I came to Havana tired from having just painted a ten story high mural in Mexico City the week before, but was so excited to be there that I overcame the exhaustion and spent my first few days in the country going around with my camera and absorbing inspiration. I walked around the city taking photos, meeting people and doing little impromptu photo-shoots with a few intrigued Cuban models. As a U.S. citizen, I'm not really supposed to go to Cuba, much less paint a mural there, so this was a huge opportunity. This project was a collaboration for the 11th Havana Biennial between Primary Flight out of Miami, the Cisneros-Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO), and the UNEAC, (National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba). CIFO is a highly respected and influential institution, whose main participation in the Biennial was a huge exhibition of works from the Cisneros-Fontanals collection at the National Museum of Fine Arts, and this mural was their only other project for the Biennial. UNEAC, on the other hand, is essentially a cultural branch of the Cuban government, and for them to support a U.S. artist in painting a mural in Cuba is groundbreaking. There aren't many non-political murals at all in Cuba, and there's not that much graffiti either. Being a US citizen, and considering the ongoing history of strained relations between the two countries, and the fact that nobody had any idea what I would paint, and considering this was a highly visible wall facing Havana's "Avenue of the Presidents", I felt a lot of pressure. I almost always feel a sense of obligation when painting public murals to do something that can inspire people, maybe something that can uplift in some small way, but I felt that more than ever with this project. I ended up painting a figure based on photos I took of a local lady named Adis Naranjo, who works in the kitchen at the UNEAC offices. I wanted to paint someone that could personify the average Cuban, and Adis seemed perfect for this with her mix of African, Native and European ancestry. She is represented as powerful and hopeful, and the colors around her hands can suggest energy or creativity. The title of the mural is "El Corazón de un Sueño Palpita Entre Mis Manos", which is from a poem by the great Cuban poet Jose Ángel Buesa.
Throughout the week I was questioned many times by police who I was painting and why- what was I trying to say with this? I'm used to being asked that- I've been asked those same questions for almost every mural I've painted since the 90's- but there was more of an urgency behind the questions there. Everyone seemed curious, since this sort of thing isn't exactly common there. It was explained to me many times how difficult it is to get decent art materials in Cuba. As an example, because spraypaint and even latex paint are so limited and expensive, many local writers mix printer ink and gasoline to get a fluid black paint. I had a lot of interaction with locals, because the park facing this mural is notorious as one of the most popular places in Havana for young people to hang out. So many different kinds of people, of all ages came by at all hours. There was a large Capoeira group that practiced across from the wall a few evenings, while a few other nights brought roaming packs of excited young punk-rockers by the wall. Many of the people I got to talk to at length had never left the island, and internet access is still extremely limited for many Cubans. One younger guy was very moved by the piece, and told me very clearly that, even though he had never seen any of my previous work, because of the context of the mural he felt this was the best thing I had ever painted. I was honored to have such an amazing opportunity to create a public mural like this in Havana, and I'm optimistic that more artists, especially more artists from Cuba, will have similar opportunities there in the years to come.Many thanks to Primary Flight, CIFO and UNEAC for all making this possible, Kim, Books, Cristina & Dan for ground support, Adis for modeling and juice, and last but not least Marcos, Gabriel, Javier and all the other locals who helped out so much every day.