I joked with Adel that the price of rum has gone up everywhere since 1959, and asked him please not to worry too much about our geopolitical post-Cold War predicament. Then, true to custom and friendship, I picked up the phone and called my amigo at the Ministry of Justice, code name “J,” to let him know I was back in town, and then skipped out into the street to head for the exhibition before my usual secret police detail could pick up my trail and cramp my social life.
Down at the Cabaña, where the majority of the Bienal work was exhibited, Glenda Léon, one of the artists whose work I recently showed at the Alabama School of Fine Arts and at the Lite Box Gallery in Pepper Place, had already made out very well. She sold her work — which consisted of the name of God in each religion written in Braille, with mechanical brass chimes made in Switzerland to play the musical notes corresponding to the Braille transcription — to the Tate Modern Museum.
I found the Cabaña fortress interesting in itself, one of the giant defenses built at the entrance to Havana harbor to keep out marauding English and French, a giant memorial to colonialism in Cuba, where the world’s last ember of revolution still faintly glows. I usually never get to go to these touristy destinations. And it was fitting because for the first time the Bienal theme was not about the Third, underdeveloped world against the developed capital world. Rather the theme was integration in the global age. That is certainly on the world’s mind these days with respect to Cuba, and that was the subject of my Bienal lecture.
I met Ariadna, just back from studying with a shaman in Peru, at the exhibition, and she told me she was trying to learn to fly to me in her dreams when I was away from Cuba, separated as we are by the U.S. ban on Americans coming to Cuba, only recently loosened for Cuban Americans to visit their families once a year, and the Cuban ban on Cubans going anywhere. That reminded me, so I looked around and my usual secret police detail still had not picked up my scent.
The most interesting new work I saw at the Bienal was a gargantuan campily-touristic take-off on Hieronymous Bosch, by Spanish artist Lluis Barba, with all the tortures of Hell intermingled with scenes straight out of soap operas and travel ads, entirely vapid but very sexy just the same. The juxtaposition and contrast was astonishing — about the 16th century and about ourselves. It certainly fit the Bienal’s focus on the “new logic of economic, technological and human connections.”
Art has always led the way into new territory for Cuba, and the government has never been able to control it, whether new ideas break out in Olympya Ortiz’ paintings of the island’s super-isolation or the rebellious rap music of the Alamar housing projects (for which a government ministry for rap music was established to control). My late friend the film director Tomás Alea managed to explore subjects in film that were totally taboo under revolutionary doctrine and would have gotten you arrested if you printed them on a secret press and handed them out to friends instead of showing the same ideas on the big screen to a packed house in Havana’s wonderfully cavernous art deco movie theatres.
To give you my perspective on all the opening-up in Cuba I’ve been reading about in the USA Today lately, I first picked up extra police vigilance when I started spending time with Daniella, the famous sultry night club singer. But when I dropped her to be true to the sonnet-inspiring Emily (who threw all my things out on the sidewalk in one of her own infamous summer squalls, anyway, one week after I returned from that trip) and started hanging out with Castro’s youngest illegitimate daughter Dee Dee, I really drew some attention. I know I got an extra patrulla, patrol car escort, for sure, and I think an additional undercover transvestite in the park across the street from my house, and at least three fake doctors and nurses at the clinic where she works as a pediatrician.
Dee Dee could, of course, work in one of the high-powered, high-priced clinics for foreigners. And we might, in a fairy tale world, have met there when I went for treatment, myself. But Dee Dee is a true revolutionary embodying the original ideals of her father, so she insists on working directly for the people, even if it is beneath her true station.
Coincidentally, we actually met at the famous ice cream shop in Havana, La Copelia, opened by Castro with great fanfare soon after the Revolution as a symbol of racial harmony, a place where people of all races could go enjoy a simple ice cream cone together.
It was made more famous in my late friend Tomás Alea’s film Fresa y Chocolate, “Strawberry and Chocolate,” as the spot where a dogmatic young Communist cadre met an openly gay compañero he first shunned, as certainly he should, but later befriended, contrary to his indoctrination.
Dee Dee is the mixed-race offspring of El Comandante and a hastily-recalled Indian diplomat (an Indo-Latina?). But nowadays the ice cream shop is segregated into two sections, one for Cubans like Dee Dee and one for foreigners like me.
I don’t always shake my police tail and break the house rules, Alea-style, passing myself off as a fair-skinned Cuban of Andalusian descent. But I did it to get in line for some strawberry ice cream next to Dee Dee Castro, who prefers chocolate. So the Copelia continues to be a source of unlikely encounters that turn the Cuban system on its ear.
My friend at the Ministry of Justice, code name “J,” who is responsible for keeping tabs on me (ironically, it was Emily who always thought she was under satellite surveillance — though she was captured on high altitude infrared film the night she repeatedly rammed me with her car) is pulling the last of his hair out trying to explain to his superior how that could happen, a norteamericano courting Castro’s own daughter when I am also stopping by to visit Cuba’s leading dissident, Oswaldo Payá, with phony phone repairmen hanging on the telephone pole outside his house tapping the wires.
Payá founded the Varela Project, taking advantage of a referendum clause recently removed from the Cuban Constitution to gather names on a petition calling for plural elections. Everyone working on the project except Paya was sentenced to prison. I learned to drive myself to his house after the driver of the first taxi I rode out there in was detained for questioning and left me stranded on the outskirts of Havana.
After I finally found my way back to Centro Habana, Señor Adel just threw up his hands when the inspector showed up to complain that I was a foreigner receiving too many Cuban visitors. And there was Dee Dee just leaving for work and Liuba, my favorite Cuban model, on the way up the stairs (two police details crashed into each other like Keystone Cops when those two nearly crossed paths).
I was busy sparing no expense on Havana Club rum and arguing about whether there was any truly revolutionary artwork at the Bienal with Marrero and his poet girlfriend, along with Kasia and Alfredo and Vlado and Olympya, and the phone is ringing with my shamancita of many Cuban out-of-body adventures, Ariadna — and who knows who else? — on the line.
The inspector was red-faced with this geopolitical predicament so out of control. Adel, also red-faced, just shrugged and said to him, Que puedo hacer? Son todos artistas. “What can I do? They are all just a bunch of artists.”
A longtime contributor to Birmingham Weekly, Stephen Humphreys will have photographs of Alabama rivers on display at the Lite Box Gallery at Pepper Place, starting June 11. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org