I turned a corner in downtown Mobile and found Cuba on a side street, leaning against a wall and drawing from a hand-rolled cigarette in the breezy late summer sunshine. The occasion was lunch, with art the main course.
Ramon Vargas Artiz was 630 miles from his island home and living for three weeks in a second-story walk-up while his work was being installed at Alabama Contemporary Art Center. He is one of a dozen artists in ACAC’s “Back to Havana” exhibition, in place through June 2018.
My friend introduced me to his Latin American houseguest as we ducked from the bright afternoon into the stairwell. While I paused on the climb to allow for my diseased lungs, Artiz’s broken English relayed memories of his asthmatic mother and her breathlessness when lifting him.
The apartment interior was sensory overload. The floor was littered with Artiz’s brilliant engravings while the air was redolent with the aromas of the lunch he had cooked.
Exotic aromas and hunger pangs pulled me to the kitchen, where a trio of pans simmered on the stovetop. At my friend’s urging, a small, silver espresso pot was placed atop a glowing burner.
Once a translator arrived, our stilted conversation sped along. It was also aided by the Café Bustelo, a thick espresso which might as well be called “an uppercut in a cup” for the powerful thump it carries.
Artiz grew up in rural Cuba and discovered art early. He studied at Havana’s Elementary School of Arts and San Alejandro School of Arts, after which his mastery made him professor of drawing and printmaking at Taller Experimental de Grafica in Havana, and former director of engraving and drawing, Academia de Artes Plásticas Eduardo Abela.
He has had exhibitions and served in residence in Norway, New York City, Connecticut and Matanzas, Cuba. While on this recent trip, he detoured to Tuscaloosa to teach students for a week.
Wiry and tanned, Artiz’s active brown eyes gleamed below a mass of dark curls and above a close-cropped salt-and-pepper goatee. At one point, he crossed to his portfolio and slowly splayed pieces across the floor.
The subject matter was wildly imaginative, chimerical beings amidst realms of vaguely pagan imagery. Lounging ladies were surrounded by floating faces reminiscent of Carnival masks. Men astride giant roosters and elephants passed Bosch-inspired creatures. The work was painstaking, colorful and precise.
“What’s with the snakes with the men’s faces? What do they represent?” I asked.
“My religion,” Artiz answered, touching and showing a colorful bracelet on his left arm.
“Balance. Equal in all things,” the translator said after Ramon’s Spanish explanation. It was likely a reference to Ifá, a belief with West African origins related to the Santeria practiced by a majority of Cubans.
My stomach growled loudly, eliciting laughter and a call to the table. Ramon’s pork chops topped with an apple-tinged sauce (“secret family recipe”), lightly whipped potatoes and salata with tomatoes, cabbage and cucumbers was succulent and perfect.
We mentioned Hurricane Irma, which was due to strafe Cuba the next day. Ramon explained how American hype around storms differed from his native country. He said so many Cuban buildings are constructed of concrete and infrastructure so meager there’s less to damage.
Ramon touched on the lack of technological access in Cuba. Along with it, there’s a dearth of wealth and access to funds.
“Politicians think about money and business but not so much about art,” Ramon said.
Ramon has a young child and wants to bring his family to the states, but is scrambling for funding to bridge legal and political barriers. He came across as nearly apologetic for his eagerness to monetize his work. Necessity was explanation enough.
A silent auction at ACAC two weeks previous was beneficial. Ramon said he sold more pieces there than in a while. It’s a lofty compliment considering the impressive breadth of talent in the exhibit and the other highly creative artists vying for those same dollars.
The Bustelo rush subsided behind our post-lunch languor. A deadline looming, I politely thanked all for the meal, the company and the indulgence. So quickly that I didn’t realize what was happening, Ramon thrust a small monochrome print toward me.
“He wants you to have this to remember the afternoon,” the translator relayed as Ramon added his signature. I checked my urge to decline with a lengthy explanation about ethical apprehension and just deferred to graciousness.
It was only a talisman of the comfort found in Havana on Lawrence Street.