HAVANA TIMES — Turning a corner on the gallery’s ground floor – a place recalling a calcareous cavern – I am surprised by a work by Agustin Bejarano, the Cuban painter accused of pedophilia in the United States. It is a pleasant surprise. The exhibition of this massive, dark-brown painting may be telling us something about the artistic commitments of this, a one-of-a-kind establishment in Havana’s cultural milieu.
I arrived at the main entrance of the Fabrica de Arte Cubano (“Cuban Art Factory”) when the establishment had ceased being news and been in operation for about four months. A man over 6 feet tall addresses me. “Yes?” he asks me. Standing less than a foot from him, I really don’t feel like saying anything to him, because his question gives me the feeling one typically gets at State establishments: I feel like someone who is trespassing on someone else’s property.
This is how my interaction with this peculiar new space begins.
I finally realize the man’s tone has to do with the fact I haven’t yet paid him the 50 Cuban peso admission. Something, someone in my head tells me it should be free (“culture within everyone’s reach!”)
I get a card where everything I eat or drink will be jotted down. The back of the card shows a reproduction of the cover of our ration booklet. I can’t tell whether it’s an ironic reference or a homage. If I lose this card, I will have to pay 30 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). The management knows nothing of subsidies or freebies.
You can walk around the entire place in about 10 minutes. On the first floor (a combination of gallery, bar and concert theater), we come upon Warehouse 2, divided into a space for film screenings and another for photo exhibitions. From the balcony, one can look down on the immense concert area which has been used for gatherings such as the Peace & Love festival.
The Fabrica smells of sandalwood. Visitors approach a bundle of incense sticks that may be lit, free of charge. They light one up and pocket two, and I can’t help presage that this interactive performance will be short-lived.
It is not until 11 at night that young people begin to arrive in large crowds. They fork out the 2 CUC or 50 Cuban pesos indifferently and disperse across the labyrinth. I observe them as someone conducting an experiment on the cultural habits of a new social class. The place, according to declarations by X Alfonso (the renowned Cuban musician who owns the place), has prices “aimed at average-income people.”
The young members of Havana’s middle class are stunningly beautiful and refined: they smile, bombard the four bar people with orders, aim their smartphones at the artwork and fire away, sign their names on the bathroom walls with bright-red lipstick, flirt over the Wi-Fi connection and smile again.
It takes me a few minutes to overcome the disconcerting feeling awakened in me by so many new clothes, the makeup, the occasional phrase in French, the affected combing back of hair and the tattoos in the Maori style so much in vogue today. Belonging to a different class means running the risk of feeling old and out of place at 26.
The way in which the factory space has been restored is impressive. Black and white drapes delimit different spaces and the seats, with canvas sacks for cushions, recall rustic, industrial platforms. I sit down and enjoy the theater, dance, design and music on the program.
The establishment is open well into the early morning. The FAC tries to rescue the myth of a sleepless Havana that, outside of tourist circles, has long been going to bed at 10 at night.
Another positive aspect of the space is that it promotes and sells the works of artists who have not necessarily been legitimated by the island’s official art institutions. As though that weren’t enough, the Fabrica also organizes cultural and charity activities for neighborhood kids.
The Factory, another expression of the country’s changing mentality, has an indisputable merit in these times of transition: it is the first cultural center designed for the youth of Cuba’s emerging middle class, which does not content itself with drinking beer and going to salsa concerts.
It skirts the disillusionment of this nascent sector and affords it a place for a special kind of consumption – one that, rather than vulgar, is exclusive… “poetic”, one might say.
I leave the Fabrica planning not to return and sensing that I inevitably will.