Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Watercolour paintings from a recent trip to Cuba

First thoughts on Havana

Imagine taking the wonderful, captivating, exciting architecture of Fortnum and masons’ in London’s Mayfair, emptying it out, then leaving it to rot for 30 years and finally moving a pound shop in. That’s what almost the whole of Havana is like.

I admittedly this introduction reads as a disaster but there is something about this broken city that makes you fall in love with it.

My initial impression was wonder and fear in equal measure. Wonder because the standard of care in the architecture is very high and deliciously eccentric. Inexplicably mixing The Baroque, Gothic Revival and Art Nouveau in a single street. It should not work but somehow it just does. Whoever built Havana was clearly making a statement of civic pride, independence and prosperity as one sees in Seville or Barcelona.

And fear because although Havana is majestic it is also near derelict. You look down a dimly lit street, both sides littered with abandoned cars and abandoned dog’s. You can just pick out a gang of teenagers sitting on bins smoking and doing not a lot. Hmm do you go for a walk down here? Nope! You decide to try another street only to be greeted by more or less the same scene.

In the end you have to either stay inside or ‘risk it’. Once you do venture out however you realise you were viewing the world through Western European eyes. Clearly Havana has been neglected, though not by the people who live there. You soon realise they are just doing their best to get by and making the best of what they have. So despite appearances you soon discover walking about is pretty safe. Havana has much to offer for a city and too much to go into here though you get the best of music, people, architecture and if you are into Ernest Hemmingway or the early history of the Italian Mafia then Havana is a must.

The community
I decided I wanted to paint the average street in Havana. Just a normal community away from any tourist areas. In Western European cities your community does not live on your street it lives on your phone. Your street is the place where you sleep and hide from your community.

In Cuba most people do not have mobile phones and certainly no computers with the internet to be swallowed up by. That in combination with the tropical climate means a greater part of a Cubans day is spent on the street in front of their homes chatting and gossiping with the neighbours.

So when I sat up against a corrugated iron wall, pulled out by drawing board and began my picture I was noticed immediately. I was being studied with quiet long looks from doorways, the street and the balconies above. The whole street was looking at me. I confess I felt a slight renewing of the tension I experienced when I first arrived in Havana. I decided I would carry on and if they didn’t want me there I would just quietly retreat.

No matter where you paint in the world you are always approached first by the very old and the very young. After a few minutes an elderly man came out of his house and told me he liked my picture and he used to be an illustrator prior to his retirement. Another elderly man ran out of his house, handed me a photograph of a painting he did and before I had a chance to say thank you promptly ran back into his house again. I saw him a few minutes later peering at me over his balcony. I waved and said thanks. He smiled.

The children came next. You can tell the state of a community by the state of its children and these were spotlessly clean, well fed and stoically polite. There were three children initially and this later increased to ten. They organised themselves around so each had a decent view of the proceedings. Small at the front, large at the back. They would watch for half an hour or so, disappear for an hour to play and reappear later to see how things were going. Over the day I also chatted to many of the residents and I was made to feel very welcome and was even invited to a party. The parents liked me especially as I baby sat their kids all day!

The cars
Prior to visiting Cuba I was told that pre-Castro 1950’s American cars were still being used on a regular basis. I assumed these would be just a few tourist catching oddities as is the old Routemaster red bus is in London. Driven only for weddings and other special occasions.

On arrival however I could not have been more wrong. At least 20% of the traffic in Havana are these wonderful gas guzzling remnants of a bygone age.

Some are gleaming although most are battered, rumbling, consumptive old wrecks which evoke the long lost names of Mercury, Studebaker, Buick and Plymouth. Despite their state the owners clearly take pride in these vehicles and you can’t help wanting to cheer and clap when one of these heaps manages to stumble away from a traffic light for what must be near on the millionth time.

When they are not being driven they are being tinkered with and repaired. No surprises there as the whole of Cuba is in a permanent state of (dis)repair.

Slavery, Sugar plantations and the The Iznaga Tower
This tower was built in 1816 by Alejo Iznaga as an ‘Up yours’ single finger salute to his hated brother and rival Pedro who lived some ways across the valley. Beneath the tower Alejo also treated himself to a wonderful, airy and opulent mansion to reside in.

His 350 or so slaves however were forced to endure short, exhausting and miserable lives in wood and banana leaf huts under a searing tropical sun. One can only imagine what these hapless persons thought on the day their Lord and Master also hit on the wild idea of using his new tower as a spying point to ensure they are all working hard enough. As transgressors were spotted there would be a ringing of a large bell to gain attention, followed by the bellowing of chastisements and punishments dolled from the lofty height.

Alejo must have been a real neighbour from hell.

Making a living
For a communist country there certainly is a fair bit of free enterprise or be it on a small scale. Older Cubans tend to scratch a living either selling fruit, and cigars or occasionally posing for photographs for passing tourists.

Old men and young girls
Around the tourist hotels and pools in Havana it is not uncommon to see elderly European men with Cuban girls who are barely in their teens. These ‘couples’ appear oblivious to the neck breaking double takes they sponsor all around them.

Merely witnessing these relationships makes one feel uncomfortably complicit.