Friday, January 13, 2017

CUBA: Callejón de Hamel. The Art of Salvador


Not far from the northwestern edge of Centro Habana lies a narrow alley, its boundaries defined by Calle Espada on the west and Calle Hospital on the east. 

This alley, maybe 200-yards in length, is named the Callejón de Hamel.  According to one source, its namesake was a French-German named Fernando Hamel, "a smuggler who ran weapons during the American Civil War" before settling in this section of Havana.

This particular section of Havana is known as Barrio Cayo Hueso. Not to be confused with Florida's Key West, also referred to by Cubans as Cayo Hueso, "Barrio Cayo Hueso" stands for Cay of Bones.  That is because this early 20th-century settlement of tenements was built on top of the Espada Cemetery, which was closed and abandoned in 1878.

Bario Cayo Hueso, and the Callejón de Hamel in particular, first gained recognition in the 1940s-1950s as the center for a genre of Cuban song known as Filin.  During this period, the musical founders of filin would meet in the house of the musician Tirso Diaz, located in the Callejón

As interest in filin waned after the Cuban Revolution, the Callejón fell off Havana's cultural map. But in 1990, the artist Salvador Gonzáles Escalona arrived there to paint a mural on a friend's house.  He stayed; he still lives there; and he ended up transforming the entire length of the Callejón into a unique example of urban installation art. 

As Wikipedia notes, "the street was transformed from a slum area to an enthusiastic Afro-Cuban centre."  It could be argued that the Callejón de Hamel offers a rare example of how a decrepit urban area can be transformed into a vital artistic and social center not by the "normal" infusion of governmental, corporate, or individual wealth, but through the vision and dedication of an individual of meager economic means (supported by the encouragement of his neighbors).

The following photographs document the Callejón, starting from its two access points on the east and the west, then proceeding into its center. 

Because I have no background in Afro-Cuban art and iconography, nor did I have the fortune to meet Salvador, I cannot identify the paintings and sculptures either by title or subject. Where the murals contain text, however, I provide translations (with the help of my friend, Peter Lamphere), and I will, occasionally, offer some general artistic observations on a particular work of art. 

Otherwise, Salvador's work effectively speaks for itself.




Images from the Eastern Entry:



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Mural at east entrance off Calle Hospital, Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, View into east entrance off Calle Hospital, Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, View of east entrance toward Calle Hospital, Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Detail of north wall, east entrance, Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Detail of north wall, east entrance, Centro Habana

This eastern entrance, visible in three of the five above photographs, assumes the form of a three-arched gateway or propylaea. It is made of crude, uncoursed masonry (which may well be stone rescued from collapsed buildings of the neighborhood).


The third and fourth photographs above show one of Salvador's ubiquitous pieces of functional sculpture:  discarded steel bathtubs cut down to make benches for the inhabitants and visitors.




writing on the right:
Soy así Porque no le prendo una vela a Dios y luego otra al Diablo pero se la prendo al tiempo    Salvador  21-04-90
I am like this Because I do not light a candle to God and then another to the Devil   I light one to time    Salvador  21-04-90



El cobarde le huye a la verdad porque la mentira es como el.
The coward runs away from the truth because the lie is like him.




writing on the left:
Cuando quieta la pisada del andar constante fuertemente apretarás tu vida y en lágrimas manchadas tus ojos quedarán secos por el crepitar de tus soles incomprendidos. Será tu canto piedras callecidas, Que polvo y tierra tragaran desnudas para florecer un dia, nadie sabe como, ea un manantial de luciernagas blancas y alli en el replejo de agua, estará tu rostro quemado de tiempo, plagado de furia sin contestar diras ‘Vida’ para ser devuelto a la tierra.
When the footsteps of constant walking are still, your life will strongly tighten and in stained tears your eyes will stay dry by the crackle of your suns.
It will be your song of calloused stones, that dust and earth will nakedly swallow to bloom one day, no one knows how, into a fountain of white fireflies and there, in the water’s reflection, will be your face burned by time, plagued by fury with no answer,  you will say 'alive' to be returned to the earth.


Pero no moriras
But you won’t die

El que teje una mentira   puede ser herido por su propia agujeta. Salvador
He who weaves a lie   can be hurt by his own needle.   Salvador

El camino de Hombre es un camino largo, duro y difícil a veces se muere Varon sin Vegar nunca a ser Hombre
The road of Man is a long road, hard and difficult; sometimes a youth dies without ever becoming a man






Images from the Western Entry:


Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Approach from west at Calle Espada, north wall,  Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Western edge, north wall,  Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Western edge, Detail of north wall,  Centro Habana


writing:
Puedo esperar más que tu, porque soy el tiempo  Salvador  26 10 95
I expect more than you, because I am time   Salvador 10 26 1995





No formal, architectural statement marks the entrance from the west. But starting at the intersection with Calle Espada, this bold mural of over forty feet introduces the Callejón and makes it clear that we are entering a special place. 

Venture a bit further east (beyond the door pictured directly above) and there is no denying that one has entered a space completely different from any other street (or place) in Havana.

You are now in Salvador's world--a world inspired by the various cultures of Africa which came over with the slave trade, Catholicism inherited from the Spanish, and modernism inspired by some of the major artistic movements of the 20th-century.





Images from the Interior of the Callejón:



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, General View to East,  Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Detail of Bench and Section of North Wall, Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Benches and Section of North Wall, Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Benches and Section of North Wall, Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Benches and Section of North Wall, Centro Habana

The three photographs directly above show the range of Salvador's material and media. 

Mosaics on the ground clarify the distinction between the bare alley--urban passageway--and the tessellated sections, often also set off by more bathtub benches--outdoor living rooms, spaces for people to congregate.

Painted Murals of dynamic, asymmetric, abstracted forms cover the boundary walls. Be aware that this is whatever paint the artist could find--house paint, automobile paint, definitely not cans of spray paint. This is Cuba under embargo, not America. As Salvador  recalls, "People came up to me and said, 'Maestro, I have a little bit of red paint,' or yellow, or a little printing dye. I wound up painting with whatever materials turned up."

Totemic Sculptures decorate these gathering spaces, made from found objects such as cast-iron columns, steel gears and wheels, industrial stampings and extruded structural braces.

This is not an art installation to merely walk through and admire. It demands that one engage with it, sit on it, read it, maybe even sleep in it.  Megan Daigle, in her book From Cuba with Love, has quoted Salvador as stating:  "the Callejón de Hamel is a heavy load of poetic images and sculpture that you have to live through."




Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Centro Habana

These three photographs document a section that I would call an open-air chapel to the Cuban poet, philosopher and hero, José Martí.  A bust of Martí and a passage from his Versos Sencillos occupies the center of this space. For more on this, see my blog post from May of 2016: "Cuba II: José Martí." 





Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, View East, Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, View North to Background Buildings, Centro Habana

I would argue that Salvador considered the Callejón de Hamel as a total work of art, one which would unite all the various arts into an expansive cultural synthesis.

We already have seen how he combined sculpture, painted murals, and floor mosaics to create spaces in which the viewer or participant would enter. The two photographs above reveal another aspect of this idea of an overarching artistic unity, in that they focus not on the low walls which border and define the alley, but on the walls of the buildings to the north and beyond the alley.

Salvador expanded his work beyond the alley to transform the more distant buildings into a participatory background.

A third aspect of the idea of the Callejón as a total work of art is the fact that is has become a major performance space, not only for the local community but for Havana itself. I will elaborate on this a bit further down.




Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Bathtub Bench, Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, South Wall, Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, South Wall, Centro Habana

Bathtubs, left whole, become wall niches for sculptures and more writings. They are like minor shrines. Picking up on what Salvador, himself, has stated, one source has called the Callejón  "a public temple to Santería and African influences in Cuban culture."

I will elaborate on this as well a bit further down.




Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Column, Mural, Bench, Bathtub, Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, View East with Cash Register & Bench, Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Cricket, Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Male Mannequin, Vase & Profile Face, Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Woman in Profile with Headdress, Centro Habana

This is a wonderful piece of sculpture. I would love to know its title, if Salvador gave it one (and I suspect that he did). Most likely it is an Orisha, a Yoruba word originally that refers to a form of spirit connected to a supreme diety. Also, ori, the root of the word, refers to the head, which is what we see here in a profile silhouette. Besides the piece's likely reference to African culture, its profile silhouette was a device often used in the synthetic cubist works of Picasso and Braque.




Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Herbero de Hamel, Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Bench, Sculptures & Door, Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Doorways and Mural, Centro Habana


writing:
Si no sabes no te meta
If you do not know, don’t get involved






Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Mural and Entry, Centro Habana

writing:
Quiero mutilarte sombra negra de lo desconocido   Quiero reir en tus garras de azul intenso de lejana agonía    Quiero sentarme en tu sombra y seguir camino    Quiero describite en espacios para que te conozcan eres paso inerte de lejano tiempo traes luz y canto llaman Mas no puedo describirte como mi mano escapas como agua entre pequeñas piedras    Quiero mutilarte de sonrisas/ Cual es tu frente lejano enigma?    Cual es to espalda que sonrie inerte?    Se que regresaras cada noche cada mañana    Quiero que sepas que estoy esperándote    En tu lejana sombra colores raros    Eternamente briuara tu espada         Salvador
I want to mutilate you, black shadow of the unknown     

I want to laugh in your claws of blue intensity, of distant agony    
I want to feel myself in your shadow and continue walking    
I want to describe you in spaces so that you know you are an inert step of distant time,  you bring light and I sing the call    
I cannot describe you anymore as my hand,  you escape like water between small rocks    
I want to mutilate you with smiles 
Which is your front side, distant enigma?    
Which is your back, that smiles, inert?  
I know that you return every night and every morning    
I want you to know I am waiting for you    
In your distant shadow, strange colors    
Forever, you will offer your sword           Salvador







Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Studio (?) of Salvador, Centro Habana





Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Mural with Virgin & Cuban Flag, Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Murals on North Wall, Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Mural with Virgin & Cuban Flag, Centro Habana

The street-level murals seen in these three photographs most likely embody some syncretic amalgam of Afro-Cuban deities. Without titles or more explanatory information from Salvador, it may be simplest to claim they (and the bulk of the Callejón's art) is an artistic expression of Santería, in which Yoruba mythology (from Nigeria) mixes with Christianity and certain indigenous American traditions and beliefs.

Apparently, Salvador even went through the Changó initiation and so is a Santería priest.  He calls the Callejón a "bastion of Afro-Cuban culture," the goal of which is didactic--to teach and preserve the legacy of black Africa on Cuba.


Quite different in nature is the long, horizontal mural above, just underneath the balcony. It depicts a rough sea on which floats what appears to be a statue of an enthroned Madonna holding the Christ Child. On the right we see the only other object other than sea, horizon, statue of the Virgin--a Cuban flag.

This must be a painting of the Patron Saint of Cuba, the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre.  She, too, is a syncretic figure, associated with the Yoruba and Ifá orisha, Ochún. As with other early Marian images, she was likely brought to Cuba by a Spanish sea captain (ca. 1612) to serve as a guide and protector.

As the story goes, this particular statue of the enthroned Mary, holding Jesus and a golden cross, was discovered by three workers at the slaughter house in Santiago del Prado.  A violent storm in the Bay of Nipe nearly drowned them, were it not for the slave named Juan, who wore a medal picturing the Virgin Mary. The three workers prayed to Her medal, the storm cleared in an instant, and they saw the statue floating in the distance. The board to which She was fastened bore the inscription, "Yo soy la Virgen de la Caridad."





Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Mural, Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Murals, Centro Habana

Elias Aseff Alfonso identifies the mural on the right with the red background as inspired by Ochún. So here we have a very different representation of that same, syncretic goddess: now, the Santería version of Cuba's patroness.  In this much more dramatic mural, she reveals her aspects as goddess of love, water, sexual fertility and sensuality.




writing:
Peña cultural Afrocubana.   La rumba de Cayo Hueso.   Callejon de Hamel.   C. H. Cuba.   Domingos 12 pm
Afro-Cuban cultural hub.  The rumba of Key West.   Alley of Hamel.   C. H. Cuba.   Sundays 12 pm


As the above writing informs us, every Sunday starting at noon, people gather and several rumba bands play.  The bands set up directly in front of this mural, and so Ochún holds court over the performance stage.

Thus, in this spot is where we can best comprehend that third aspect of the idea of the Callejón as a total work of art.  Music has returned to the Callejón;  it complements the visual art;  and, as Rumba, it now reaches back to its early, African roots. 

Besides Rumba, the Callejón lures in other Cuban musicians on Fridays and it also has become a center where Cuban children attend painting workshops.  So the Callejón has played a role in reviving the Afrocubanismo movement of the 1920s-1930s, a broad cultural movement that sought to instill pride in the Africa and black culture of Cuba.





Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Bench, Kiosk and Mural, Centro Habana


writing:
Pá que tu me llama si tu no me conoce
So that you call me if you do not know me






Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Mural on South Wall, Centro Habana



Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Mural on South Wall, La Vida...La Muerte, Centro Habana


writing:
La vida es un paso     La muerte es una carrera
Life is a step     Death is a race







Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Pipe Sculpture and Mural, Centro Habana






Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Text Mural, Al Maestro don Fernando, Centro Habana



writing:
Al maestro Don Fernando Ortiz; al barrio de Cayo Hueso; al Pueblo de Cuba; nace en este gallejón de Centro Habana nombrado Hamel el 21 de abril de 1990, el primer mural en la vía pública dédicada a la cultura aprocubana. Iremes, Orishas, leyendas de dioses negros. En la gran maleza de la selva y el monte para decir hoy dia. Tengo por el arte mi primer templo público para todos. Donde la sencillarama cubrió el desnudo cuerpo, para alejar el mal que sufre. Para llenar de colores aquellas paredes mudas y desnudas de esperar tanto. Y con mi tiempo que es mio como del tuyo eres dueño, darle por el sentimiento de ser...para ser huella de lo conocido. Sin pragmentos de palabras Cantos de mis tambores Cantos de mis ropas blancas sin ser oración soy palabra por palabra soy quien pinta paredes y mando mensajes al alba. Perdonadme críticos e intelectos, yo digo mi palabra siento en la silla al mendigo, abrazo la sonrisa franca, me gusto el, zumo de mi sangre, que es sangre africana pero tambien respiro profundo para llenar mi vida y mi alma de un sonrisa espannola, que _arió sangre mulata. Espiritus del dia y la noche consagrada, estén todos presentes para mandar mis mensajes al alba.
El cobarde le huye a la verdad, porque la mentira es como el. Salvador


To the teacher Don Fernando Ortiz; To the neighborhood of Key West; To the People of Cuba.
Born in this alley of Centro Habana named Hamel the 21 of April of 1990, is this first mural of the public street dedicated to the Afro-Cuban culture.
Iremes, Orishas, ​​legends of black gods. In the great undergrowth of the jungle and the mountain to say now.
This art is my first public temple, for all people.
Where the simple branch covered the naked body, to ward off the evil it suffered.
To fill with color those silent and naked walls.
And with my time that is mine, like you are the owner of yours, I offer the feeling of being... to be marked as known.

Without fragments of words.  Songs of my drums.  Songs of my white clothes without being prayer.  I am word for word.  I am he who paints walls and sends messages at dawn.
Forgive me critics and intellects, I say my word.  I sit in my chair as a beggar,   embracing the honest smile, I like the juice of my blood, which is African blood, but I also breathe deep to fill my life and my soul with a Spanish smile, which made my blood mulatto.
Spirits of the day and the consecrated night, be present to send my messages at dawn.
The coward runs away from the truth, for the lie is like him. 
Salvador.


In this writing, Salvador dedicates his work to Fernando Ortiz Fernández, a Cuban anthropologist, ethnomusicologist and scholar of Afro-Cuban culture who died in 1969.






Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Wall of Murals & Text, Centro Habana




Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Wall of Murals & Text, Centro Habana


writing:
La envidia es la peor de todas las brujerías.
Jealousy is the worst of all witchcraft.

Y vinieron con cantos que nadie conocía    cruzaron el mar en peces de madera    Trajeron un secreto cubierto de sangre y tierra cantaron,  lloraron,  plantaron: 1834
And they came with songs that nobody knew    crossed the sea in wooden fish    carried a secret covered in blood and earth   they sang,  they wept,  they planted: 1834



The date referred to in the second writing, 1834, is the year that most scholars cite for the emergence of Abakuá in Cuba. This was a secret, religious-based mutual aid society restricted to men.  It derived from the leopard societies of southeastern Nigeria and it contributed to the music of rumba.





Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Wall of Murals & Text, Centro Habana

writing:
La religión es tan antigua como el arte y el arte tan antiguo como el Hombre.
Religion is as old as art  and art is as old as Man.






Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, Callejón de Hamel, Wall of Murals & Text, Centro Habana


writing:
El pez no sabe que existe el agua.
The fish does not know that there is water

Todo pueblo que se niegue a si mismo esta en trance de suicidio. Dr. Fernando Ortiz
People who reject themselves are on the verge of suicide. 

Dr. Fernando Ortiz

Si Malo es regalarse, peor es venderse, mucho menos prestarse, es mejor tenerse.
If giving yourself away is bad,  selling is worse,  and lending yourself is much worse.  It is better to have yourself.

Dueño de este lugar es la humanidad   Su creador simplemente se llama     Salvador
This place belongs to Humanity   It’s creator is simply called Salvador



writing directly above but only partially visible here:

En la puerta de manto escribi tu nombre, tan lejano como la Historia lejana, tierra, piedra, fuego y agua. Aquí está la prenda, para que aprendas porque profano es quien oculta la verdadera palabra.
On the mantle’s door I wrote your name, as far back as the distant History,  earth,  stone,  fire and water. Here is the pledge, so you learn    profane is he who hides the true word.


writing to the left but only partially visible here:

Despues de muerto no quiero ni disculpas ni regalos.
After death I do not want any apologies or gifts.

Vengo de una realidad oculta a una realidad abierta para que me conozcas.
I come from a hidden reality to an open reality so that you know me.


I end this post with two brief quotations from Salvador, each of which reveals the importance he places on this narrow alley both for Afro-Cuban culture and for himself as an artist:


The Callejón, he says, "is the result of a conversation with the orishas over a period of many years. This is the place where Obbatalá finally lands after flying and flying and flying."

"The only mural I’ve painted and want to preserve is the one at Callejon de Hamel."