In Havana, a city that tends to look outward towards the US and Europe rather than inward, there is a palpable anxiety about how it is represented and understood. Everyone asks the same question: Oh! You’re American! What do you think of Cuba? With this question, I have come to understand that people are trying to access how foreigners imagine their city and country, and how that vision might differ from their own understanding. It may seem like a mundane question, but every person I meet asks me to elaborate on my understanding of Cuba in a way I have never experienced in other countries. During my field research trip, I have developed new ideas for my dissertation that focus on the expressions of the tourist imaginaries of Cuba, that is to say how Cubans imagine Cuba for foreign visitors and what kind of picture they are trying to paint. I plan to look at a variety of materials to answer these questions including travel posters produced since the 1960s, Cuban literature that is situated within the tourism boom that started in the 1990s, and changes in urban space and architecture, particularly in Havana.
This last element has been especially noticeable during my stay, perhaps most evidently in last week’s First Annual Bienal de Diseño, a festival that celebrated Cuban designers of all types: fashion, graphic, industrial, interior, etc. Various spaces in the city were dedicated to showing the unique talent Cuban designers have to offer. I found two spaces that were particularly interesting in relation to my project. The first one was a building on Havana’s famous Malecón, the seaside drive whose beautiful buildings’ façades have suffered from the effects of ocean wind, salty water, and little money to dedicate to preserving the structures. This particular building, Malecón 663, is in the process of renovation and will serve several functions: a boutique hotel, a concept store, and a café/bar. Each room in the hotel adheres to a different aesthetic, from vintage to contemporary. The hotel also runs a “Vintage Tour” of Havana
The second space, an interesting place at any moment of the year, is the Fábrica de Arte Cubano (FAC), an impressive night club/art gallery that has been operating for two years in what used to be a cooking oil factory in the neighborhood of Miramar (see this CBS news report). The FAC currently has three floors, which contain 5 gallery spaces, 3 music venues, and a catwalk area, with plenty of space to expand. Part of the gallery space when I went was dedicated to the Bienal de Diseño. A designer that caught my eye was called Clandestina. They use reclaimed fabrics, t-shirts, etc. to print their own t-shirts and tote bags, many that say “99% Diseño Cubano.” Oftentimes these shirts would have some sort of American or European branding on them, along with their own graphic print. There is also a store centrally located in Old Havana that sells these same items.
I see a common element in these two spaces, something that is not a novelty in Cuba: reclaiming abandoned things and putting them to imaginative new uses (see the documentary film Sin Embargo). What may be different about these two spaces from how Cubans sought to resolver during the economic crisis in the 1990s, however, is that the innovation is employed in many ways for foreigners, not for Cubans. The deserted factory is now a hip place for Cuban artists to display their work and for tourists to sample the flavor of Cuban art, which in a place called Fábrica (Factory) seems to implicitly bear the Made in Cuba stamp. The FAC is open and accessible to Cubans, is a forum for Cuban artists to interact, and is without a doubt a place where Cubans and foreigners mix. But I certainly heard more English spoken there than I did anywhere else in Havana, which motivates my comments about this place catering to the tourist market. The designers behind Clandestina follow the same principle of recycling: they take unwanted clothing (probably from the US), literally stamp it with a design that comments on its “Cubanness,” and then resell it to tourists (because of the shop’s prime location in Old Havana) for 10 CUC. I like the irony involved in both of these projects and find it thought-provoking in working through how Cubans are imagining what kind of “Cuba” tourists are looking for.
From my perspective, Malecón 663 represents a larger architectural trend in Havana that seeks to merge the architectural aesthetic that makes the city unique with contemporary sleek design. A walk along the Malecón is a clear demonstration of this trend. About ¼ of its buildings are covered in scaffolding, undergoing a makeover. Another quarter have already been renovated in some way, or a new structure has been erected where a building has collapsed, adding contemporary design to the classic look of the Malecón (Café Neruda, Abadía, Hotel Terral). At the eastern end of the Malecón a giant space has been cleared to make room for what will surely be an impressive hotel, the Prado y Malecón. This eclectic aesthetic has been on my mind a lot as I walk through the city and plays into what I see as another important part of the tourist imaginaries of Cuba: the coexistence of present and past. This discordant coexistence has been a constant illustration of the complexity of this city, a place I continue to know more, and simultaneously less, about with each day I spend here.
Krista Weirich is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at IU.