Cuba’s Artists Wary of Looming Changes

Article and photos by Brad Williams

Many performance artists in Cuba earn more than most engineers, teachers, dentists and others. They enjoy higher government salaries, are free to travel to perform and are eligible for performance visas. Visual artists, on the other hand, often have trouble finding a government job and must rely on selling their works to foreigners in order to earn a living.

As Cuba-United States relation warm up and policies change, many artists are uncertain how they will fare. Visual artists are preening at the possibility of an influx of American art enthusiasts with stuffed pockets and empty suitcases. Performance artists fear the pay system that favors them may change.

Maykel Armenteros, 34, earns a living restoring cars for a private car service. He also sculpts and paints; he belongs to a collective, Corazon y Huevos, or Heart and Eggs, and shows at exhibitions. (In fact, he spent six years at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana and graduated with a degree in sculpting.) Still, he has yet to earn much of anything from his art.

Maykel Armenteros, 34, earns a living restoring cars for a private car service. He also sculpts and paints; he belongs to a collective, Corazon y Huevos, or Heart and Eggs, and shows at exhibitions.
Maykel Armenteros, third from left, earns a living restoring cars. He also sculpts and paints and belongs to a collective, Corazon y Huevos (Heart and Eggs.)

“I’m always creating,” said Armenteros. “It’s hard to earn a living from art, and I have a family to support.”

Armenteros said that he enjoyed his job at the garage and that it made good use of his artistic skills. But he wishes he could make money from his art, and fears that his style might be a tough sell in Cuba’s current artistic climate.

“My art is critical, and not very pretty,” he said. “It’s purely expressive. It’s ugly.…The only art that really sells here is kitschy.”

While one member of his collective has had success selling to foreign collectors, Armenteros has not. He said he thinks about doing a cultural exchange program to the U.S., but doesn’t expect to do that any time soon.

“It’s hard to travel to the U.S.,” he said. “My mother has been denied a visa four times.”

According to Nelson Herrera Ysla, a Cuban curator and co-founder of Havana’s Wilfredo Lam Center for Contemporary Art, artists like Armenteros struggle not just because their personal style is not popular but because so few Cubans have money to spend on art for their homes and workplaces.

“Cuba doesn’t have an art market,” said Herrera. “It has hundreds of thousands of talented painters, sculptors and performers that must often leave to make a living on art alone.”

While it is not uncommon for foreign art collectors to visit Cuba, more often Cuban artists go abroad in search of exposure and income.

Herrera said he thought improved relations with the U.S. would immensely benefit Cuba’s artists. In just the few weeks since President Obama has initiated changes in American policies, Herrera said some American collectors had come to Cuba to shop.

“They’ll buy anything,” said Herrera. “Most don’t care what it is so long as it’s Cuban, but serious collectors will pay extreme prices for critical and stirring pieces.…Our art is exotic to them.”

Randy Moreno, 24, does not welcome the changes. Moreno said he earned a comfortable living from completing commissioned work on behalf of government-funded foundations and events, in a good month as much as 800-1,000 CUCs, or Cuban Convertible Pesos, each more or less equal to $1.

Randy Moreno says blahblahblah
Randy Moreno said he feared that changes in government policies would jeopardize his income.

“I’ve been fortunate to make the money I do without leaving the country,” said Moreno. “My brother is a respected dentist, but I support him with my work. It’s crazy!”

Moreno attributed his financial success to two factors. First, his most profitable medium, video mapping, is relatively cutting-edge technology in Cuba, and doesn’t require a canvas or even a gallery. Second, the government’s support for the arts and the respect that Cubans accord to artists.

“Here, being an artist is one of the most honorable jobs you can have,” he explained, forming a triangle with his thumbs and index fingers. “It’s like we’re at the top of the triangle. Other people, like salesmen and farmers, are somewhere down here,” he said, wiggling his thumbs.

Then he slowly inverted the triangle.

“In America, it’s like the triangle is upside down. Lawyers and other professionals are at the top, and the artists are at the bottom,” he said. “American artists are left to be poor and disregarded unless someone rich sees them, or they get lucky.…I don’t want it to be like America here.”

Moreno has yet to sell a single piece to an American collector, he said, and has reservations about selling in galleries, because in Cuba galleries are private, often foreign-owned and operated.

“The public will never see your art if you hang it in a gallery,” said Moreno. “I want everyone to see my work, even if they don’t like it. That’s why I do video mapping.”

Performance artists are in a sort of limbo as they wait for the embargo to be lifted.

Betty Moreno and Monika Rodriguez play and sing for tourist crowds around Havana.
Betty Moreno and Monika Rodriguez play and sing for tourist crowds around Havana.

Betty Moreno and Monika Rodriguez are a multi-instrumentalist duo who massage melodies from their instruments on an intimate, cubby-like stage before droves of tourists. They play at the Gran Anejo five nights a week, in the main lobby of the famed Melia Cohiba hotel in the Vedado district of Havana, alternating among vocals, piano, flute, viola and small percussive instruments.

Both women are graduates of the University of Havana. Moreno, who has been playing music professionally for 15 years, sings in three languages and has performed in Canada, France, Italy, Mexico and Portugal, she said, earning $500-3,000 a month, all under contract with the Cuban government.

“You get paid more overseas,” said Moreno. “But it’s important to know that I have this job when I’m home.… Jobs are very hard to find here.”

In Cuba, Moreno and Rodriguez each receive a daily wage of 7 CUCs, and, with tips can make $20 a day each, 30 times as much as the average salary of a state employee. Rodriguez, a professional musician for five years, said she was content with her wages but welcomed the changes that may soon come.

“I can’t wait for the reforms,” said Rodriguez. “More people in Cuba means more places to play. It’s very good for us.”

Moreno, though, is concerned with what policy changes could mean.

Magia Lopez of the hip hop group Obsesion.
Magia Lopez’s hip hop group Obsesion has been together for nearly two decades.

“The pay rate here is antiquated,” said Moreno. “But I am grateful to do this for a living. Changes could be for better or worse.”

For performers who aren’t under government contract, the impact of possible policy changes is a gray area.

Obsesion has been crafting its style of hip hop since 1996. Its two members, Alexey Rodriguez and Magia Lopez, have supported their work through individual earnings, foreign funding and community projects, not government salaries. Her state support consists of a third-floor apartment in Old Havana that was deeded to her family by the state after the revolution granted ownership to Cuban citizens who rented their homes. She also benefits from the low, subsidized utility rates.

“We are currently researching to see how those changes will affect us,” said Rodriguez. “We cannot say if they are good or bad yet.”


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