The Hot Art of Havana

Cuban art is taking the collecting world by storm and creating a virtual buying frenzy
| By Gordon Mott | From Welcome to Cuba, May/June 2015
The Hot Art of Havana

The late afternoon light was fading, turning the tiny stairwell into a dim climbing adventure toward the apartment of Mabel Poblet Pujol, a young female Cuban artist. Even though she knew guests were arriving, the doorbell had gone unanswered three times until a quick phone call—‘‘we're downstairs"—triggered the entry buzz. After the slightly dicey climb on the decrepit staircase, the door opened into a room full of people.

Inside the humble studio/gallery/office, all rolled into one room, a group from New York was seated on every available chair as well as shoulder to shoulder on the couch. The men and women watched fixated as Poblet, 28, ran through images of her work on a 60-inch flat-screen TV.

"Is that for sale?" one woman with a Prada bag on her lap asked as an image flashed on the screen. She was quickly informed that nothing they were seeing was for sale that day, but were examples of the young artist's work, which spans everything from bicycle wheels with flower motifs to elaborate mosaics using hundreds of small images.

Scenes like the one in Poblet's apartment are being repeated daily all over Havana, and throughout Cuba, as foreign art collectors flock to the country in hopes of finding bargains, looking to fill gaps in their otherwise comprehensive collections or just looking to lay the groundwork for a personal gallery of Cuban art. In New York and in Miami, gallery owners are seeing interest and prices explode as they try to keep up with what has become one of the hottest categories in the modern art world today: Cuba.

"Last year I'm guessing more than 100 museums and curators brought trustees to Havana to look at Cuban art," says Alberto Magnan, an owner of the Magnan Metz Gallery in New York's Chelsea area. "Right now, I'm taking people there almost every week because they want me to advise them on what artists to buy. They are not just your normal collector, but the high, high-end collector, wanting to know how they can enhance their collections. They are saying they are missing Cuban art, and they want to be sure they have it."

Nance Frank, the director of the Gallery on Greene in Key West, Florida, also says, "I'm taking groups down every month, and during the Biennial, I'll be there every week to see artists, some who are difficult to get into their studios. I want to be careful because I don't want the artists to be inundated with visitors."

The 12th annual Havana Art Biennial, which actually takes place every three years, is establishing another broad barometer of interest in Cuban art. The month long event—May 22 to June 22—will bring the city's tourist industry almost to its knees this time around. In February, hotel rooms were already scarce for the event. The art fair is organized by the curators of the Wifredo Lam Center of Contemporary Art in Havana and will be held at venues all over the city. Artists from 45 nations will participate, with 25 Cubans selected for the official exhibits. But official status or not, every artist in Havana will be showcasing their work in their own galleries, studios or homes.

Don't jump to the conclusion that all this current interest suggests it is the first time in history that Cuban art and artists have garnered worldwide attention. Wifredo Lam, who died in 1982, is a regularly featured artist in Sotheby's and Christie's Latin American art auctions and has several works, including The Jungle, in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His art education included a stint in Madrid, where he worked with Salvador Dalí. He is often dubbed the Cuban Picasso, and his seminal blend of Cubist and Surrealist techniques with Afro-Cuban themes is considered hugely influential on a whole generation of Cuban artists. Picasso was a big supporter of Lam's in Paris in the late 30s, introducing him to Fernand Léger, Henri Mattise and Juan Miró. One of Lam's paintings, Idolo, brought a bid of more than $4.5 million in 2012. Most Latin art auctions have multiple examples of his work, which have sold for $200,000 to $500,000, and even more.

The work of Cundo Bermúdez, who died in 2008, has brought prices of more than $200,000. Tres Músicos, for example, produced a winning bid of $245,000 in May 2014. Mario Carreño, who died in 1999, is another artist who is frequently sold in Latin American art auction catalogs. In that same May 2014 auction his Retrato de María Luisa Gomez-Mena was bought for $401,000. Carlos Enríquez's El Hurón Azul, fetched $353,000 at a Christie's auction last fall.

In a quick survey of the Sotheby's and Christie's auctions that included Latin American artists, it would be a fair, finger-in-the wind assessment to say that prices for these historically prominent Cuban artists are rising quickly, if not always as dramatically as for some of Lam's works.

A generation of living artists also bridges the time before and after the Cuban Revolution, led by Fidel Castro in 1959. Some of the well-known artists remained in Cuba. Others left over the years, but their art remains heavily influenced by their Cuban roots. And, they regularly appear in most Latin art auctions.

One of the most prominent is Manuel Mendive. One sale of Sijú platanero had a hammer price of over $40,000, and his works have regularly sold for up to $20,000. Mendive is considered among the island's greatest living artists. Other prominent names include José Bedia, Carlos Garaicoa, Kcho and Tomás Sánchez, who recently saw several of his landscape paintings sell for more than $600,000. Two artist collectives are auction regulars. Los Carpinteros, a group prominent since the 1990s, recently garnered a sculpture sale at $80,000, although most of its prices have been $20,000 to $40,000. The Merger, made up of younger artists, was selling in the $20,000 to $30,000 range, but has been inching closer to $40,000, with one sculpture, Sex Machine, exceeding $100,000 in 2013.

"But it is hard to find a lot of history about the younger, lesser-known Cuban artists," says Magnan. "They just don't have auction results." At least not in the big houses like Sotheby's, Christie's and Bonham's.

The list of those lesser-known but promising artists is growing every year. Names like Glenda León, Carlos Quintana, Sandra Ramos, René Francisco Rodríguez, Abel Barroso, René Peña, a trio of artists in a new collective (Frank Mujica, Adrián Fernández and Alex Hernández), Jorge Otero, Michel "El Pollo" Pérez and Alejandro Campins are among artists that gallery owners and curators are seeking for their collections.

Alejandre Arrechea is an exemplar of how an artist begins to break out of the pack. In 2013, his large modernist sculptures, odd, twisted shapes of landmark Manhattan buildings, won wide praise through his No Limits exhibition, which showed on the median strip of New York's Park Avenue and around the city's parks. Today, the former member of Los Carpinteros is among the hottest individual names in the Cuban art world.

Jonathan Blue, a collector from Louisville, Kentucky, remembers seeing the Arrechea exhibit. He speaks of it as life changing: "Anybody who had any kind of New York knowledge could recognize how [Arrechea] re-engineered the way to view it. He married the contemporary with the Cuban way, and I fell in love with Cuban art." Since then, Blue, who was in Cuba in February, has been coming to the country to check out the local art scene, along with one of his friends, Robert Penta.

"To come here and get experience with the artists, to meet them in their studios," says Penta, a lawyer in Kentucky, "that's not something you get to do with New York artists. At least not ones you collect at that level. Very different than anything that I'm used to."

While Sachie Hernández, a Cuban-born, Havana-based art expert and historian, also guides visitors and collectors around the current art scene in Cuba, she insists no one should look at modern Cuban art in isolation. She explains that since the 1800s there has been a vibrant Cuban art tradition. In those early years, Cuban artists copied European-school styles, she says, but by the end of the nineteenth century, they begin to delve into the realities of Cuba, depicting the Afro-Cuban imagery and themes that prevailed in the country's daily life.

With Lam's move to Europe during the Cubist and Surrealist period in the early twentieth century, his work began to have a deep influence on other Cuban artists. Upon his return to Cuba in 1941, he incorporated all his Cubist-Surrealist study into his art. The period between the wars, and right after World War II, was a time of real creativity in Cuba's art world, and many of the top names in today's auctions—Lam, Bermúdez, Carreno—came out of that period. In the postwar period, Cuban artists were also influenced by Jackson Pollock and abstract expressionism, and, says Hernández, "it was not done better anywhere else in the world." The artists were known as the Grupo de los Once (the Group of Eleven).

The Cuban revolution, according to Hernández, changed everything. At first, artists were engaged in trying to promote revolutionary ideals. Artists, like the Grupo de los Once, were actually considered subversives, according to Hernández, because their art wasn't dealing with social issues. Very quickly after the revolution, a debate began that would last for years over the rights of artists to express themselves without political interference. During the First Communist Party Congress in 1975, Hernández says, there were some sad antireligious and antigay paragraphs in the final document, which were antithetical to the artistic community and represented a low point in artistic freedom.

The attempts at censorship of art, says Hernández, deepened the internal debate that eventually led to more artistic freedom, and, in her words, forced government acknowledgement of its mistakes in trying to suppress artistic expression. After that, Hernández says, a lot of art from the late 1980s and into the 1990s was focused on imagery and themes that were actually critical of the Cuban revolution. There was even a movement known as the 90s whose primary material used symbols that could be interpreted as very anti-Revolution.

Many of those artists, such names as Bedia and Sanchez, are today touted as among Cuba's best living artists. During that period, artists were among the first groups in Cuba to be allowed to travel in and out of the country, and to earn money from their works. The government, for its part, made a huge investment in art schools, educating all children about the arts, a program, Hernández says, that led to an entire generation of well-educated, extremely skilled artists from all parts of Cuba that is bearing fruits in fantastic art today.

But as Cuba opens up, and a younger generation is less influenced by the heavy political propaganda of previous generations, political themes are beginning to disappear. "The artists just want to talk about their art today," says Frank. "Not politics." And, Magnan adds, that Cuban artists are realizing they don't need conceptual political undertones "to be Cuba changes, so do the aritsts. Political imagery is already less important."


There is still a fundamental reality to being an artist in Cuba. Thanks to public assistance for things like food, health care and education, and the fact that artists can earn money directly from their sales, they can be full-time artists.

"Cuban artists are not like artists anywhere else," says Magnan. "When an artist moves to New York, they can't afford to be full-time artists, because the rents of studios are high, the rents of their apartments are high. Cuban artists are smart about how they work. They can sell enough to work full-time and travel abroad. The sale of one or two [pieces] can support them very well for a year."

For American buyers, those sales can be fraught with peril because the rules and regulations surrounding the purchases are not very clearly defined. A source familiar with the Office of Foreign Assets Control and its Cuban Assets Control Regulations who asked not to be identified says that on one hand, the regulations say cultural materials are exempt from any import restrictions. But the source adds, the "interpretation and enforcement of the laws is very, very vague, so I can't tell you, here's the way you do's a little bit of a black box right now."

Even the amount of money you can spend on Cuban art is apparently up in the air. One regulation says that there are no limits on purchase prices of any informational material, a category that includes fine art. But another section of the regulations say that the most you can spend on art is $10,000—a common limit on how much cash you can carry across most international borders. "You just don't know until some case law comes out to flesh out what's going on," says the source.

Some activities in the information and informational material territory are still prohibited. You cannot consign an artistic work with a Cuban artist; it has to be an existing and original piece of art, which would seem to put prints in question. Nor can you deal with any person or entity that is part of the Cuban government; any deal must be with people who are independent of the government, and an official document identifying that person as an independent entrepreneur is required.

For non-Americans, the process is a little different. You can enter an artist's studio and pay a Cuban artist directly. Then, you must head to the National Patrimony office with the artwork, present it for examination, pay a fee, and, if you're lucky, by the end of the same day, receive a document that states the art is not a piece of national patrimony. Then you may leave the country with it. Generally, you will be allowed to leave with work of a living artist. But if the piece is by a famous, deceased artist, say Wifredo Lam, you must prove its provenance, i.e., that's it is not stolen. In that case, it may take months to get approval. In practice, most foreigners do what American buyers do; they rely on a gallery owner to buy the art (a European can pay the gallery owner with a credit card). Then the artist and the gallery owner do all the Cuban paperwork and ship the art to the buyer's home country.

Americans are basically restricted to using gallery owners, otherwise, they may run afoul of U.S. laws. The gallery owners should be licensed to travel to Cuba. Those who are may legally be allowed to import artworks back to the United States. The American collectors, like their European counterparts, pay the gallery owners, who, in turn, work out the methods by which they will pay the Cuban artist. If you are an individual traveling on an officially approved license, the lawyer says, you might be able to bring back a piece of art without regard to its cost. But the dollar limit of the purchase is still a problematic issue. Furthermore, you may be asked to prove that your itinerary in Cuba was what you say it was—i.e., if you stray from your officially licensed trip you could be subject to sanctions. The safest way to acquire a piece of Cuban art is to go to Cuba on an officially licensed tour with a licensed operator, who in turn, will oversee all the Cuban paperwork and the shipping to import the artwork into the United States. In that scheme, no money changes hands in Cuba, which reduces the chance of you being caught up by the U.S. government in some Kafkaesque trap.

"Nothing is clear," says the source, "and Customs has a lot of discretion to make a mess out of a year or so, it may be great. But for now, it's not as simple as it seems."

None of the uncertainty is deterring American collectors. Both Magnan and Frank are fully engaged with upcoming trips, and people-to-people tour operators, such as Insight Cuba, have fully booked their programs for the Havana Biennial. While there are some official state-run galleries, these are the operators who tend to have direct access to the best artists. A few artists have well-known public exhibition spaces. One such is Nelson Dominguez, who sells his canvases for more than $200,000 from his space just off the Plaza San Francisco. But in general, it is not easy to find artists, as they usually work out of their homes. Getting inside their studios takes an introduction, and that's where the American gallery owners, tour operators or local guides are essential. In fact, more and more, the artists are using these outsiders as filters to make sure only serious collectors make it in front of them.

No visitor can escape the palpable excitement in the Cuban artistic community. Three young artists—Frank Mujica, Adrián Fernández and Alex Hernández—have set up a communal studio and gallery in a house on a broad avenue in Havana, a kind of four-lane street dividing two city neighborhoods. The signs of decay so prevalent throughout the city are absent inside the gates of the house. The building is whitewashed and protected by a modern alarm system box on the door, and inside the marble floors gleam below the large works of each artist hanging on the walls.

Fernández and Hernández are waiting to greet a visitor, something that they say they do all the time. They acknowledge that it takes time away from their work, which is after all how they have art to show in the first place.

"It's hard because we operate mostly by word of mouth. But this is our principal platform," says Alex Hernández. "It is the way you have to do art now. You can't just sit locked up in a room. We have to be cultivating relationships. And, this way, we get to know our clients one on one."

During a quick viewing of the art in the studio, including Fernandez's stunning photographs of dancers from the famous Tropicana nightclub, he discusses how they work. "We just feel that we can do more together than we could have ever done alone," says Fernández.

It is a conversation that the licensed operators say happens all the time—the one-on-one, up-close-and-personal contact with the artist. As the collector Penta said, it is what draws him to keep returning and purchasing. "When you hear an artist tell the story about the art, it captures you," says Penta. Adds Blue, "We don't want to lose that intimacy—the ability to go to a studio and interact with an artist. The artist knows your first name. They tease you about the negotiation process. You don't get to ask a Damien Hirst why did you do that and what were you thinking. You can ask that here, and they are proud to discuss it."

"What I love about Cuban art is it is so sophisticated and so thoughtful," says Nance Frank, the Key West gallery director. "The artists have something to say, and they are saying it. They have lived through difficult times, and it comes through in their work. They want to talk about what it means.

These cross-cultural visits may also be an important impetus in the eventual opening of the doors between the United States and Cuba.

"Art changes politics," says Magnan. "The more art, the more projects we do between Cubans and Cubans living outside Cuba and between Cubans and Americans, the closer we are to ending the embargo."

More in Cuba

See all
A Regional Edition, 109-Style Quai D’Orsay Just For Switzerland

A Regional Edition, 109-Style Quai D’Orsay Just For Switzerland

Though a few years behind schedule, the Quai d’Orsay Sélection Royale is finally being released next …

Mar 21, 2023
More Cuban Cigars Coming From Habanos S.A.

More Cuban Cigars Coming From Habanos S.A.

In addition to the major releases announced by Cuba’s cigar industry during the Habanos festival, …

Mar 17, 2023
Habanos Festival Concludes With $4.4 Million Cohiba Humidor

Habanos Festival Concludes With $4.4 Million Cohiba Humidor

Last week, previous records were shattered when a Cohiba humidor sold at auction for 4.2 million …

Mar 8, 2023
Western Union Reopens Remittance Services To Cuba

Western Union Reopens Remittance Services To Cuba

Western Union, one of the leading international money transfer companies, has fully restored its …

Mar 7, 2023
A New Bolivar Made Exclusively For Casa Del Habano Shops

A New Bolivar Made Exclusively For Casa Del Habano Shops

The Cuban Bolivar Gold Medal is back, but this time it’s a little thicker and a little snazzier than …

Mar 3, 2023
Cuba Introduces Partagás Línea Maestra

Cuba Introduces Partagás Línea Maestra

As Cohiba has the Behike line and Romeo y Julieta has the Línea de Oro, Partagás now has the Línea …

Mar 2, 2023