Artist José Parlá on the Havana Biennial and How Cuba is Changing
This is an exciting time for José Parlá. The Brooklyn-based artist known for his vibrant, abstract works inspired by the city recently unveiled a monumental mural in One World Trade Center, had a solo exhibition at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and is currently preparing for a show at both Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery and Mary Boone Gallery in Chelsea, set to open in September. And somehow the Miami-born Cuban-American had time to participate in the Havana Biennial. We caught up with him and got his take on it.
Is this your first time participating in the Havana Biennial?
No, it’s my second time. This year I was part of the project Detras del Muro (Behind the Wall) curated by a local man named Juan Delgado Calzadilla. He invited 40 artists to create installations on the Malécon and I installed four paintings that resemble fragments of walls representing four different cities.
I had participated in the Biennial originally in 2012 with my friend JR; we did a project called Wrinkles of the City in Havana. We released a small film on YouTube and did a documentary on the project, which was focused on photographing and interviewing 25 seniors in Havana. We didn’t stay within the confines of the city and went out to share the artwork with a larger population that doesn’t have access to the Biennial.
How did it feel to be involved?
Just creating work in Cuba is an astonishing thing for me because I’ve been going to Cuba to visit my family for 15 years. I grew up in Miami not being able to visit Cuba at all. To go to a place where my roots are from and my family is from, I understood the idiosyncrasy of what it means to be Cuban—a collage of the music, the words of the Cuban Spanish language, the jokes.
Walking that terrain, creating work in Cuba prior to the announcement by President Obama of these new relations, and then going back and working again has been a strong experience.
Being in Cuba now, you sense a lot of excitement from the visitors instead of from the Cuban people themselves. There’s skepticism in Cuban society that runs both between Cubans and Cuban-Americans. Everybody’s been wondering what’s going to happen for the last 57 years.
This year, artists from all over the world went in there with incredible energy. So that’s an interesting way to start a conversation. I’ve always said that art is a gentrifier. It changes demographics and geography.
What I felt has always been good about the Biennial is that it’s open to everybody. People are very aware of it and are looking forward to it because it’s a moment when Cuba feels more open and free about expression. A lot of artists take the opportunity to create work that has a message. The concept of the last biennial dealt with the space between ideas and creation. You can interpret that in so many different ways. The project I was involved in is completely public. Artists did installations all over the plazas and they closed the Malécon down for the main opening on Sunday. Everyone was mixing—people, artists, curators. I felt that was one big recent change.
It’s always been important to work with the public when it came to my art, even when it’s work in the studio or for my exhibitions. The work resembles a kind of message board because it’s loosely based on abstractions of walls and I always felt that walls are where the language of the people can be read.
And a lot of your work incorporates calligraphy and bits of posters or newspapers…
They’re mostly posters that I collect from travels around the world. It’s a way of documenting a place that’s outside of photography. I believe it carries that history. It’s part of the palette of the painting. You’re using that as a way of coloring into your abstraction. It could resemble photorealist photography of the place, so it’s both abstraction and photorealism.
Where would you recommend first-time visitors to Havana go?
I think in visiting every country, you must visit their biggest museum, so I recommend the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, which has an incredible collection of Cuban art that dates back to the colonial era all the way to contemporary art. People interested in Cuban history can learn through the art—it’s an interesting point of view. That’s one of my favorite places to go. There’s also the National Museum of Ceramics in Havana, which has an excellent collection.
What I would say to anybody visiting Havana is to get lost walking around in the streets because it’s a really safe and friendly place, so blend in with the people and ask them where to go. There are all kinds of restaurants hidden in people’s houses. There are paladares that are small and tiny and hidden, and then there are fancy and delicious ones.
What’s the art scene like there now?
There’s not much of a gallery scene there. It’s more about the artists themselves creating their scene. In Cuba, the artists create studios and educate children. A lot of times artists receive guests in their studios since there aren’t many galleries.
The Cuban art scene is not limited to Cuba itself—it’s made up of the diaspora. There are tons of people who have left and spread to Miami, London, Paris, Tokyo. I’ve seen some of the best Cuban art in other cities around the world because that’s where the diaspora has formed because of political exile.
One of my favorite artists is Yoan Capote, and he has an exhibition now in New York at Jack Shainman Gallery. At the same time, there’s the Cuban-American artist Teresita Fernández from Miami and she has a massive installation at Madison Square Park that just opened. So those two artists, who each have an extremely different style and circumstances, are great examples of figures in the Cuban art scene.
What was the biggest surprise of your trip?
Everyday there’s a whole big surprise, but my favorite part of the trip was with an artist friend named Duke Riley who produced a huge installation of an ice skating rink in Havana. There’s never been a skating rink in Havana. Kids were forming huge lines to see it. He had a bunch of ice skates that he got at an abandoned rink in Queens. One day he organized a hockey game between the Bronx Museum of the Arts and the Museo de Bellas Artes, and they had a lot of fun. Duke asked me to be the sports announcer on the microphone, so for me it was the most fun time of my life because I got to crack jokes in English and Spanish and make social commentary. It was really playful and really fun. I had the crowd in stitches!
Did you bring back any souvenirs?
I brought back a bottle of rum. There’s a really difficult-to-find rum in Cuba called Guayabita. It’s not very well known, but I like it because it’s got guava at the bottom of the bottle, so it’s pretty rare.
Do you have any regrets?
I wish I could have stayed longer. I was there for 10 days, but I felt like it flew by so fast and I wasn’t ready to leave. I wish it had been a longer trip, but I’ll always go back to Cuba.
What’s another art scene you’re excited about now?
Right now I travel so much. I’m always in London, and I go to Paris and Tokyo a lot, so I feel like my kind of art scene is the one in my head. It’s not local anymore. It’s global. Nothing is local anymore. Everything is all about these art fairs—they’re everywhere. So now everybody has become part of the New York scene or the London scene, or everybody’s in Cuba. Maybe that’s just me, that’s where I am.
I think that the way Brooklyn is right now it’s the center for contemporary art. You might go to a café and bump into artists you know. So for me right now it’s Brooklyn, where I’m based.