Why you should care
Because you’re going to be seeing a lot more Cuban art soon.
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Perched upstairs in a studio overlooking the narrow lanes of colonial Old Havana, designer Idania del Río tweaks her next film poster on a large new iMac screen. The 33-year-old artist bought this two-story building recently, converting an old house into a chic, airy storefront and studio space she opened in February and named Clandestina. Bold text and lively shapes jump out everywhere. A colorful array of posters line the walls, one of which is also covered in red and pink melting hearts. The words “99% diseño cubano” — “99% Cuban design” — stand out in large black text above the classic wood paneling.
This kind of design shop might seem run-of-the-mill in Brooklyn or Berlin, but we’re talking Havana here, where it’s been only a few years since Raúl Castro effectively unbanned entrepreneurship and residents started seeing everything from privately run bars to boutiques and studios pop up across the city. That’s an especially big deal for Havana artists, who actually have had some experience in capitalism, since they’ve long sold books, music and art to outsiders. And it puts del Río in the vanguard of a long-overlooked and potentially hot art movement that could see a boom in lucrative sales — and even international commissions — thanks to a flood of new U.S. visitors.
Which isn’t to say that del Río wasn’t already turning heads. Nine years ago, her surprisingly affecting, silk-screened movie posters caught the eye of Seattle-based designer Daniel Ryan Smith. Del Río’s work subsequently appeared in Smith’s 2007–2008 Seattle-Havana Poster Show, which showcased the work of young Havana illustrators and designers. Since then, del Río has been invited to speak to groups in Paris, New York and Seattle, and two of her designs will appear in a follow-up traveling exhibition, the Seattle-Havana-Tehran Poster Show.
Not bad for a Havana stay-at-home who graduated from Cuba’s most famous design institute, then watched as most of her classmates jetted off to destinations such as Madrid, Miami and Latin America. (Del Río herself took a brief sojourn in Uruguay, but returned to Havana two years later to be closer to her ailing mother.) The petite artist, who wears her hair short and piled in reddish-brown curls, named her studio as a joking reference to black-market shopkeepers. Cuban officials originally frowned on it, she says, but eventually del Río learned to stop asking permission and to just push ahead.
Movie posters might strike some as a kitschy form of art, but they’ve been a big part of Cuba’s postrevolutionary art scene. Fidel Castro used cinema to promote revolutionary ideals; in turn, that sparked a wave of creative poster design. Cuban artists began producing what some considered the best posters in Latin America and the Caribbean. In Cuba, poster artists tended to work in a variety of styles rather than developing individual signatures, Susan Sontag wrote in an essay for a 1970 book of Cuban posters. That “stylish eclecticism,” she said, helped artists avoid standing out in an ostensibly classless revolutionary society.
Del Río’s own work exhibits that eclecticism in spades. She puts an innovative yet minimalist spin on everything from movie posters to T-shirts and pillowcase covers. Smith describes her work as “emotional” and “very alive,” filled with playful and quirky characters driven by some ineffable purpose. Del Río manages despite the difficulty of getting supplies — paper, ink and T-shirt material can be hard to lay hands on.
These days, Cuban design commands decent money. Five years ago, new posters by Cuban designers might have cost around $30, almost a month’s salary in Cuba, Smith estimates. More tourism, greater exposure and news that Cuban work was selling on eBay at big markups have since pushed prices as high as $200. Del Río’s works, like those of other poster artists, are limited editions, which helps justify higher prices. Their handmade look and design styles haven’t changed much in a half-century, giving Cuban poster art a unique appeal, says Dennis Ichiyama, a Purdue design professor who recently visited Havana.
That isolation sometimes weighs on del Río. Unreliable Internet access makes it difficult for her to get her designs out into the world, and her only telephone access is a landline shared with her next-door neighbor. She even designed a not-so-subtle poster about it, featuring a dinosaur eating a broadband Internet cable. But that’s about as close to political commentary as del Río allows herself to get. Openly dissident artists risk travel bans, detention and beatings by police.
Smith, who travels frequently to Havana for collaborative design projects and exhibitions, worries that Cuba’s commercial designers might face harder times as the country opens up. Many will be technological dinosaurs, unused to working with potential clients using modern Internet tools. More to the point, as Smith puts it delicately, “they’ve had limited exposure to the world of brands and corporate clients.”
At the moment, word about del Río’s design work is spreading fast by word-of-mouth. During the recent Havana Art Biennial celebration, a New York clothing designer stopped by her studio, having heard about her from a friend, to discuss possible collaboration on a streetwear collection. Visits like this will become even more commonplace as the U.S. eases restrictions on Cuba. “Everything is still in that mystic, dream-like state of first-time lovers,” says del Río. “But we need to overcome this stage of frenzy.”