardo Rodríguez Brey emerged as prominent voices of their generation, still relatively hushed in their message by the boundaries of acceptable public discourse at the time. As the nineties ushered in tremendous dislocation, social crisis and economic hardship, the commercial demand for Cuban art grew as a result of the development of tourism - the only industry spared the decay of this traumatic transition. Many artists fled in search of better fortunes; others remained, producing folklore for the European market or embracing postmodernist trends in vogue in the United States at the time. The Cuban state gradually abandoned its rigid opposition to public religious expression and churches of all denominations thrived, as did institutions inspired by Latin American liberation theology.
During this period, artists such as Luis Olivera challenged Christianity and its mythology, as well as its taboos, expressing sexual themes that transgressed normative discourse; many others embraced esotericism. Afro-Cuban spirituality also began to manifest itself in the work of artists in a more profound and contentious way. Well-known artists such as Manuel Medive brought Caribbean and Africana aesthetics to the fore of their work.
Salvador González emerged during this time as a self-taught painter, sculptor, and poet determined to remain in Cuba and participate in its renewal from below, far removed from the schools of mainstream experimentation or the official industry of tourism. An initiate of Regla de Ochá, he imagined the transformation of the passage below his apartment into a public space of ritual, performance, and mural art, immersed in the working-class neighborhood of Cayo Hueso. Not only did he trigger the first grass-roots movement to perform Afro-Cuban rituals publicly, he invited the community to sing, dance, chant, and celebrate the popular roots of those rituals, converting the public space into a colorful urban museum of mystical and allegorical Yoruba religiosity, mixing his murals and sculptures with wall poetry tinged with Cuban pride, subversive subtexts, and existential motifs.
At first his guerrilla initiative surprised and irked some sensibilities, official and artistic, but Salvador’s embrace of community projects such as his work with autistic children set an example that contributed to the perenniality of his project. Like the historical investigations of Tomás Fernández Robaina and the cinematographic production of Gloria Rolando, Salvador’s work paved the way for a public conversation of black heritage in Cuba, which has since ballooned into a rich and layered movement involving scholars, artists, social activists, and community movements everywhere.
At the same time Salvador’s success propelled him into a controversy over whether his art and his work represented an original contribution to Cuban art or a mercantile response to tourism, as foreigners, attracted by the beauty, colors, and rhythms of the Callejón, began to stream in from the Vedado neighborhood and Old Havana in buses and taxis. The rise in public Afro-Cuban religiosity and practice also caused money and economic considerations to infect debates over the authenticity and sincerity of such community projects, with many Cubans from the diaspora and Latin Americans from everywhere descending on Havana in search of initiation, which is a costly enterprise and can be a hustle.
Salvador has had enormous success internationally, being invited to Europe and the United States on multiple occasions to paint murals, and selling thousands of his paintings to travelers from his small studio in the Callejón. His earnings have been modest, his intellectual property rights violated shamelessly; and his public recognition minimal among the Cuban intelligentsia or from the state. Why is this? I think it is in part because he is self-taught, uninvolved in grandiose initiatives such as the Havana Biennial, and suspected of embodying first and foremost a tourist attraction. I believe, however, that his sustained community work is understated and undervalued, and that the informality and independence that the project conveys is an effect of its originality, particularly its embeddedness in the socially marginalized community of poor vecinos; Salvador considers himself an “artista callejero” (street artist), a fighter and anchor for his community. He also takes pride in the statement of sacred significance that the Callejón has always represented for him, and which manifests itself in the multiple public ceremonies and commemorations of African and syncretic traditions that have occurred there.
Since the creation of the Talleres de Integración Barrial (Neighborhood Integration Workshops), the emergence of Casas Populares and grass-roots community organizations, and the rise of intellectual and social movements for the recognition of issues and grievances expressed by Cubans of African descent, many artistic projects have sought to emulate Salvador’s pioneering experiment, often without recognizing its influence. I have had the opportunity to introduce social workers and community leaders to the folks in the Callejón, and they are often intrigued, in a positive way, by the initiatives that happen there.
It is time not only to acknowledge Salvador’s work as that of a preeminent artist of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century in Cuba, and to understand the value it will acquire with posterity. More importantly, however, we owe the man and the community that has aided and supported him a fair assessment of the tremendous accomplishments that can be realized with no public or financial support, meager resources and recycled materials. The Callejón de Hamel is indeed a tourist attraction, but it is also a place of spiritual awakening and cultural prosperity, as well as of independence, conviviality and local pride in heritage, far from the costly - and impressive – state-sponsored renewal of Old Havana. It is evidence that the public space can belong to those who live in it, and empower the locality with cultural, aesthetic, educational, and economic promise.
Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
The Sharing of the Perceptible in Salvador’s Santería-Inspired Art