Jordan Levin

Cuban musician and cultural entrepreneur X Alfonso brings island ingenuity to Miami Mini Maker Faire

Cuban musician and Fabrica del Arte Cubano founder X Alfonso at the National YoungArts Foundation. He is sitting on a chair by Cuban artisans Jose Antonio Villa and Raiko Valladares
Cuban musician and Fabrica del Arte Cubano founder X Alfonso at the National YoungArts Foundation. He is sitting on a chair by Cuban artisans Jose Antonio Villa and Raiko Valladares

Musician X Alfonso is Cuba’s rock star, a powerful, charismatic guitarist and vocalist in an original blend of Afro-Cuban, rock and hip-hop music. In the last two years, he’s also become one of Cuba’s most important cultural forces, with Fabrica del Arte Cubano (literally Factory of Cuban Art), an former electrical plant and cooking oil storehouse that Alfonso has turned into a dynamic center for the arts in Cuba that is, in itself, a living demonstration of Cuban ingenuity and creativity.

Alfonso and ten of his F.A.C. compañeros are in Miami this weekend for the Miami Mini Makers Faire, at the National YoungArts Foundation campus. (Which is, of course, in what used to be the headquarters of Bacardi Rum, famously created by Cuban exiles back when welcoming Cuban artists was anathema in Miami.) Alfonso and the other Cuban makers are creating a miniature, temporary F.A.C. (using shipping pallets, one of the main materials they use in re-configuring the F.A.C. every few months in resource-scarce Cuba), where they’ll showcase F.A.C. artists like Celia Ledon, who designs costumes using paper, garbage bags, plastic grommets and video tape, and Jose Antonio Villa and Raiko Valladares, whose bright colored chairs are made from metal pipe and PVC cord usually used for jumpropes. The Faire, created by MIAMade and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, takes place this Saturday and Sunday, and Alfonso performs at 8 p.m. Saturday.

I spoke to him Thursday about why he created F.A.C. and what happens there.

JL – So how did you get the idea for Fabrica del Arte?

XA – I made a documentary film in 2009 called Sin Titulo (Untitled), showing professional and street artists. For the opening I invited all the artists to bring their work and show it in the lobby of the theater. The audience loved seeing all of it together. So I began doing shows like this around Havana. We were this nomad event, and I realized we needed our own space. But I looked for spaces that had nothing to do with art.

JL – why?

XA – Because in an art gallery it’s difficult to show a film. In a theater it’s hard to show visual art. I wanted to make a space for all the arts in the same space. And I wanted to create a place where all kinds of artists could work together. I’d seen factories in New York, Germany, Paris that had been turned into a gallery or a theater or a nightclub, but not for all the arts. I wanted to put all kinds of artists together – in all senses.

JL – Tell me about Fabrica

XA – We have artists with big names and very young artists, all mixed together. There’s not difference. The entrance is 50 Cuban pesos - $2 U.S., the same for Cubans and foreigners. We have four or five shows every night, Thursday to Sunday. Theater, fashion, contemporary dance, film, industrial design, visual art, photography.

JL – what’s a typical night like?

XA – On Thursdays there’s a classical music concert early, then hiphop music, then a group playing some other style – but it can’t be salsa or reggaeton – all in the same space. There’s also performance art and film. On Friday there’s contemporary dance, on Saturday fashion, and on Sundays theater, plus all the exhibits and the three concerts. We have every kind of person, from 18 to 80. We have five halls, and that’s part of the trick of Fabrica – there’s lots of spaces, and you can go where you want, depending on how you feel. You have all these options.

JL – were you surprised by how successful it’s been?

XA – Very. We’ve brought in an audience that normally might not go to see all these things. But they come to see a music group, and then they’ll also see an architecture exhibit, or a visual art show. We’re educating this audience.

We’re open for three months, then we close for a month and we change the space completely. We use plywood, pallets, drywall, things people give us, things we find. The whole Fabrica team does it. Some exhibits stay up for three months, some for just a month.

JL – why are Cubans so good at being ‘makers’?

XA – we do more with less. We reclaim a lot. We’ve gotten used to it. We have a saying, to create something, the only obstacle is you yourself.

JL – Here they might say the obstacle is not having the materials or the money. Why do you say that?

XA – Because you can tell that there are people with fewer resources who do much more. Like those cars that keep going for years without parts. There’ve been no parts but people invent them and they work. We do the same with art.  

Why Cubans are the best makers:

Ric Herrero, co-founder MIAMade, which produces the Miami Mini Maker Faire:

Having visited Cuba many times, I know that few people in the world exhibit the advanced level of ingenuity of the Cuban people. It goes beyond cars to how they’ve had to repurpose everything from furniture to electrical equipment. I once saw an electric fan made from a washing machine motor, a rotary phone and a vinyl record. They’re using 3D printers to make car parts. Fifty years of suffering the U.S. Embargo mixed with communist policy has created a society of 11 million hackers. They repurpose and reinvent things to make what they need. Because of the pervasive scarcity, they’re forced find innovative ways to create economic and social value using fewer resources and in increasingly affordable ways. At a time when sustainability is becoming increasingly urgent and embraced by our own society, instead of being driven by consumption and easy disposal, Cuba is inspiring to entrepreneurs, makers and artisans.

Nelson Ponce, Cuban graphic designer and leading maker of film and arts posters, of Fabrica del Arte:

I make silkscreen posters. They come from the need to communicate, because a lot of times the cultural sector doesn’t have money for promotion, so it looks for alternatives. Silkscreening is an ancient technique. I usually take two or three days to make 150 to 200 posters. It’s totally manual. I cut the letters by hand, do the designs by hand. All the posters on the island are done this way, even for foreign films. Necessity is the mother of invention. We do it with everything in Cuba.

Ernesto Jimenez, architect with Fabrica del Arte:

Here we’re building a temporary version of la Fabrica, with pallets. It’s ephemeral architecture. At the Fabrica in Cuba we use pallets, [shipping] containers, dry wall – we have this in Cuba now – and glass. We get donations of materials. You have to recycle. We work with what there is. There’s a minimum of materials, and people adapt to what they have. They wait until things show up, so in architecture, it takes longer to do things. The best example is la Fabrica – since we started working together the solution has always been to invent something with what already exists. The process is the inverse of what’s normal outside, where architects think of a building and order the materials. In Cuba I think of what I have and make the building accordingly. Here’s this, and this, and this – what can you make? I think this idea is gaining force in the world.

If you go

What: Miami Mini Maker Faire

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Concert with Afrobeta and X Alfonso 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday

Where: National YoungArts Foundation Campus, 2100 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

Info: Fair admission $12 to $18 at makerfairemiami.com; concert free, but must download tickets at makerfairemiami.com

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