Outsider Art: The day I negotiated the purchase of local artwork behind a telephone pole in Havana, Cuba

The day I negotiated the purchase of local artwork behind a telephone pole in Havana, Cuba

The humidity was creating a grand frizz on my head. I didn’t care however as I sauntered down the Paseo del Prado. How vibrant and eclectic and entirely intoxicating. Cuba was so present and alive yet so mired in its past.  Down this beautiful avenue that divides Old Havana and Central Havana are couples out on a walk, tourists taking it all in, and kids running up and down.  The avenue somewhat reminds me of Las Ramblas in Barcelona, but it is more humble and intoxicating. Don’t get me wrong Las Ramblas in Barcelona are just beautiful and filled to the max with places to just drink coffee and engage in people- watching.   Street performers are everywhere in Las Ramblas. My very first encounter with a mime was in Las Ramblas.  Ah, how marvelous are those moments of “firsts”.  However, Avenida del Prado in Havana is not necessarily meant for a tourist, such as I was, to sit and people watch.   That would be way too intrusive since many on the avenue were everyday people living their lives the best way they can.   To walk down the Avenida del Prado is to experience the moment and be alive and not just an observer.

Dilapidated buildings remain standing strong next to former palaces and current cultural centers.  As I strolled down the Avenida del Prado, I was taking in every moment as I knew that not many other Americans have been able to experience this. Not for the past five decades or so, anyway. And, not many would get this experience this sight.  Not yet, anyway.  I felt so alive that I felt that I was soaking in the environment through my skin.

As we strolled we reached an area where artists displayed their art pieces.   We got into an hour long conversation with several of the artists.  Two in particular were particularly memorable for me.

First, there was the sexologist. He had a PhD in psychology and we bounded over that. He asked me what I did as a psychologist in the United States. I explained that I was in Cuba trying to learn as much as I could about the healthcare system there as a structural level intervention. He cocked his head to the side and nodded to signal he understood what I saw saying. Which is great because I didn’t.  Then he said “tambien soy un sexologo.”  I am also a sexologist. Ok. My interest was piqued. I wondered what exactly he did. He never fully explained his profession to me. I do know that in the clinics in Cuba, there are medical teams that consist of the physician, a nurse, a technician and a psychologist.  Could he have been part of a “specialty” team? He told me that he just kept getting degrees as the education system permits that.  I asked him if his artwork was based in part on his work? As I asked that question, I looked more closely at his artwork. They were all a little bit disturbing in that they showcased the human spirit enveloped within a layer of evil and monstrosity. I liked them.  I bought one.  I bought another. He gave me his business card but I never heard back from him. I loved his artwork but apparently he only did art because he then got paid in the CUC (the tourist currency which is worth way more than the peso).   I loved his artwork. How could he not?  I purchased two prints. He informed me that the amount I just gave him for the artwork was how much he would make officially as a psychologist in a month. That was why he was now an artist. I now have his artwork in my living room with other pieces that remind me of the theater of the absurd which is about the belief that human existence has no meaning or purpose and therefore all communication breaks down.  Somehow, I think he would find that to be a fitting location and would be honored.

Second, there was the overly enthusiastic woman selling artwork that represented her lot in life as a woman.  She was very eager to get me to look at her pieces. They were a bit more on the realism side; while I prefer more abstract pieces.   However, I didn’t want to lead her on and not purchase anything.  I thus picked up a small print and asked her the price.  Her eyes darted about nervously and she turned her body around. She turned back to look at me and she said that she was not allowed to sell any of those pieces. She instructed me to purchase artwork at the galleries where they are officially for sale or at the market where I would get official receipts in triplicate. I frown and note my disappointment. Why one earth was she showcasing her stuff if she couldn’t sell it?  I took a deep breath for I reminded myself I was in a foreign land with a different government system.  I was thinking like a capitalist and I needed to step back.  I express my disappointment in not being able to buy it there and then but looked forward to the gallery purchases.  I started to walk away with my fellow Cuba traveler. As I walk about 50 feet, I feel a tap in my shoulder. It was a man. He told me to cross the street and bring 5 CUCs and hide behind the telephone pole next to the garbage can. Was I dreaming? Was this an espionage movie I suddenly found myself in?  I nodded my head to say I wasn’t going to do as he asked.  He then said in English “she will sell you her painting across the street.  Hurry.”  I turn to my friend and she laughed and encouraged me to go across the street and that she would act as a lookout.   I kept thinking, “well, when in Cuba…” Across the street I went with the money in hand and she handed me a paper bag ready to drop it in the garbage if anyone should notice.  I took it and ran with my skin prickling with excitement.   I got such an adrenaline rush from purchasing a $5 painting behind a telephone.

I went back to my hotel and buried my purchases deep within my carry-on bag.  I never did get the official receipts. I lucked out I suppose since I have heard of others having their purchased artwork confiscated at the airport. My lucking out was partly due to the fact that I travel with just one small carry-on bag usually and thus my bag was tightly packed with layers of clothes, artwork, and shoes.  I happily stare at those pieces reliving one of the best trips I have ever taken in my life.

7 replies »

  1. It is so bizarre, Cuba… My ex-husband is Cuban. We were in Havana once, visiting his family, and he wanted to buy his mom a mattress. We looked in the “malls” – one store had the frame of a bed on display but no mattresses. They suggested we check across town, so we did, and saw a mattress on display, but they had no mattresses for sale – only a single display item. (this is the CAPITAL CITY!!!)
    However outside, there were guys leaning against the walls who were calling out various merchandise items in low voices, including “colchones”. So we spoke to one of them, around the corner and in an alley. A deal was made – the brother of the guy worked in the factory where all the colchones seemed to be held for some reason, and could get us one still in its plastic and everything. All illegal, but the only way one could purchase a mattress.


  2. I have never been to Cuba but I have friends who went and said the country is amazing, the people are fantastic and in a way they really wondered what life was like in Havana in the 50s before Castro.


  3. What an amazing experience – it adds a really great story to go along with that little forbidden piece of art. 🙂 Well done!
    I really enjoyed Cuba as well when we went, but now I’m regretting not getting some art behind a telephone pole, or anything really. My favourite memory was running into a small cafe in Havana during a flash rain storm and having a fresh mojito at the bar. What a very cool place.
    I had to laugh at how you described the “grand fizz” on your head! haha – oh man, that describes what happens to me the moment I enter a touch of humidity. You worded the experience perfectly!


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