In 2001 the Oakland Museum of California commissioned me to create a painting of Oakland as a gift to Oakland's sister city Santiago de Cuba. This painting 'Desde las Calles Abajo' ('From the Streets Below') now hangs in Santiago.
The next year my wife, son and I were invited to a family wedding in Havana. We jumped at the opportunity to travel and paint in Cuba for three weeks, and to visit Santiago. To give you a taste of what it is like on the street in Cuba I have posted two paintings along with diary excerpts that relate to these paintings.
U.S. relations with Cuba are again being hotly debated. It is impossible to make sense of this debate without an understanding of our tangled history with Cuba. One of the most qualified sources is film maker and writer Saul Landau. His extensive series of films documenting the Cuban revolution can be found on DVD at Round World Productions. He is also syndicated with both Counterpunch.org and Progreso-weekly.com
My travels in revolutionary Nicaragua in 1984 and 1985 (See Video From Oakland to Nicaragua ) convinced me that painting on location is one of the best ways to gain an in-depth understanding of another culture. To set up an easel on a street corner and begin painting is a passport into local culture. I am not taking a picture and leaving. I am composing a painting from start to finish under the watchful eyes of the community. Everyone gathers around and shares their stories. Since I return to a location over several days I become familiar with the texture and rhythm of daily life. .
Some of you may want to download the complete diary: Anthony Holdsworth and Beryl Landau Three Weeks in Cuba Diary' (PDF)
Excerpt from "Three Weeks in Cuba" that relates to the painting above:
Wed Aug 14: On the Malecon near Hotel Deuville I started painting a view west down the Malecon. A bunch of kids, seven to ten years old, gathered around me. While I was laying out my design, I pretended not to speak any Spanish and ignored them. A policeman hovered on the periphery. There's a policeman on nearly every block in old Havana. The kids are real toughs. They scuffled, fist fought and threw stones at one another. The officer pretty much ignored their quarrels. Finally a street cleaner with a broom and small wagon, who'd stopped to watch me, admonished them that I was trying to work and they retreated across the street. A tall, black man hung around for a long time. I noticed that he was holding a small canvas. Turns out he's a painter. He wanted to know what colors I used and was very surprised to learn I painted with black, which he never uses. He showed me his painting: a primitivist portrait of a woman in a tropical landscape.
Thurs Aug 15: This morning I finished-my view down the Malecon. The painter from yesterday returned this morning with a gift of a drawing. I asked him if he would pose for me for a few minutes in the colonnade. Afterward I got his address so that I can send him a reproduction of the painting. We talked while I worked. He told me that it was his birthday today. That he was forty, and that he's a professor of mathematics, but his first love has always been painting.
Wed Aug 21: Barrio Tivoli
Anthony: I started my second painting several blocks southeast of the historic center beyond the Escaleras de Padre Pica in the Tivoli district. There are several spectacular views here. I picked the simplest because I'm afraid of getting bogged down. Ramshackle housing high up on the right descends by steep steps, down to a street that plunges towards the bay. On the left stands a lovely red flowered framboyan tree, the national tree of Cuba. A freighter is moored in the distant slice of bay. I was immediately surrounded by kids, much better behaved than their counterparts in Havana. A handsome Rastafarian came down from the house above the steps. He was delighted to learn that I was from Oakland because he was interested in the Black Panthers. He invited me in for coffee but I demurred until tomorrow because it was nearly time for me to leave and rejoin Beryl.
Beryl (Beryl Landau) : This was our best day so far in Santiago. Anthony went off painting after breakfast and I started another view from the balcony. Anthony returned, and we had to leave to meet the artist Pagan; so I didn't have time to finish my watercolor. Pagan took us to visit two artists who live nearby. En route to the first one, Jose Horruitiner, it started pouring and we had to wait under an overhang until it subsided...
Thurs, Aug 22
Anthony: I feel very comfortable in Barrio Tivoli away from the center of town. I was joined by my new Rastafarian friend who lent me a pair of powerful binoculars to examine the bay. His girlfriend brought me a demitasse of sweet espresso. He told me that his two passions are painting and poetry. Whenever he needs money in Havana he paints pictures. A backup source of income are his necklaces. He told me he used to like to smoke a joint first thing in the morning followed by a cup of strong Cuban coffee. Then he would paint and string beads for hours. His friends would ask him where he found the patience, but he considered it a better activity than running in the streets and fighting. I observed that there are thousands of people in the U.S. in jail for dealing or using marijauna. He said it was the same in Cuba.. He had spent six months in jail for smoking. I put his grandmother in my painting as she stood on their balcony.
Thurs, Aug 23
Back in Bario Tivoli for a few last touches to my painting. A man sweeps the street with a large bristle broom. People with buckets loudly hawk avocados and yucca.
"La yucca! La yucca! Caliente la buena yucca!"
Men and women hurry to work, some with briefcases, from shacks so run down they'd be condemned in Oakland. A man pulls his vintage motorcycle with sidecar up against the curb below the embankment where I'm standing. He takes our a bucket of yellow paint and a brush and begins retouching his vehicle. My rastafarian friend descends from his home with another brush and lends a hand. After they've finished, the man's wife,small child in her arms, gingerly climbs into the sidecar trying to avoid contact with all the wet paint. Like most Cuban drivers who are always trying to conserve gas, they coast down the hill towards the bay.
My friend brings me a cup of coffee. The kids gather round. One of them throws a stone across the street and is gently reprimanded by adults who are watching from their balconies. A skinny old man with a hawk-like face stops and asks me where I'm from. He brightens when I say the U.S. and breaks into impeccable English. I ask him how he learned to speak so well.
"In the streets. I was a guide for American sailors. I showed them where to drink and find a good fuck. I was a boy then. Now I'm an old man."
I move up onto my friend's balcony. The three young women who had been staying as his guests all kiss him goodbye and exhort me to paint him "el mas feo," the ugliest man in the neighborhood. Taller Luis Diaz O This afternoon Pagan took us out to the Taller 'Luis Diaz 0.' in the Vista Allegre district. The administrator Idalmnis Reyes Dominguez explained that this was a hybrid organization, principally a series of small studios for more than twenty painters, sculptors, ceramicists and printmakers, but also a small gallery and cultural center. Pagan who does not have a space here avails himself of the printmaking studio.
It's surprising how many museums, galleries and artists' organizations there are in this town. UNEAC even publishes a couple of quality art magazines...
Some of you may want to download the complete diary: Anthony Holdsworth and Beryl Landau Three Weeks in Cuba Diary (PDF).