On the eve of new diplomatic relations and in a moment of powerful artistic exchange between the United States and Cuba, ICA Director Amy Sadao was the faculty host of twenty-three Penn alumni on a visit to Havana. Their mission: to immerse themselves in the nation’s vibrant art, architecture, and culture—and to connect personally with Cuba’s artists and art-loving people.
An advocate of the crucial role that art and culture play in civil society, Sadao welcomes Cuba’s openness, as she aims for a similar transparency at ICA.
She prepared the group—including ICA Board Chair Andrea B. Laporte and staff host Trina Middleton—with a lecture on the Bienal de la Habana’s historical importance as the first international art biennial to focus on the global south and third world.
Through warm and well-informed local guides—teachers, lawyers, and artists—Penn alumni met artists living and working in Havana at the Ludwig Foundation, a nonprofit cultural center with similarities to ICA, which supports Cuban art and facilitates international dialogue. A classical guitarist accompanied a tour of the Museo Nacional de la Cerámica Contemporánea (Museum of Ceramic Arts), led by its eighty-year-old founder Alejandro G. Alonso, an economist turned art historian post-revolution who lovingly built the museum’s collection.
Penn Alumni Cuba Tour ceramics (2015)Penn Alumni Cuba Tour ceramics (2015)Penn Alumni Cuba Tour ceramics (2015)Penn Alumni Cuba Tour ceramics (2015)Penn Alumni Cuba Tour ceramics (2015)
Cuba’s Instituto Superior de Arte (National Art Schools), where Alonso trained, is a tuition-free educational institute and an architectural wonder. Ricardo Porro, who designed the visual arts building in 1961 as a revolutionary space to provide cultural literacy for all, took inspiration from the country’s Cuban-African heritage: elliptical pavilions and graceful colonnades form a self-contained village of local brick and terracotta.
Here, the group talked with faculty and students and viewed their work. Classically trained at the National Art Schools in disciplines like drawing, carpentry, and metalwork, a new generation of Cuban contemporary artists—including Wilfredo Prieto, Abel Barreso, and Los Carpinteros (The Carpenters collective)—craft and jerry-rig the materials and technologies at hand to make satirical, political works.
A fleet of colorful convertibles—complete with bright umbrellas in the wet weather—took the group around Havana in style. A beautiful Basilica housed Ars Longa, a musical organization preserving ancient scores and instruments. There, Director Teresa Paz enthusiastically explained the evolution of the mandolin into the guitar.
In the dashing rain, a meeting with a local architect sparked conversation on Havana’s immense range of architecture—”all beautiful, cheek by jowl, often in ruins,” Sadao observed—from colonial Beaux Arts dwellings; to a fifties mafia hotel with a huge marble bar, blue diving boards, and low slung couches; to post-revolution Soviet Brutalist concrete fortresses. Building-by-building, Beaux Arts residences are being rehabilitated—transformed into much needed family housing.
Penn Alumni Cuba Tour architecture (2015)Penn Alumni Cuba Tour architecture (2015)Penn Alumni Cuba Tour architectural view (2015)Penn Alumni Cuba Tour brutalist architecture (2015)
In streets, courtyards, and abandoned buildings, the Penn group stumbled upon contemporary art installations—”collateral” exhibitions of the fifteenth Bienal de la Habana, which this year was decentralized and distributed throughout the city. Zona Franca (Free Zone) featured more than two hundred independent artists and collectives in the former military base Morro-Cabaña’s warren of corridors.
Artist Wilfredo Prieto curated one of the Bienal de la Habana’s satellite exhibitions, Montañas con una esquina rota (Mountains with a Broken Corner). It took place in the Fábrica de bicicletas, “an old bicycle factory where the roof was blown off, rain pouring in, with works so beautifully sited that you couldn’t tell which was which,” Sadao said.
The Cubans that Sadao connected with look forward to new cross-cultural conversations as much as economic development, as the nation becomes a significant stop on the international art map. “Culture is important across the board in Cuba. Kids go to museums, the opera—the ballet is filled with teenagers. The artists who stayed in Cuba are really proud of their country, like anyone would be,” Sadao reflected. “Their creolized culture—art, music, dance, and architecture—is of historic global importance.”
Learn more about Penn Alumni Travel and ICA’s donor clubs, where you can explore the world of contemporary art from subterranean footpaths to high-flung eagles’ nests.