You can learn a lot about a place just by visiting a local art gallery and taking in the creations of local artists and artisans. Art lovers never leave a place they’ve travelled to without checking out the local art. If you know what it’s like to pack your itinerary with visits to galleries and local arts and crafts markets, but you’ve seen enough of European and American art, we urge you to travel to Latin America. And in our opinion, one of the hottest travel destinations for art lovers nowadays is the colourful and striking Havana!
‘Havana, ooh na na?’ More like Havana, oh yeah yeah! The Cuban capital has been gaining recognition as one of the world’s greatest art cities. Havana’s artistic roots go pretty deep, being the location of one of the oldest art academies, the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes San Alejandro. The school has produced generations of marvellous talent, including the 1920s’ Vanguardia, the bunch of painters and sculptors responsible for inventing Cuba’s avant-garde movement.
The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes will give you a taste of the finest collection of Cuban paintings in its ‘Arte Cubano’ section. Look out for the work of Victor Manuel Valdes and Wifredo Lam, the artists behind the famed paintings, Gitana Tropical and Tercer Mundo, respectively. Havana also has several smaller galleries scattered around town that showcase the art of lesser-known present-day artists. They may not be as famous as those in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, but many of the works are just as breath-taking. If you plan to visit Havana, we recommend you too visit during the Bienal de la Habana, the city’s biggest art festival that is held once in three years.
For those with an interest in art made from recycled materials, Ojo del Ciclon is a must-see, with its interactive exhibits made of bashed-up old cars and second-hand suitcases. Habana Vieja is filled with other such intriguing workshops, where you can stop by and converse with local artists and even buy signed copies of their work on the spot. Meanwhile, the Taller Experimental de Grafica is an engraving workshop where you can meet, join courses with, and purchase works from top graphic artists.
But to really immerse yourself in Havana’s art scene, attend the Fabrica de Arte Cubano. The fusion musician X Alfonso conceptualised this multi-faceted art emporium in Vedado. The philosophy here is to make all types of art more accessible to the masses. A typical night in the Fabrica might entail everything from witnessing cutting-edge t-shirt screen-printing, a choir performance, a jazz jam, and DJ lessons, to some tango dancing lessons. Housed in what used to be an olive oil factory, the steely, raw vibe of the Fabrica serves its multiple purposes well, as it unifies artists and art lovers of all genres. If you’d like to visit a less crowded place with a similar styled art collective, consider the Enguayabera in Alamar district.
The best part about Havana is that you don’t even need to visit a museum or art gallery to get a glimpse of the powerful work of local artists. Street art in Havana has been around since the 1950s, when Vanguardista Amelia Peláez created the huge mural on the façade of Hotel Habana Libre, Frutas Cubanas. The massive steel stencil of Che Guevara created by Enrique Avila Gonzalez, that dominates the Plaza de la Revolucion, is another stunning work of street art.
By the 1990s, street artists had enough creative freedom to explore and experiment, and created art that didn’t just cover one wall on one street, but were swirling colours that encompassed entire neighbourhoods in the city. One example is the Callejon de Hamel, the brainchild of Salvador Gonzalez, where an entire narrow back alley in Centro Habana is covered in murals, sculptures built out of scrap metal, and objects relating to Santeria. Don’t miss Salvador’s studio, which is on the same street.
If quirky and crazy is your style and your Instagram aesthetic, then Havana’s street art has you covered with Fusterlandia – the crazy conception of Jose Fuster. A proponent of the folkloric artistic style sometimes known as naïve art and a disciple of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, Jose started Fusterlandia in the 1990s. But it’s only recently found its way onto Havana’s tourist map. Having covered more than eight houses with mosaics, murals, and curved parapets that are decked in authentic Cuban themes, Fusterlandia will leave you feeling playful yet surreal as you struggle to absorb its intricacy.
When you’ve finished visiting the numerous galleries, attended the workshops and art initiatives, and walked the endless streets of colourful expression, it’ll be time to sit down, relax and grab a coffee. But don’t for a moment assume that you’ll have to tear your eyes away from Havana’s artsy beauty! What the city lacks in international fast-food and restaurant franchises, it makes up for with its artistically-inclined cafés. Almost like they’ve been taken out of Picasso’s utopia, the city’s art cafés display huge canvases etched with marvellous abstract paintings, aesthetic photo art, and shelves stacked with literary art. Of course, to round out the experience perfectly, the food and drinks at these places are often works of art in themselves!