Havana’s factory of cool – The Cuban Art Factory

Academy Travel tour leader Stephen Wilkinson visits an art gallery with a difference…

The taxi trundles down a potholed street in a dimly lit industrial area of the Havana suburb of Vedado. In the distance, a factory chimney looms into view, illuminated by an electric blue search light. We can make out the letters F.A.C. painted vertically down its side. “That’s it,” I say excitedly, “That’s the Fabrica de Arte Cubano.” The Cuban Art Factory – Havana’s factory of cool.

It’s 8pm on a Saturday night and I join a queue of hundreds of smartly-dressed young Cubans, all eagerly awaiting entry into an old peanut factory that has become the most exciting nocturnal happening in Cuba’s vibrant capital. For this is no ordinary nightclub, nor is it merely an art gallery – it’s both and a great deal more.

The Fabrica de Arte Cubano is the kind of place that can only really happen in Cuba. Sure, there are other ‘repurposing’ projects elsewhere, and this ‘art factory’ is actually inspired by some of the loft and warehouse developments of New York’s SoHo district or the Docklands area of East London. But what makes this place different is its ambitious scope, accessible pricing, social purpose and community base.

It is a hybrid project that defies categorisation; part business, part community project, part art gallery, part nightclub, part theatre and part cinema. This project is the sum of all these parts and much else besides.

Unlike a normal art gallery, the CAF only opens to the public at night – from 8.30pm to 3.30am. It has two bars, serving Cuban cocktails, and a program of events that are there to surprise and delight as well as inform and educate.

For a door charge of US$2, the visitor gains entry to a labyrinth of artistic creation. You literally walk through a procession of rooms in which all the creative art forms are represented: fashion design, architecture, classical music, painting, sculpture, photography, dance, classical music and modern music, such as hip hop and garage house, are all available in this remodelled old factory.

The building is therefore a magical maze in which the visitor moves from one space to another in a surreal journey through Cuba’s vibrant contemporary creative scene. As one Trip Advisor reviewer put it: “This must be the hippest place I have ever been.”

The brainchild of Cuban hip hop star X Alfonso (pronounced EKIS Alfonso), the Cuban Art Factory has been going now for two years and has defied its critics by not only surviving but prospering, through its own keen marketing savvy and adherence to a number of basic principles that reflect Cuba’s unique approach to business.

After making a lot of money on the Hip Hop circuit, Alfonso wanted to put something back into his community and approached the Ministry of Culture with his idea of using an old factory, to create a new ‘industry’ that uses one of the things that Cuba produces best: human capital in the form of great artists. It is neither a private business nor a state-run facility but classified as a “community project,” allowing him and his group to occupy a government-owned property but operate it with a relatively broad degree of independence.

So the Cuban Art Factory was born. Using his own money and by pooling the resources of the artists that form the project board, the building has been gradually developed through the reinvestment of the profits into the renovation and adaptation of the space for bigger and more ambitious uses.

As the resident architect Ernesto Jimenéz told me, the idea is to make available the latest art to the widest community possible. Although the entry fee is expensive for the poorest Cubans, it is manageable for many and the Fabrica is overwhelmed with people wishing to enter when it opens its doors. “Our only problem is the fact that we can only have 600 people in here at a time for safety reasons,” he says.” There is always a queue of people still waiting to get in when the doors close at 3.30am!”

I am intrigued to know how the place operates. Is it a business or is it a community project? “It is both and neither at the same time,” says Ernesto. “It is a collective of artists and we meet on a democratic basis and make decisions together. We share in the profits and pay a contribution in commission if we sell a piece of art, for example. It works. So far we have not shared any profits because we have put everything back into renovating the building.”

There is a lot to do. I can see that the roof needs repair and there is still electricity cabling to tidy up. “It is a work in progress but look we have been so successful that we have already exceeded our capacity.” Ernesto points to a number of shipping containers stacked in the yard. “Look, we had to bring in these containers to provide offices since we have used the whole area of the factory as show spaces.”

And it is quite a show. The program changes every three months. After a three month ‘season’, the factory closes for a month while the exhibits are changed and a new series of events are arranged, and then it reopens for another three-months.

Part of its appeal is its iconoclasm. The freedom that the project has to display works of art or allow space for outspoken works of theatre that are, shall we say, transgressive of the island’s socialist othodoxy, has raised eyebrows among Cuba’s more conservative elite. But what is poison to some is meat for others, especially Havana’s aspiring new wealthy avante garde, who flock to the often bitingly satirical exhibitions.

It’s a fine balancing act and one that reflects a changing Cuba.

“We have been both criticised as appearing too much like a capitalistic enterprise and celebrated as an example of what is now possible in today’s Cuba, “ says Ernesto. “Some say Ekis is a government stooge and that we are providing some kind of glitzy showcase for the regime, while others see him as a dangerous element, who provides a space for subversion. The truth is that we are neither of those things!”

On my visit, I was struck by the contradiction. Both views are possible and that is because the place is impressive. The art is astonishing, the ambience electrifying and the experience most unusual.

Of course I was not the only foreigner soaking up the chic ambience. Inevitably, I met a number of Americans enjoying the relaxation of the travel restrictions ushered in by President Obama. I asked one of them what they thought. Stan, a New York lawyer was incredulous: “This place is sooooo cool! I mean where else can you get a contemporary art show, a ballet performance, a photo exhibition and a hip hop disco for two bucks? How do they do it?”

It’s the sort of question that is often heard in Cuba, about a lot of things. They do things differently here, that’s for sure. At CAF even the way you pay is different. Instead of buying drinks at the bar, everyone gets a card, which is stamped for each drink or snack purchased. When you leave you, hand your card over at the exit, your stamps are tallied up and you pay your tab at the door. However, if you lose your card, there’s a US$30 fine.

On a visit to Havana, it’s a must for any itinerary. They even have a state of the art website that you cannot miss – www.fac.cu

Fabrica de Arte is located on the corner of 11th and 26th streets in Vedado, near the Puente de Hierro – Iron Bridge. Admission is US$2 night-club open from 8.30pm to 3.30am every night.

Dr Stephen Wilkinson

Dr Stephen Wilkinson

Dr Stephen Wilkinson is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Buckingham. Stephen first visited Cuba in 1986 and has been travelling to and writing about the island ever since. Now the Chairman of the International Institute for the Study of Cuba, based in the UK, Stephen has a PhD on the subject of Cuban literature. He has written numerous articles on diverse questions such as the history of European and US – Cuba relations, Cuban attitudes and policy towards homosexuals, Cuban art and the nature of the Cuban state. Stephen’s book, 'Detective Fiction in Cuban Society and Culture', was published in 2006 by Peter Lang.

Upcoming tours led by Dr Stephen Wilkinson

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