Throughout the day, the artists come and go from a crumbling mansion that sits across from José Martí Park.
Some stash their lunch in a kitchen just off a gallery space, or sit in a sunny window putting the finishing touches on their canvases. They hang their own works and when there’s a heavy rain, they haul some of them down because there are leaks in the roof.
“The biggest problem for me is materials for painting, which are very expensive and difficult to find,” said 22-year-old artist Yanzel Medina Pérez.
But beyond the shortages and high prices, it’s hard for a budding artist to earn a space in a government-run art gallery. To remedy these challenges and more, a group of 15 artists in Cienfuegos have joined together to help each other out and rent their own private gallery space.
“I’m making my dreams come true and the dreams of all these artists,” said Yusimi Arias, 40, the force behind Yusi’s Art Alliance.
Technically, Arias is not an artist’s agent or a gallerist, and Yusi’s Art Alliance isn’t a gallery either. Rather it’s a workshop/gallery and she’s classified as an independent contracted worker. But that allows her to sell the artists’ work and receive a 10 percent commission.
“The term gallery is not legally recognized in Cuba for a private entity. So the artists have to create in this space and have materials here and then their work can be sold in this space,” said Arias. “We’ve had to jump through a lot of hoops because what we are doing here is something new in Cuba. But it’s getting better and better.’’
Although the artists like their highly visible workshop/gallery, they fear eventually the building may be sold to someone who sees the location as a prime development opportunity.
For the time being, the artists pool their resources to pay the rent. All the artists must have a license and pay taxes to state organizations, such as the Cuban Fund for Cultural Assets, the National Council of Cultural Patrimony or the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba, that correspond to them, said Arias.
“Everyone has to have a license [as a self-employed worker] and pay taxes,” she said. “We are survivors of the new cuentapropista (self-employment) era.”
That doesn’t mean it’s easy. A tube of paint might cost more than $11 in a country where those who rely solely on government salaries earn an average of around $26 a month. Ten square meters (about 108 square feet) of canvas might be around $80. “It’s often not the best quality; sometimes it’s Chinese,” said Medina, throwing up his hands.
“When there are oils available, someone will go to the store and snap them all up and sell them at double the price,” he said. “The famous artists also have priority and they also can afford to pay the higher prices.”
But artists who are part of Yusi’s Art Alliance help each other out. If one is short on materials, another who has traveled abroard and picked up supplies might share. When paintings are sold and come off the walls, the frames are recycled for other artists if the buyers don’t want them.
They improvise. If the cost of canvas is too much, they’ll use whatever surface they can get their hands on. Arias points to a canvas of a unicycle sprouting a palm tree and then turns it over, revealing that it has been painted on a scrap of bed sheet.
“There is a friendship in all this — helping each other survive,” said Arias.
The art at the gallery runs the gamut from experimental work, primitives and small bronzes to hyper-realistic portraits, landscapes, canvases with political overtones and those with cock-fighting and Santeria motifs.
A number of the artists are young or haven’t earned the reputations that would allow them to show at state galleries.
“There’s a lot of experimenting here,” says Arias. “Some of this wouldn’t be accepted at state galleries because it’s considered, well, weird.”
Arias is giving Medina, who studies cinematic design for the theater in Havana but has family in Cienfuegos, the opportunity to have his first show. When he’s studying in the capital, Arias said she sells his work and sends him the funds he needs to live on.
Medina’s show opens Thursday (Sept. 29) and will explore some of his favorite themes, the symbiosis between nature and humans, and the elderly who he says “always have stories to tell.” He likes to manipulate photographic images in Photoshop and then paint them in black and white oils in a hyperrealistic style.
“At a lot of the state galleries, work is on display for a very short time and then it changes,” said Arias. “Here we can display works all year long and the artists and sculptors have more possibilities to show their work than in state galleries.
There were a lot of naysayers when Arias decided to put together the alliance. She’s not an artist herself, and has spent most of her career working in tourism or as an interpreter and translator. Besides Spanish, she speaks Dutch, French, Italian and English, and the single mother of two girls has lived in the Netherlands and Venezuela.
But Arias has plenty of people skills that aid in her new line of work. After a friend gave her a job as a gallery seller, she began meeting artists and the idea of the alliance began to percolate. “I decided to work with a group of artists and create our own little enterprise,” she said.
They’ve been in their current location for only six months. When they started, the workshop/gallery was in a dark, more distant space. “The owner of this house saw we were doing well — even in that place — and asked if we wanted to come here,” said Arias.
Across the park sits the bright, cheerful gallery/studio of engraver Annia Alonso. But she is a well-known artist whose work is displayed in museums and exhibited internationally, and her situation is different.
“It’s a bit easier for me. I have dual Spanish citizenship so when I’m outside the country, I buy supplies. I need to have a closet-full.” The collography process she uses to make her limited edition engravings is labor-intensive and requires a heavy press. Through the years as her reputation has grown, the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba has sent her referrals and buyers seek her out.
Alonso says she likes what Arias is trying to do. “I admire her. I gave her some of my work for the gallery. I know it’s very hard waiting for people to come, but I gave her a few pieces because it’s prestigious for her to have my work in her gallery,” she said.
During the summer months, Arias said, overall sales were slow.
But now with daily American Airlines flights arriving in Cienfuegos from Miami, all the artists would like to sell more to Americans. Arias will be accommodating. If buyers can’t take their purchases home by plane, she says, she’ll arrange to send them by DHL.
Already, the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement has crept into some of the artists’ work.
Alonso, for example, has turned a 2007 engraving Las Marianas in la Marcha, which comments on the lack of well-known international brands in Cuba and features female figures holding a banner with Cuban flags, into a mixed media work by adding little American flags.
Another piece called features a cup of Cubita coffee (coffee is one of her favorite themes) but it, too, has political overtones. “It’s like an invitation to have coffee, a coffee between friends,” said Alonso. “The first edition sold very fast.”
Another engraving called The Spyglass and the Wave shows a gigantic wave crashing toward the island from the United States with a young woman perched on Cuba with a very long spyglass trained on the roiling wave.
Over at Yusi’s Art Alliance, some of the pieces comment subtly and not so subtly on the new relationship.
In one canvas, “I kiss you” is painted in English across the bottom edge and a chimpanzee with exaggerated pursed lips is super-imposed on a Cuban flag. It’s a comment on forbidden cultural contacts before rapprochement, said the artist Yagnolis Ocampo. “I also do landscapes but I like to create what I’m thinking at a particular moment,” he said.
Other work shows the flags of the two frenemies painted side by side, a blimp decorated with stars and stripes hovering above the small island of Cuba, and small collages with unlikely pairings: Fidel Castro with Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama positioned next to Che Guevara.