Art percolates throughout Cuba. It shows up on the streets. In alleys. On the veranda at the Nacional. Where live music is on nightly display. Until the wee hours of the morning. It is present in the poorest parts of town. In restaurants. Where the sound of guitars and maracas fills the air. And in more formal settings. Like museums. Art galleries. And schools.

One such place is The Cuban National Art School (Escuelas Nacionales de Arte). The national reservoir for Cuban talent. This is the place where young artists are identified. Nurtured. And developed.

On this very hot and humid summer day (not hotter or more humid than any other day!). We approach the gated entrance to the school. Beyond the gate. The property is immense. Acres and acres of closely mowed rolling lawns. This place was once a golf and country club. A place where rich Cubans separated themselves from the rest. We pass students heading to recitals and classes. In a few hundred yards we are under a canopied driveway. In front of one of several nondescript. Red brick buildings. From what I can see. Any remnants of country clubishness has been scraped away. What’s left is simple functionality. The floors are well worn marble. The windows could use some windex. The walls are plastered with class schedules. Upcoming recitals. Announcements. Inside is equally hot. Lights are kept to a minimum.

For the next 2 hours. We are led by the director of the school. She is 60ish. She moves with an air of comfortable arrogance. She is serious. Pointing out two domed buildings in the distance. We walk toward them. They house their visual arts program. These are the breasts. She tells us without a hint of irony. Or a smile. I hold back my smile. And play along. A few yards later we find ourselves standing in the middle of an open courtyard. The breasts right in front of us. At the center of this open space is a water fountain. Shaped like a clam shell. We call this the vagina courtyard. She adds. To complete the picture. She highlights one more feature. Look around. She says. These water spouts jetting from the gutters? These are penises.

I am left wondering if this is a Cuban thing? She is not kidding. I hold back my chuckle.

We move from one building to another. In one. We are witness to a world class pianist. A mere 2nd year student. In another. A jazz orchestra of 16 year olds. That gets us all tapping. And clapping. And yelling Encore! This is followed by a quartet that equally wows us. The lead teenage singer alone has enough talent to fill Carnegie Hall. We move past the music building down the road and into the breasted domes. They house art studios. Several rooms of visual arts. There are kilns. Piles of clay. buckets of brushes and paints. Large working tables and easels. Everywhere we turn. We are surrounded by beautiful pottery. Large paintings. Charcoal. Oils. Huge canvases. Tiny sculptures. Plates. Mugs. A visual and sensory feast indeed.

As the tour comes to an end. I had forgotten the heat and the humidity. I am satiated. Content. Inspired. And once again. Finding myself thinking: I can’t wait to come back.

PHOTO 2024 02 01 07 10 14

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Speech given on February 1, 2024 in Havana, Cuba In 1927 Langston Hughes walked into a Cuba amid an emerging community of artists, intellectuals, and radicals.  He saw a “sunrise in a new land [– a day – in his words]sic – full of brownskin surprises, and hitherto unknown contacts in a world of color.”  … Continued

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“We can thank Frank Ocean, not only for making a public statement that sweeps aside shadows and offers young fans another powerfully vulnerable star to admire and emulate, but for reminding us that while proudly declaring an identity can be a politically crucial gesture, often the human heart is not so sure-footed. The process of becoming and unbecoming, loving and losing, is what often makes for the most meaningful art.” – Ann Powers, NPR