First thoughts on Havana
Imagine taking the wonderful, captivating, exciting architecture of Fortnum and masons’ in London’s Mayfair, emptying it out, then leaving it to rot for 30 years and finally moving a pound shop in. That’s what almost the whole of Havana is like.
I admittedly this introduction reads as a disaster but there is something about this broken city that makes you fall in love with it.
I decided I wanted to paint the average street in Havana. Just a normal community away from any tourist areas. In Western European cities your community does not live on your street it lives on your phone. Your street is the place where you sleep and hide from your community.
In Cuba most people do not have mobile phones and certainly no computers with the internet to be swallowed up by. That in combination with the tropical climate means a greater part of a Cubans day is spent on the street in front of their homes chatting and gossiping with the neighbours.
So when I sat up against a corrugated iron wall, pulled out by drawing board and began my picture I was noticed immediately. I was being studied with quiet long looks from doorways, the street and the balconies above. The whole street was looking at me. I confess I felt a slight renewing of the tension I experienced when I first arrived in Havana. I decided I would carry on and if they didn’t want me there I would just quietly retreat.
No matter where you paint in the world you are always approached first by the very old and the very young. After a few minutes an elderly man came out of his house and told me he liked my picture and he used to be an illustrator prior to his retirement. Another elderly man ran out of his house, handed me a photograph of a painting he did and before I had a chance to say thank you promptly ran back into his house again. I saw him a few minutes later peering at me over his balcony. I waved and said thanks. He smiled.
The children came next. You can tell the state of a community by the state of its children and these were spotlessly clean, well fed and stoically polite. There were three children initially and this later increased to ten. They organised themselves around so each had a decent view of the proceedings. Small at the front, large at the back. They would watch for half an hour or so, disappear for an hour to play and reappear later to see how things were going. Over the day I also chatted to many of the residents and I was made to feel very welcome and was even invited to a party. The parents liked me especially as I baby sat their kids all day!
Prior to visiting Cuba I was told that pre-Castro 1950’s American cars were still being used on a regular basis. I assumed these would be just a few tourist catching oddities as is the old Routemaster red bus is in London. Driven only for weddings and other special occasions.
On arrival however I could not have been more wrong. At least 20% of the traffic in Havana are these wonderful gas guzzling remnants of a bygone age.
Some are gleaming although most are battered, rumbling, consumptive old wrecks which evoke the long lost names of Mercury, Studebaker, Buick and Plymouth. Despite their state the owners clearly take pride in these vehicles and you can’t help wanting to cheer and clap when one of these heaps manages to stumble away from a traffic light for what must be near on the millionth time.
When they are not being driven they are being tinkered with and repaired. No surprises there as the whole of Cuba is in a permanent state of (dis)repair.
For a communist country there certainly is a fair bit of free enterprise or be it on a small scale. Older Cubans tend to scratch a living either selling fruit, and cigars or occasionally posing for photographs for passing tourists.
Old men and young girls
Castro has long outlived his contemporaries. Kennedy, kruschev and all the rest are ancient history and this last cold war dinosaur can’t have long.
Cuba is literally one of the last islands of world communism and the tide is coming in all around. Change is surely coming and it is by no means certain how it will all pan out. It is a beautiful and fragile place and I hope whatever changes do occur then that very special thing that is ‘Cuban’ will still remain.