Cuba: close yet exotic
As we wrote in a previous post, exotic is not a matter of how far products come from; it’s all about cultural significance, or how much items we buy represent a different culture, traditions and livelihood.
Cuba on that aspect lives up to reputation of being exotic. If combined African and Spanish influences had already made their culture interesting, the country’s recent history since 1959 made sure it retained this cachet of the 50’s that make Cuba doubly exotic. When one travels to Cuba, it’s this impression of a country frozen in the late fifties that strikes the most.
It’s about the world-renowned salsa, rumba, mambo and Afro-Cuban dances; it’s about the wealth of history and the iconic stand of its heroes, admired by some, despised by others. Even everyday livelihood or fashion, through the guayaveras and the paja toquilla sombreros, witness the cultural traditions of the country.
Of course we cannot ignore the quality rums, Havana Club and (the lesser known, but reputed better quality by locals) Santiago de Cuba; of course, the cigars, Cohiba particularly, which make a statement just by the fact of possessing them. Recently it surfaced that president Kennedy secured for himself 1200 Cuban cigars hours before enacting the embargo on Cuba in 1962…That’s how good Cuban cigars are!
One niche that Cuba was not previously known for though, is the arts and crafts industry. Blame it to its isolation, or the fact that until the nineties the country was not open to tourism, Cuban arts and crafts are yet to receive international recognition; but when walking the streets of places like Havana or Varadero, it’s a stumbling wealth of refined arts and crafts that strikes you, including paintings, sculptures, wood carvings, afro-cultural masks, jewellery and other handmade fashion accessories.
From our previous trip to this exotic place, this is what we discovered.
Cuban arts and crafts
When you combine the historical and cultural wealth of Cuba with the know-how of its artisans, you uncover wonderful works hardly accessible abroad.
It is not uncommon to pass a couple of art galleries when wandering in the Streets of Havana. Even though painting is not the main niche of production, there is a respectable production of drawings and oil paintings on canvas.
Inspirations may vary. From colourful landscapes and well-known local salsa players to icons of their revolution, Fidel and Che respectively. Cuba has followed the tradition of revolutionary art, or art related to social causes and hailing of its political revolution.
Cuban sculptures and woodcarvings
By far the most common crafts in the country. Woodwork is achieved by Cuban artisans in a surprisingly masterful fashion. Some artisans sell directly. Some others entrust distribution to relatives, who can sell them even on their porch, or in arts and crafts markets. Some of those local Cuban craft markets are well known.
Works vary in their inspiration, sizeable part of which is inspired from music instruments: Charanga guitars, violins, pianos etc. Inspiration is also cast from dance traditions, and very common are representations of couples dancing, smoking a tobacco pipe or any other inspiration. Cuban handcarved items also vary in quality: from low-end travel souvenirs for tourists, small handcarvings of colorful old-fashioned cars, wild animals, to high-end masterfully executed sculptures. You’ll find what you need without hurting the pocket. Prices vary from around 10 CUC (little more than 10 USD) to nearly a hundred CUC when sculptures are larger, more finished or made out of precious woods such as ebony or oak tree.
Faithful to their influential African origin, Cubans also produce varieties of masks. The most utilised technique is papier-mâché, or a composite of paper pulp and starch. Many masks represent carnival-esque motives, whereas most of them represent African traditions. Some masks are also carved in wood, which can be recognizable by their sensibly heavier weight.
Besides paintings, sculptures and masks, creativity explodes in many commercial creations: statement jewelleries, small cars made of wood and cans, T-shirts celebrating their political or musical icons, the very popular Cuban license plates, home and kitchen accessories such as ashtrays, wooden spoons and salad bowls etc.
Where to buy Cuban arts and crafts online?
Moon travel guide provides a valuable list of places in Havana where one can buy original Cuban handicrafts. However for those of us who would like to buy some of the exotic arts and crafts from the Caribbean island, resources are fairly scarce on the web. It’s comprehensible that with so many financial and technological limitations, accent has not been placed over time on projecting the enormous handicraft talent of Cuban artisans to international markets. We’re confident that with the recent openings, this situation will quickly change, and Cuban talent will receive its well-deserved accolades.
We found however a couple of places (including Latitudes!) where one can buy Cuban crafts online. Here they are:
Latitudes World Décor
Latitudes World Décor, as a company dedicated to sharing the beauty of the world from anywhere to everywhere, has also been in touch with Cuban artisans. Latitudes started offering Cuban arts and crafts online in 2016 on its website. The products consist mostly of high-end sculptures and statement jewelleries handmade by artisans using fish bones.
Latitudes is an ethical trading store, dedicating part of its proceeds to refinance artisans, not only in Cuba but in all the other countries from where its products are sourced, including Haiti, Senegal, Mexico etc. Latitudes webpage also offers biographies on the artisans and insights on the country of origin, delivering the client a more personable experience when buying international arts and crafts.
Mall Cubano is a website representing the SoyCubano society, itself a member of the Artex group. It was founded in 1989 and is one governmental agency responsible fro the promotion and marketing of Cuban products on international markets. Products listed are not limited to arts and crafts, but also include CDs, books, home accessories, etc, most of which are unique in the sense they are witnesses of the revolution and are hard to find elsewhere.
Fondo Cubano de bienes culturales (Cuban Fund for Cultural Heritage)
Unfortunately, the Fondo itself does not have a website, although information can be accessed through the website of Consejo Nacional de artes plasticas (CNAP).
Why would we doubt that? E-bay surprisingly offers a collection of mostly Cuban paintings most of which are sourced from Cuban artists in the US and abroad.
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