Our recent chat with curator Cristina Vives about the increased international interest in Belkis Ayón reminded us of the important role that printmaking has played in contemporary Cuban art since the 1980s. We asked Steven Daiber—director of the US-based print organization Red Trillium Press and a longtime friend of the Cuban printmaking community—for a report on his most recent trip to the island. His article reflects on the current state of printmaking in Cuba as a form of artistic expression, as well as the history of some well-known printmaking studios and artists’ print collectives.
The conditions are good for printmaking in Cuba, says Anyelmaidelin Calzadilla Fernández, director of printmaking at the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes San Alejandro, the acclaimed art school that recently celebrated its 200th anniversary.
“My main concern,” Calzadilla Fernández said, “is that the younger generation of engraving graduates are not interested in teaching classes, and that we do not have digital media capabilities, which are the modern means of printmaking.”
Many of the current generation express a similar concern that the younger generation of artists is not enamored with printmaking as an honored art form. Instead, they say, the younger generation is influenced by digital media and the lure of traveling off the island for success, gravitating to other visual art forms that offer greater opportunities (and money).
Even so, there is an active printmaking scene in Havana. The Taller Experimental de Gráfica de La Habana, the most well-known Cuban print shop internationally, is on Callejón del Chorro in the Plaza de la Catedral. It was one of the first buildings to be restored in the 1980s, under the guidance of Dr. Eusebio Leal, when Havana became a UNESCO World Heritage city.
Yamilys Brito is the first woman director in the workshop’s 57-year history. Under her leadership, over the past two years there has been an effort to repair and improve the structure of the workshop. Walls and ceilings have been redone, along with new lighting and wall design in the gallery.
I was fortunate to visit Havana this past spring, while a number of the XIII Habana Biennial exhibitions were still on view. At the Taller de Gráfica, the group show El taller de grabado y su circunstancia (The Engraving Workshop and its Circumstance) reflected the impact of the US embargo and the Trump Administration’s Cuba policy on the printmaking community, including acute shortages of materials.
There were two common refrains in my first week in Havana: “There is no chicken in the markets,” followed by “There is no paper available for printing.” The chicken did return to the stores by the end of the week, but no paper or inks.
Cuban artists rely on travel opportunities to supply their printmaking needs, returning from abroad with paper and inks. Or foreign friends might bring an occasional tin of ink or a few sheets of paper. With the Trump Administration’s new regulations, those options are becoming rarer. But one strength of Cuban art is its standing up to adversity with humor and resolve.
In his exhibition essay, critic and curator David Mateo underscored the Taller de Gráfica’s longstanding strengths: “the sense of belonging, the intellectual and cultural commitment which has allowed the Taller to overcome deep pitfalls, to stay afloat and excel in times of storms, deprivation, or absolute pragmatism.”
Not surprisingly, the printing presses are from a different era, well used and repaired often. With its gently arching press bed, my favorite etching press at the Taller de Gráfica reminds me of the waves along the Malecón—difficult to print with, but a stoic machine. When traditional printmaking inks are not available, fast-drying offset inks find their way into the printer’s palette and are adapted to intaglio, woodcut, and lithography. In 2006 I personally printed a series of silkscreen prints using blue offset ink. It took over a year for the offgassing solvents to finally leave the prints, but I had the most beautiful transparent images.
In the history of printmaking in Havana, we cannot ignore the importance of the Taller de Serigrafía René Portocarrero on Calle Cuba. Perhaps less known to the visiting tourist community, Portocarrero was founded in 1982 as the premier silkscreen print shop of Havana. It has four active silkscreen presses, a screen wash room with a vacuum press for photo lithos, and two galleries for exhibitions. Because silkscreen lends itself to commercial applications, the artists working at the Taller Portocarrero often complete government commissions as well as creating editioned prints for artists.
Sharing the space is an active letter-press operation with platen presses, a linotype machine, and a monster of a paper guillotine with a nearby set of barbells. (You need muscles to prepare the fly wheel on the guillotine, as the motor in broken). There is nothing more beautiful than watching the blade trim a stack of paper when you have powered the machine yourself.
Across Havana, there are also a number of private print workshops run by individual artists. Perhaps the best equipped is the Taller de Gráfica Contemporánea de Nelson Domínguez. Located across Havana Harbor in Villa Panamericana, La Habana del Este, it offers various opportunities for artists to work.
Potential print collectors can find art on display and artists working in both of the state-owned workshops, the Taller de Serigrafía René Portocarrero and Taller Experimental de Gráfica de la Habana. The Taller Portocarrero sales gallery offers a varied collection of well-established artists, and the exhibition gallery presents contemporary work by younger and emerging artists. In addition to organized exhibitions at the Taller Experimental de Gráfica, artists present their work within the workshop proper.
There are also a number of galleries in Havana that sell prints, including my two favorite contemporary galleries in Vedado: Galería Habana on Calle Línea and Galería Servando on Calle 23. Prints are also available in the gallery associated with the Taller Gráfica Contemporánea de Nelson Domínguez.
Many artists work across mediums, visiting print shops for a specific project or printing in their own workshops. For collectors, the best method of finding print artists might begin with preliminary research before coming to Cuba, then visiting individual artists’ studios. Word of mouth is often a good guide.
There is a scattering of printmaking activity across the island, but it is modest compared to Havana. In Pinar del Río, the printmaking workshop has three members. In the center of the island, there are approximately a dozen active printmakers, with six printers in the Cienfuegos Printmaking Workshop and in Sagua la Grande. I am told Villa Clara has three or four active printmakers. In Santiago de Cuba, where there are a dozen active printmakers, the primary print workshop was divided into three smaller spaces under the guidance of individual artists.
Movements, Conferences, Institutions
La huella múltiple (The Multiple Imprint) was a printmaking movement founded in 1996 by Ibrahim Miranda, Sandra Ramos, Abel Barroso, and Belkis Ayón. There were four major exhibitions held in Havana (1996-2006) and one in the US, in Austin, Texas (2001). Inspired by the ideas in Walter Benjamin’s seminal 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” La huella múltiple had a profound influence on the following generations of printmakers in Cuba. Earlier this year, it was the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Latin American Art in California.
Haciendo presión (Making Pressure) is a group of contemporary Cuban printmakers who have matured in the past 15 years or so. Their generation gives continuity and vindication to Cuban printmaking, looking beyond the traditional boundaries of print to continue the legacy of La huella múltiple. Members of Haciendo presión—among them Hanoi Pérez, Alejandro Sainz, Anyelmaidelìn Calzadilla, Yamilys Brito and Janette Brossard—have participated in collateral exhibitions during the XI, XII, and XIII editions of the Havana Biennial. They have had several exhibitions of artist books in Havana, a public intervention in the Plaza de Armas in 2014, and an exhibition in Perth, Australia. Their artist book, titled Haciendo Presión, presents the group and its intentions.
The first national print conference, Encuentro Nacional de Grabado, was held in 1983 at the Havana Libre Hotel. It became a triennial fair, with nine iterations, including exhibitions and seminars, taking place since then. The last conference was held in 2016.
A new conference and fair, Arte Cubano Sobre Papel (Cuban Art on Paper), is currently being developed with Spanish support, under the guidance of Victor del Campo, curator of Gabinete semana de arte gráfico and Coleccionismo y estampas, and Norma Rodríguez, president of the Cuban Consejo Nacional de las Artes Plásticas (CNAP). Intended as an international event, the first Arte Cubano Sobre Papel is scheduled for December 2020.
The Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes San Alejandro is the second-oldest art academy in the New World. Students are selected at age 15 by portfolio submission and academic testing. Printmaking was introduced at San Alejandro as a supplemental area of study in 1928; in 1982, the school made it a major area of study. There are currently 58 students enrolled in the printmaking program, including 16 second-year students, 18 third-year students and 14 fourth-year students, who’ll graduate in June 2020.
At the Instituto Superior de Artes (ISA), visual-arts students work in collective groups during their five-year program, led by professors who specialize in the areas of the student’s individual interest. The department of engraving provides support and technical expertise to students interested in engraving as a primary area of study or in supplementing a particular project. A few of the approximately 15 students graduating each year major in printmaking.
Among artists of the 1970s, Eduardo Roca Salazar (Choco) and Nelson Domínguez continue to influence printmaking in Cuba, and Ibrahim Miranda, Sandra Ramos, and Abel Barroso of La huella múltiple are actively working with graphic arts. Eduardo Hernández Santos is in his 27th year of guiding printmaking students at San Alejandro. The young printmakers of the early 2000s—Janette Brossard, Anyelmaidelin Calzadilla, Hanoi Pérez and others—also teach and guide a younger generation of Cuban artists. The artists’ book is now an established vehicle for printmakers to explore and express ideas.
Thirteen years after its final exhibition, La huella múltiple continues to influence younger printmakers in Cuba. The collective Haciendo presión and the Taller Experimental de Gráfica create opportunities for exhibitions and dialogue. Cuban print artists struggle with supplies, equipment, and working conditions. Yet through it all they continue to create compelling, evocative work. The “state” of printmaking is strong in Cuba.