Maggie Alarcón

Archive for the ‘Design’ Category

Behind the wall

In Arts, CENESEX, Cuba, Cuba/US, Cuban Americans, Culture, Design, LGBT, Politics, Travel, US on May 30, 2012 at 1:50 pm

Margarita Alarcón Perea

Every two years the city of Havana gets a new makeup job. Not paint, and not cement. It’s a makeup job in the sense that it is unfortunately ephemeral but no less beautiful to contemplate and enjoy while it lasts. The Biennale of Havana is the makeup job I refer to and this year it has hit the town hard and is painting it bright red.

Artistic Practices and Social Imaginaries is the theme of this 11th Havana Biennial 2012 and most of the work present is made up of interactive groundbreaking concept art reminiscent of Alexander Calder back when he revolutionized the notion of art and movement as one.

Over one hundred artists from 45

 countries are sharing in this festival of graphic imagery, many in collaborative works, all taking over the streets, the pavement, buildings, scaffolding and breathing in from the energy of the city itself to create in some cases a city of their own.

“Behind the Wall” gives title to one of the more expressive and interactive of the exhibits which stretches along the Malecon Habanero, (Havana ocean front walk). Cuban artists of the younger more provocative generation living both inside and outside the island have chosen this part of town to show their work. Pieces that have in common the desire for peace, belonging, movement and acceptance.

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The Biennale will go on for a month from its inaugural date of May 11th. During this time, over 1,500 legal US visitors will be walking the streets of Havana partaking in the event, learning, and writing about the days they spend here. This year the Biennale is proving that art can create a bridge to bring people together on the common ground of beauty and self expression.

Arles del Rio “Fly Away”

Meanwhile, back home in the US, members of Congress are having a field day over a couple of visas granted to two Cubans. A couple of visas, TWO mind you, not 100, not even 200, just TWO. One was to the historian of the City of Havana and a world renown preservationist, Dr Eusebio Leal Spengler who also happens to be an honorary member of the French Foreign Legion and an invited speaker at the Brookings Institute. The other is Mariela Castro Espín, who is a sexologist, the director of the Center for Sex Education in Cuba and yes, well, her last names give her away, she is also one of the children of Raul Castro.

Neither Mariela nor Eusebio are travelling to the US to do proselytism on behalf of the “communist” regime. They are both visiting the US in regards to their fields of expertise, and because they were invited,  one to speak at  LASA “Latin American Studies Association” and the other at Brookings.

While members of Congress are insulting the current administration’s policy of reasonable and logical engagement with Cuba, and taking the Department of State to task over its decision to grant visas to a couple of Cuban citizens who happen to be academics other North American’s  are taking advantage of the Obama Administrations efforts to close the gap between both nations  by allowing travel and the parting in an artistic and scholarly  event that will help them better understand Cuba.


Rachel Valdés Camejo “…Happily Ever After…”

A Bridge-Building, Cross-Cultural Art Project That’s Also Delicious

In Asamblea Nacional/National Assembly, Blockade, CENESEX, Cuban Americans, Cuban Embargo, Culture, Design, US on May 18, 2012 at 12:54 pm



From The New York Times

 HAVANA — It was at some point between the guava maki and the grilled sailfish with yuzu that Robert T. Coffland, an American art dealer who is normally reserved by nature, stood up and took off his shirt.Mr. Coffland had complimented his fellow diner, Renny Arozarena, on his floral-print top. Without hesitation, Mr. Arozarena, a Cuban actor, unbuttoned it and handed it to Mr. Coffland. The quiet American reciprocated.

“It was a magical moment of letting go,” said Mr. Coffland, who has a gallery that deals in traditional textiles in Santa Fe, N.M. “I hadn’t even had that much to drink.”

Such bursts of camaraderie were what Craig Shillitto, an architect and a restaurant designer, had in mind when he devised Project Paladar, a 10-day collaboration that pairs 10 chefs, most based in New York, with 10 Cuban chefs in a restaurant built for the event from shipping containers.

Each night, one pair cooks for a mixed group of Cubans and foreigners, mostly American, who sit at long, rough wooden tables. The event, which ends on Sunday, forms part of the 11th Havana Biennial, which began last Friday and runs for a month.

“We wanted people to be able to meet Cubans and eat with them, rather than just see them on the other side of a service counter,” Mr. Shillitto said. “I think some of the relationships that have been created here are going to endure for a long time.”

The project is named for the small, privately owned restaurants, called paladars, that have sprouted up around the country, especially since the government opened more space for private enterprise 18 months ago. Financing and supplies for the event came from private donors, Mr. Shillitto said; the organizers charged some of the foreign guests $250 each to help cover expenses, like the chefs’ travel costs.

The organizers made a point of seating Cubans, who could eat free, alongside visiting diners and said they had invited Cubans of all stripes, from museum curators to the welders who helped build the restaurant.

In a country where many rely on food rations to help get them through the month and the diet produced by state-run farms is a monotony of tubers and beans, the Cuban diners were impressed, puzzled and delighted by turns.

“This is exquisite,” said José Pablo Carrasco, a guitar player who was tucking into the sailfish cooked by Anita Lo, owner of Annisa in New York. “We are not used to eating like this here.”

“I liked that round thing, too,” he added.

The sushi? “The Chinese thing.”

Japanese. “Whatever,” he said. “It was delicious.”

The buzz about the gastronomic encounter apparently was not lost on the political elite. On Wednesday, Ricardo Alarcón, president of the National Assembly, and Nilsa Castro Espín, one of President Raúl Castro’s daughters, turned up for a dinner of braised rabbit with white wine and rosemary and Nesquik panna cotta with cardamom, cinnamon, vanilla and pine nuts.

While forging bonds between diners might have been easy, producing world-class food in Havana was not. Chefs brought their own spices, oils, cheeses and knives from America, but some were stunned to discover how hard it is in Cuba to get ingredients and kitchen supplies they consider basic.

“It’s impossible,” declared Eduardo Valle, sous-chef at Del Posto in New York, who deemed the pork in the markets so unpleasant he steered other chefs away from it.

Early in his stay, he went on a mission to procure fresh fish, a surprisingly rare luxury here. He was driven to a house somewhere in Havana — no idea where, he said — and was told to wait in the car. “It was like we were buying weapons,” Mr. Valle said. “Unbelievable.”

On the other hand, the New Yorkers were thrilled by the organic farms scattered around the capital. On a trip to buy supplies on Monday, Marco Canora, owner of the East Village restaurant Hearth, and Mr. Valle chewed on moringa leaves at an organic farm in Alamar, on the outskirts of Havana, and admired a trough seething with Californian red worms, which are used to produce compost. Ms. Lo said it was a question of adapting to what was available.

“People in New York are used to all their tomatoes being the same size with little stickers on them,” Ms. Lo said. “There’s totally food here. There’s just a little more dirt on the roots.”

As the week wore on, the talk turned to future collaboration. Elizabeth Grady, who curated the installation, plans to compile a bilingual book with a recipe from each chef involved.

Enrique Núñez, owner of La Guarida, who spent much of the week buying produce and planning menus with Doug Rodríguez, an American chef of Cuban descent, said the two had planned for Mr. Núñez to go to Mr. Rodríguez’s restaurant Alma de Cuba, in Philadelphia, for a similar exchange.

“This has been one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had with a chef,” Mr. Núñez said of Mr. Rodríguez. “It’s like we’ve known each other for years.”

As for Mr. Coffland, he came away not only with a nice shirt but also with some optimism that the exchange would help bring Cubans and Americans closer.

“It’s the small actions that sometimes have a huge impact,” he said. “That’s what builds ties between countries.”

The Avocados of Today

In Architecture, Cuba, Cuba/US, Design, Education, History, Human Rights/Derechos Humanos, Occupy Wall Street, Politics, Social Justice, US on November 22, 2011 at 9:59 am

Margarita Alarcón Perea

Avocados are a delicious and nutritious food, commonly consumed in Latin America and the rest of the world. For some it is a vegetable and for others a fruit. Because of this particular characteristic, for some Cubans when an individual or a specific thing doesn’t quite fit into a certain genre it is also known as an “avocado”. This is my case. I belong to a particular group of people known as “avocados”, we belong neither here nor there but somehow we manage to co-exist.

When I was contemplating higher education I filled out a form customary in those years for high school graduates in Cuba, whereby we would jot down in order of preference what it was that we hoping   to matriculate in college. On my list of 10 possible aspirations, I wrote down, industrial design, architecture, law, medicine, biology and another five I really don’t remember now. After a lot of time spent in the University (Cuba, East Germany, Cuba, and more Cuba) I finally graduated ten years later as an English major. Language majors or philologists in any language are what are known as an “avocado” by my peers.   Our greatest weakness becomes in the end our greatest strength; we know a bit about everything and not all that much about any one topic in particular, but we can function in practically any field of the working world.  

Thanks to this, one of the things I have had the possibility of doing is teaching and it has been a joy to this day. During my years at Casa de las Americas, said cultural institution began organizing academic courses for college students from the United States interested in Latin America and Cuba. It was because of this that I have had the opportunity since the year 2000 to lecture (for lack of a better word) to students from many schools of excellence from the US. One of these has been UC Davis.

For anyone with a teaching carrier behind them, it is an accepted maxim that we as teachers tend to forget the run of the mill students and will always remember the worst and the best. UC Davis has never been run of the mill. The students that go to Davis tend to be both the best and the worst as far as a teacher is concerned. They are inquisitive and attentive. They challenge the person standing at the helm of the class room. In short, they are a delight, at least the members of the groups that I have had the opportunity to work with since the year 2000 up until 2009. I seriously doubt that those that are on campus now are any different.

California has a grand history with its student movement going back to Berkeley in the 60´s. When I was there during my last trip to the US I remember you could feel the energy that was still alive. What has happened over the weekend at UC Davis unfortunately reminded me of the history of Berkeley and other Universities in the US during the protest movement against the Viet Nam war and in favor of the Civil Rights movement. Students are by nature, the way they should be, rebellious, they are the final stage of ground-breaking spunk that we all have before we become content and accepting of what we have left in our lives. I think it is in part because of this that I spent a decade in college; I simply didn’t want to stop being an adolescent.

The students over at Davis probably have a lot to learn about how to proceed in the future and how to express their desires and demands, but one thing I am certain of is that pepper spraying them using brutal force is not the way to help them grow. They are part of the future of their country and if they have made mistakes, and if they have not abided by the rules the way they are expected to then maybe the rules should be double checked and maybe what some consider mistakes are simply a reaction to actions that are being taken or not being taken in order to help them secure the future for themselves.


Great Houses of Havana

In Architecture, Arts, CENESEX, Cuba, Cuba/US, Cuban Americans, Culture, Design, History, LGBT, Miami/Cuba, US on October 31, 2011 at 1:35 pm

A little bit of ancient Greece in Vedado. Photo credit Adrián Fernández

One of my favorite all time magazines, Architectural Digest, has had the good fortune to interview one of my favorite architects of all time, Hermes Mallea, a Cuban man of the arts and times who heads together with partner Carey Maloney the architecture and design firm MGroup based in New York City. Mallea has recently published a book entitled “Great Houses of Havana”. Over 100 photographs of some of the most beautiful places in the City of Havana, where on occasion time has stood still and in others it has flowed like a river gathering all that it finds in its path.

Click here (Architectural Digest) for more on the book and enjoy the marvelous photographs of Cuban photographer Adrian Fernandez, who is proving to have an extraordinarily sensitive eye for the immobile.