Discover Cuba's Artists with La ENA

Cuba is well known for a lot of things: its cigars, its music, its leaders, and of course its relationship with the United States. However, unbeknownst to some, la Havana is home to one of the best art schools of the world, La Escuela Nacional de Arte (the National Art School), which has exported some of the most talented individuals in all realms of art, from jazz to modern dance to folk art and everything in between. Amilcar Navarro, an artist himself, became immersed with the school and is now looking to complete his documentary La ENA. With only three days left on his kickstarter campaign we sat down with Navarro to discuss the film, his predictions for the changes in Cuba, and what struck him most different between NY and Cuba.

What’s your story?

I’m from Seattle. I started in film when I was a teenager and then came to New York in 2001 and started working in photography. I actually worked at Milk when it was just one floor. I’ve kind of done a lot of things in the industry and then went back to film, then started editing and shooting, and using my fashion contacts to work and pay the bills. I’ve been searching for a really serious documentary for myself, and so I’ve ended up here with La Ena.

How did that come about?

Through a lot of friends that I met here who are artists from Cuba. I’m a huge jazz fan and jazz is a really small community and when I see musicians that I like I just walk up them and I’m like, “This is fantastic. Where are you playing? Give me your number.” And I just started spending more time with these guys and through house parties ended up meeting all of these people who had gone to this school who weren’t necessarily musicians – they were poets, or singers, or painters, and I thought “dude what’s up with this school? What’s the story behind it?” I started doing research and having conversations with my friends who were graduates from there and from that I just came up with the idea. I thought that this institution is fantastic and speaks to so much of Cuban culture post 1959 – some of the successes and many of the failures….primarily education and healthcare are really the two pillars of what the Cuban revolution stands on as what defines them as different from Cuba previously.

You say you met all these artists here. Does the school have a way that it produces people to leave?

Yes and no. Many of the artists that I met here did not defect. They have a very good relationship, I believe they have residency here and they’ve never renounced their citizenship there. They work in both countries and they have a very open relationship with their government. But it’s also very difficult for some because they are stuck there – they have this amazing education and they’re interested in the outside world but they’re trapped. So it also has a very distinctly kind of sad character to it as well, which I think is indicative of all the communist projects that are very much unfinished and stunted at birth. I think some of it is luck as well as your personal hustle.

How do you think the diplomatic reunion is going to affect either country? How do you think it’s going to affect the educational system that seems to be running on this kind of greased wheel that works well?

To my knowledge education has had some setbacks within the island over the past few years. Teachers are one of Cuba’s exports…and that obviously has an effect on the island because they’re missing some of their teachers. In terms of the change in diplomatic relations, it seems like the immediate effect of increased tourism and interaction is welcome by everyone and very good for everyone on the ground level. That said, a lot of this will really end up benefitting large American corporations and their desire to do trade with Cuba, which doesn’t necessarily…lead to more opportunities for artists or even greater inspiration. I think there will be a little bit of an explosion in art collection, particularly visual and plastic artists. How long it lasts and how it affects Cuban artists is anyone’s guess. My concern is that the art-consuming market outside of Cuba doesn’t necessarily have great taste and I think you can see that in the galleries in Meatpacking that kind of standardizes art for a particular consumer who buys a particular type of property and has a particular type of space on their walls that they want to fill up with texture shit, and I think artists, like any market, will rise to that occasion immediately and begin making art for that market as opposed to the more inspired and sincere works of art that you can see now.

Does La Ena focus just on the school or does it also focus on how these artists are shaped by the environment of Cuba?

Very much how the institution shapes and manufactures a particular person with a particular aesthetic. So it’s very much both – it’s about the institution and about the institution’s effect on the Cuban artisan class.

What was the biggest challenge you had?

Needing to shoot on Cuban government property and being completely unknown for feature films – having no track record to share with them…it was difficult finding a producer that could take it to the Ministry of Culture and say, “you gotta trust this guy…” That’s been the biggest obstacle. Once I’ve had the opportunity to shoot I’m in my element. But just getting an artist visa has taken 3 years, which is really soul crushing.

What’s one of the most striking cultural differences you noticed between NY and Habana?

What’s really exciting to see in Cuba is going to a jazz show and seeing lots of young people in the audience, or even the ballet with tons of people in the audience, and seeing how sexy and cool the classical musicians and the ballerinas are when they leave the stage and moving through the audience. They really are some of the coolest people in town – and that’s not how it is in New York. If you go to Lincoln Center to see a student show from Julliard the only people in the audience are the elderly and other students. They have no fans who come to appreciate what they have to offer and that’s really sad. If there are no young patrons it will die.

Please help Amilcar complete his project. Donate here

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