Artist Training Ground Faces Challenges

Story and slideshow by Phoebe Taylor-Vuolo

HAVANA – On the green grounds of what once was Havana Country Club, where the elite of Cuba golfed, sits a knot of buildings with smooth domes and vaulted ceilings where the island’s brightest new artists are trained.

The idea to build the Instituto Superior de las Artes, or ISA, was hatched by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara as they golfed on the grounds after Castro assumed power in 1959, according to popular accounts.

Art supplies litter a work area in a student’s painting studio at ISA. (Photo by Jessica Nieberg)
Art supplies litter a work area in a student’s painting studio at ISA. Photo by Jessica Nieberg

ISA is seen by students and faculty as a pillar of the Cuban government’s commitment to create a rich cultural heritage, cultivating college-age students into musicians, dancers, actors and visual artists through five years of intense training.

ISA students have all attended special art academies from the 10th to 12th grade, before earning spots at the institute, said Roger Bueno Toledo, a junior faculty member and graduate of ISA, during a tour of the institute in mid-January.

“People sometime say it’s the Juilliard of Cuba,” said Bueno Toledo, referring to the Juilliard School in New York.

Although students said they felt fortunate to study at ISA, political and economic crises have certainly presented obstacles over the years. School buildings show signs of wear and tear, and the students themselves face a tenuous future, lacking materials and full access to digital self-promotion.

“Until we have powerful Internet and ways for our artists to promote themselves via the Internet, we’re going to be with our backs facing the world, because we can’t advance as quickly,” said Aliosky Garcia, a 2009 graduate who is now chief professor of printmaking in the department of fine arts.

Photo tour of ISA

Today, the school is split into five departments – dance, theater, audiovisual media, music and fine arts. During the tour, visitors were shown the fine arts department, which Bueno Toledo said has 105 students, accepting only 20 a year from roughly 300 applicants.

In the printmaking studio, surrounded by bustling students, the hum of machines and colorful pages lovingly placed on the tables, student Osmel Herrera Lopez pointed to a print in front of him. The small, black-and-white piece showed a desk with a stalagmite protruding from it, set against a background of numbers. The numbers represent a game, considered gambling and played privately in Cuba, and their presence in the piece symbolizes luck, he said.

“Luck is something you need anywhere, but in Cuba, luck is special because it inspires hope,” said Herrera, a soft-spoken 27-year-old, whose dark curls were loosely tied back in a ponytail.

Artwork is displayed on the wall of ISA's printmaking studio. (Photo by Jessica Nieberg)
Artwork is displayed on the wall of ISA’s printmaking studio. Photo by Jessica Nieberg

Many students stay in dorms on campus and most are given their own studios. These studios, sometimes private and sometimes shared, are housed in smooth round domes made of brick and terra cotta and topped with glass skylights.

Works in various states of completion adorn the curving walls, lit by creeping natural light and a reverent atmosphere brought on by acoustics that echo and amplify every whisper.

The fine arts studios are clustered around a dry fountain, where students congregate, a place they call “the vagina,” named after the sculpture at its center. When the Cuban architect Ricardo Porro, who died in 2014, designed ISA, along with two Italian architects, he hoped to mimic the female body and symbolize fertility, according to Toledo.

The result is the winding, rounded design of the school, the curved domes, smooth arches and vaulted ceilings punctuated by slanting rectangular columns. The light of covered walkways is colored red with terra cotta, and the foliage that grows where there is no brick to stop it sneaks quietly up the walls and windows.

Although the school has remained open, certain parts of ISA have fallen into disrepair over the decades, and some buildings are still unusable. These abandoned sections of the school inspired a 2011 documentary called “Unfinished Spaces,” telling the story of the institute and its economic hardships in the years after political crises when the Cuban government put much of the national budget toward military defense.

“We’re characterized by the strength and the push to do art and to perform art. Without having the materials, we still make art with anything we have,” Garcia said. “We make art out of nothing.”

Despite its rocky history and uncertain future, ISA and the education it offers still represent freedom for many students.
Ivan Torres, a 22-year-old fine arts student, said he chose to pursue art because it gave him the chance to learn about a variety of subjects, from science to medicine, in his research and because it gave him the tools to express himself freely.

“Freedom of expression is a term that’s used in Cuba, but it’s never explained properly. Except for artists, who can express themselves?” said Torres. “There’s a saying that goes ‘people are afraid when an artist is brave’ – especially people in power.”

As the Cuban government embraces diplomatic relations with the United States, some at ISA wondered how a potentially sudden and massive wave of tourism could affect the island’s artistic community.

“It is possible that some artists could lower their quality, because they want to commercialize themselves,” said Garcia, the printmaking professor. “But the true artist that wants to resonate and keep their quality and message genuine would not fall into that.”