Painting project in Cuba gets complicated for Philly muralist

U.S. muralist Michelle Angela Ortiz paints a mural in Regla, Havana, with local artists and members of the community.
U.S. muralist Michelle Angela Ortiz paints a mural in Regla, Havana, with local artists and members of the community. Courtesy of Michelle Angela Ortiz

Philadelphia artist Michelle Angela Ortiz headed to Cuba in January to embark on a painting project with a group of local artists — a large-scale mural in the heart of Havana.

But applying the brush strokes to make the mural come alive has been more complicated than expected.

After four months and two trips to the island, Ortiz and her team are still waiting for permission from the Cuban government, and they are running out of time. The design is under a “review process” that could take until the end of July, and the project is under an 8-month limit for implementation.

“Creating art work in public spaces in Cuba is a challenge,” said the artist, who traveled to Cuba as part of a cultural exchange program sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Ortiz has worked in communities in the United States and other countries as part of projects seeking social change through murals painted in public spaces by members of the community.

Cuba, which has gotten worldwide recognition for its Havana Biennial Art Exhibition, and also for showcasing a rich diversity of voices and styles at museums and galleries, is particularly sensitive to art projects in public spaces, even if they are projects by local artists, Ortiz said.

“It is a very sensitive issue, especially in Havana. The first thing they see is an American artist,” said Ortiz, who was born in Philadelphia of Puerto Rican and Colombian parents.

For the project, in which residents of the community take part in the design and creation of a mural that expresses their visions and realities, Ortiz chose a team of four talented artists from different parts of Havana: Javier Martinez, Alberto Matamorros, Osdaly Diaz, and Yoan Barrios.

The main obstacle they now face is obtaining government approval for the project. The mural designs must first be reviewed by the Advisory Council for Monumental Sculpture Development (Codema) and subsequently by the Ministry of Culture.

Ortiz said she has learned to be patient and blames bureaucracy for the delay, not censorship.

Magia Lopez, the project coordinator, said the delay is due to the fact that this is the first time in more than 50 years such as an endeavor has been undertaken.

“There is a thick pipe that we are trying to unclog,” said Lopez, a musician with the Cuban hip hop group Obsesión, who serves as the project coordinator through the House of Artists and Creators, an institution of the Municipal Department of Culture. “We are treading the way for the project.”

While they wait for the permit to paint the mural at Parque Antonio Maceo, Ortiz and the Havana artists began working on another public arts project in Regla, a municipality across from Havana’s harbor with a major influence of Afro-Cuban culture and home to some of the best examples of the island’s religious syncretism.

Regla is also one of Havana’s poorest communities, where residents often lack water and many houses are in precarious condition.

Ortiz and her team were able to work in Regla without a permit because, unlike Central Havana, it is not considered a historical site, said Terry K. Harvey, president of Meridian, the Washington-based organization that obtained the State Department grant to carry out the project.

In April, Ortiz and her team, along with dozens of volunteers, painted a mural in Regla depicting the daily life of those who live there: A boy fishing; the boat used by neighbors to travel across the bay to Havana; the local saint known as the Virgen de Regla; and the image of a black girl named Carla who represents the children of Regla playing on the streets.

"My role as an artist is not to have the community paint my vision, but to create art with the community," said Ortiz, who believes in a kind of artistic expression that does not impose any message, but is born from the reality of the people in the communities.

Ortiz, who has learned to appreciate the patience and determination of Cuban artists, is optimistic that the same can be done in the Parque Antonio Maceo in Central Havana, where a diverse group of residents from the area helped design a mural depicting their own reality: a young father and daughter observing a bicitaxi from a balcony; a trumpeter playing on the Malecón; and the hands of a woman worshipping Aftro-Cuban gods Oshun and Yemaya.

Another portion of the proposed mural shows an elderly woman named Mercedes with a multicolored stained glass as background. Neighbors of the community decided that Mercedes, who sells flowers on the market, would represent Havana’s aging population.

Cuba was one of eight countries selected for the cultural exchange program sponsored by the State Department and organized by Meridian International Center.

A Meridian delegation, who had traveled to Cuba in December to meet with local artists and scout the city in search of a possible location for the work, proposed to paint the mural on the pedestrian tunnel at Parque Antonio Maceo, which Ortiz later found to be "the perfect place" for the public art.

At the time, reported that the project had been approved by Cuba’s Ministry of Culture and the mural was scheduled to be unveiled in mid-February.

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