Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Art and literacy

What a fabulous day, filled with arts and letters--and it was Vicky's birthday! Here she is cutting her cake during lunch at the whimsical home and studio (in Jaimanita, just outside Havana) of famous ceramist and painter José Fuster. More on that later; now I want to tell you about higher education and our visit to the University of Habana, the first university in Cuba, established in 1728.

UH consists of 16 faculties, 14 research centers and 25 majors; it now has over 6,000 students. Traditionally, the university has bred political activism, but after Fulgencio Batista's coup d'état, it became the center of anti-government activities until he closed it in 1956. It reopened in 1959 after the revolution. This past February UH inaugurated the Nanotechnologies College of the University of Havana; it will be nicknamed “NanoUH.” Major aims include educating Cuban students, promoting advances in nanoscale science, and developing the nanotechnology industry in Cuba. Advances in nanotechnology can be applied in sectors such as healthcare, energy and the environment. (Picture of the 88 steps and entrance columns at UH by Vicky.) It struck me that architecturally, the UH looks a lot like Columbia University in New York (where I grew up): the massive columns and the Alma Mater, especially, remind me of CU. It turns out, we learned during the visit, that CU's Alma Mater (which sits at the steps of the Low Library) was the gift of Mrs. Robert Goelet and Robert Goelet Jr. and was presented in 1903. (Picture of CU's Alma Mater with a book on her lap from the web.) The bronze Alma Mater at UH was inspired by Columbia’s Alma Mater and was created in 1919 by Czech sculptor Mario Korbel while he lived in New York City. Notably, the facial features of UH's Alma Mater resemble a Cuban criolla, since it was sculpted to look like the daughter of a faculty member at UH at the time.

We met with UH's professor of History and Law Dr. Delio Carrera to explore university level pedagogy, and to tour the university grounds. I especially enjoyed seeing the Aula Magna, built in 1906. It's a ceremony room where, most recently, people such as Hugo Chavez, Pope John Paul II, and Jimmy Carter have been received. I like the ceilings; they are covered with seven splendid frescos painted by Armando Menocal y Menocal, one of them pictured here. We saw his art again at the Museum of Fine Arts and the Presidential Palace/Museum of the Revolution.

Menocal y Menocal was an eminent painter of landscapes, portraits and historical scenes. He was born in Cuba in (debatedly) 1861 and died in Cuba in 1942. He studied art for a time in Spain, and returned to Cuba to teach art, but in 1895 he interrupted his painting and teaching to join the Cuban War for Independence from Spain as an assistant to Máximo Gómez Báez. (I have to say: Máximo Gómez Báez was a Dominican who fought in support of the Spaniards during the Dominican Annexation War of 1861-1865. When the Spaniards lost the battle, he self-exiled to Cuba, where he lived for the next 40 years until his death, and there he took up the Cuban struggle for freedom; he's famed for having implemented war tactics such as macheting whole troops and torching sugar cane fields and plantations.)
After the visit to UH, we enjoyed a bus tour of modern Havana. we saw the Capitol building (a smaller replica of the Capitol building in Washington, DC), the Grand Theatre, Central Park, Prado Promenade, more of the Malecón seawall, Monument of the Battleship Maine, Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón (where Máximo Gómez Báez and other illustrious people are buried), Miramar, Central Havana, Revolution Square and the Jose Martí Memorial (pictured on the above).

Here I want to tell you just a little about José Martí. But for fun, check out the best known (some call it the Cuban national anthem) Cuban song, "Guantanamera," which has lyrics based on Martí's poetry (the video includes photos of him).

This video of Pete Seeger singing "Guantanamera" is interesting.

"Like bones to the human body, the axle to the wheel, the wing to the bird, and the air to the wing, so is liberty the essence of life. Whatever is done without it is imperfect." José Martí

José Martí is the national hero of Cuba but he's also very important in all of Latin American literature and politics. He was an impressively prolific poet, essayist, journalist, children's writer, philosopher, theorist, translator, professor, publisher and political activist who fought fiercely against Spain and the United States and for Cuban independence; he was instrumental in forming the Cuban Revolutionary Party. Martí was born in Cuba in 1853 and was killed in battle with the Spanish troops in 1895 in Cuba. He lived in Europe and the Americas (including New York), and traveled widely, always speaking and writing in support of Cuban independence. He abhorred slavery anywhere for any reason. The most salient issue for me, as an American visiting Cuba, is the very different perspectives Martí's life and work evoke: Fidel Castro's Marxist ideology upholds Martí as inspiration, whereas many who are anti-Castro uphold Martí as a nuanced proponent of democracy. One has to read his work carefully to determine which side he might have supported.
Then we visited the Museo de la Alfabetización/Museum of Literacy and met with its director, Susana Morejon, to review the 1961 literacy campaign in Cuba and how its practices are being employed in Latin America currently. The museum exhibits relics of the 1961 literacy campaign. This campaign brought tens of thousands of city youth into contact with the country people, breaking down racial barriers and instilling a spirit of national cohesion. I took way too many pictures of murals, books, posters and statues, but it was absolutely thrilling for me, as a literacy theorist, to visit the museum and see these artifacts first hand.
And... José Fuster's home, studio and art... I thought I'd walked into a slice of Antoni Gaudi's Barcelona! Derivative! Ha! That was my first reaction, but then I thought about the Cuban psychological tradition (dangerous territory to say that, I know) which, rather than focus on the individual, emphasizes family, community and the social environment, and Fuster's work made sense to me. His aim has been to involve an entire neighborhood in re-envisioning their role in the making of art, in collaborating, in beautifying their living spaces with whatever they can find in times of scarcity. The picture below is of one tile, made by someone in the neighborhood, among hundreds covering houses, fences, and any surface imaginable. ________________________________
We also visited the Museum of Fine Arts where we examined the evolution of Cuba's visual arts over the last 300 years. The museum's collection traces the richness of Cuba's Spanish, French, Chinese and African cultural roots. The day ended with a walk through the open-air handicraft market in Old Havana, and a stroll past the public art exhibit of reproductions from great works in the Louvre. Havana is filled with art!

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