Belkis Ayón, Arte Continua and Las Bellas Artes, Havana

In the fall of 2019, I was part of a group of artists and cultural workers that travelled to Havana for the second half and final exhibition of the Montreal-Habana exchange.

Each day was full of planned events and many exchanges with Cuban and Montreal artists. Here, I will focus on a visit to the art department of the university, an exhibition at Arte Continua and a presentation of the work of Cuban artist, Belkis Ayon by Cristina Vives in the Estudio Figueroa – Vives.

A small group of us accepted an invitation by one of the professors to visit the Bellas Artes campus. Permission had to be requested and granted, so we weren’t sure until we arrived if we would indeed be allowed entry. I loved the vaulted walkways leading from one department to another. Built on a former golf course of the Havana Country Club, the red, brick domed construction of the five schools (modern dance, music, theatre, ballet and visual arts) was designed by architect, Ricardo Porro using a Catalan technique for building vaults. The dome shape make dividing the space to make individual studios and exhibiting paintings and drawings difficult, but there was a beautiful feeling of being welcomed and supported by the simple, circular, vaulted shape of the space. A whisper from the other side of the room sounded like it was right beside me. Some students were present and eager to show their work.

Arte Continua is a contemporary art space located in a renovated cinema in the Chinese quarters of Havana. There are two spaces, a small theatre for film and video programs and the former cinema itself including the stage, the audience seating area and mezzanine above for exhibitions.

There was an impressive installation of work using packing tape by Osvaldo Gonzalez in the hallway and smaller sculptures and drawings upstairs by Carlos Garaicoa. As part of the exchange, artist presentations and an exhibition of work by Estela Lópes Solis were held at Garaicoa’s studio and space, Artista x Artista. I’ll include some images of work from both spaces.

My video, Playpoem Verse 3 (The Wave) was part of the program, La Caïda, curated by Nelson Henricks opening at Arte Continua and then installed in the Centro de Desarrollo de las Artes Visuales, part of the group exhibition of Montreal artists’ work in the exchange.

A fascinating discovery for me was the work of Belkis Ayón. Cristina Vives, her husband, photographer, José Figueroa and their daughter Cristina Figueroa invited us to visit their studio-gallery to view some work by Ayón. Vives has been curating exhibitions of Ayón’s prints -large scale collographs in museums in Europe and the USA. A lot of mystery surrounds, the artist, her art and her untimely death by suicide in 1999 at 32 years of age. Akabuá, the secret, all-male Afro-Cuban society remained a central theme in her art and specifically, images of Princess Sikan, an important female figure in the religion. With shortages of materials and supplies for printmaking, Ayón developed special techniques for making her own matrices. It is completely amazing to see such large-scale prints inked and printed in editions of 10 to 20 from a handmade matrix. Her allegorical figures are hypnotizing.