The world is full of art, but we’re exposed to so little of it. Modern Meccas of artistic expression like New York, London, LA, and Paris are eternally in the spotlight. Of course, right? All the best art is there. The most valuable art is featured in world-renowned galleries, photographed by thousands, if not millions, a day. Swarming tourists flock to see the Mona Lisa, Starry Night, The Persistence of Memory, and dozens of iconic pieces just to snap a selfie and tell the world that they witnessed greatness.
While the reduction of masterful works to vehicles of Internet clout is a subject in of itself, the greater concern is not what they see, but what they don’t. I don’t mean the pieces hiding in the corner of major museums and galleries. I’m talking about the work produced by passionate artists stationed in countries that lack the resources or infrastructure to share their message with the world. In many cases, traditional arts are reduced to tourist tchotchkes out of necessity or preference. From silkscreens in San Juan to figurines in Fiji, I’ve seen remarkably talented artists reduce their work to the “tourist-pleasers”. Of course, there’s nothing wrong focusing on recreating your best-sellers. It’s just frustrating to see incredibly talented artists and craftspeople underappreciated for their self-expression and creativity. While I’d rank any handcrafted good as an acceptable souvenir, the best ones are those that directly and entirely support the locals. Odds are the “handcrafted” trinkets you see everywhere aren’t so handcrafted, after all.
Cuban artists oddly reminded me of Iceland. Both cultures come with a heightened level of self-awareness (from my experience), and in Cuba’s case, it comes out in their creative identity. While the Icelandic identity is admittedly quirky, Cubans are far more focused on the significance of their national history. They are extremely proud of where they’ve come from, and their outspoken pride is reflected in the colorful aesthetic of their houses, cars, fashion, and visual arts.
During my recent trip to Cuba, I fell in love with the works by graphic designer Nelson Ponce. A number of his pieces were for sale at the Fábrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory), and his eye-catching contrasts and vivid colors sold me immediately. Apparently, I learned afterwards, his works are somewhat well known in Cuban cinema: he’s designed a number of beloved posters, in particular Vampiros en La Habana. Since the early 2000’s, he’s won a number of awards and gained remarkable recognition for such a young artist. I purchased two pieces, but my favorite has to be Stop (25/50 limited print, pictured above). It might just be me, but for such a minimalist piece Ponce managed to perfectly capture that “oh man, what are you doing” emotion. What do you think?
Cubans are proud, creative, and resourceful people. It felt like one in ten habaneros were artists. At the end of the day, however, I won’t pretend there isn’t value in visiting major art hubs in first-world countries. I also won’t pretend there’s little value in seeing what the rest of the world is creating. The world is so full, no individual can truly grasp the complexity of human expression. The next time you venture off the beaten path, try to strike up a conversation with an artist. Check out a gallery, or bring home an original piece as a souvenir! You’ll be supporting an independent artist and likely adding a creative touch to your home that’ll be a one-of-a-kind conversation piece. Don’t forget to wander and ponder!