Because of its geographic location, Cuba is one of the most privileged islands in the Caribbean in terms of its various artistic expressions and is considered one of the most important cultural centers in the region. Cuban culture is the result of the combination of Spanish and African traditions, as can be perceived in its literature, music, fine arts, films and other artistic and cultural expressions.
The Cuban nation is the result of the amalgamation of three main roots which were gradually incorporated in the process of social and ethnic integration. Although originally inhabited by indigenous, their ethnic legacy was significantly reduced by the large-scale extermination of the native population carried out by the Spanish conquistadors and the colonization process. The other two major roots came from Spain and Africa. The first is the result of the migratory flows from the metropolis which continued, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout our history. Our African roots left an indelible imprint in the formation process of our Cuban heritage. Slaves were brought to the island from different African nations (Yoruba, Mandingos, Congo, Carabali and Bantu) to work as servants or field hands in the plantations, giving rise to new cultural associations among the different African communities. To this we must add the ethnographic influence of the Chinese brought to Cuba as indentured coolies, who also influenced the formation of our nation, especially the Cuban cuisine. A process of syncretism occurred between the culture of the slave and their masters which resulted in a new culture completely different from its original roots. According to the current definition, these roots laid the grounds for popular traditions, culture and religion.
Cuba has a substantial literary tradition, with prominent poets such as Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda and Julian del Casal during the 19th Century and novelists Alejo Carpentier and Jose Lezama Lima during the 20th century. The "Jose Marti” National Library in Havana, is the largest in the country with approximately 2.2 million volumes. The National Museum of Fine Arts, also in Havana, houses classical and modern art collections and relics from native cultures. Other important museums are: the Colonial Art and Anthropological museums in Havana, the Emilio Bacardi Moreau and Natural Science museums in Santiago de Cuba and the Oscar Maria de Rojas museum in Cardenas.
Music has undoubtedly exerted the strongest influence on the personality of Cubans, due to its vigorous evolution and strength. Genres such as the contradanza, son, danzon, bolero, guaguanco, trova, feeling, mambo, cha cha cha and salsa all have Cuban roots. The blending of the Flamenco guitar and the African drum can be appreciated in its most distinctive forms: the rumba and the son. However, other expressions of Cuban folkloric such as the zapateo and the guajira were enormously influenced by European music.
Painting is the most genuine expression of Cuban fine arts; however its development did not follow a straight course. Its first expressions were in the form of pictographic cave paintings by aborigines, though, this artistic expression was interrupted with the extermination of this population. During the conquest and colonization of the country, court paintings with themes reflecting the liturgy of the Catholic Church prevailed but it was not until the 18th Century, with the founding of the San Alejandro Art Academy (1818), that the first paintings performed by creoles appeared, with a marked influence of European taste and addressed at pleasing the wealthy land barons and bourgeoisie. A new trend emerged during the 1880´s with landscape as the central theme. The most important figures of this period were Esteban Chartrand and Valentin Sanz Carta, closely followed by Victor Patricio de Landaluze, who painted scenes depicting the local customs.
The vanguard movement of the 1920s marked a new moment in Cuban painting. The first and most important exhibition of this movement was held in 1927, under the auspices of Avance magazine. Eduardo Abela, Victor Manuel, Antonio Gattorno and Carlos Enriquez were among the initiators of this movement. During the 1940s, a group of young artists started a new artistic movement, with the School of Havana as its highest expression. Rene Portocarrero, Amelia Pelaez y Mariano Rodriguez were part of this movement. In 1942, Wifredo Lam returned to Cuba after a long sojourn in Europe and having worked for several months in Pablo Picasso’s studio. In 1943, Lam painted his masterpiece “The Jungle” which was later purchased by the MOMA in New York. Cuba’s artistic movement was strengthened with the founding in 1962 of the National School of Fine Arts, with the collaboration of important figures such as Raul Martinez and Antonia Eiriz. The School of Fine Arts of the Higher Institute of Art was established in 1976. The works of Roberto Fabelo, Zaida del Rio, Tomas Sanchez, Pedro Pablo Oliva, Manuel Mendive, Flora Fong, Nelson Dominguez, among others, are now part of our national heritage. To this long list we must add the names of young artists such as Jose Bedia, Kcho and Flavio Garciandia, who followed new paths of artistic expression. During the past 30 years, the Cuban artistic movement has exhibited a great capacity to incorporate the most outstanding international trends, while preserving its own style and sense of creativity and assuming a critical stance regarding the themes, thus enhancing the traits of the Cuban identity.
The first work of Cuban prose “Espejo de paciencia” was written by Silvestre de Balboa in 1608. During the first half of the 18th Century, “El principe Jardinero y Fingido Cloridano”, the first known play by a Cuban author, Santiago de Pita, was performed. In 1790, with the circulation in Havana of the first newspaper “Papel Periodico”, the Cuban middleclass was at last able to claim an important space. Manuel de Zequira and Manuel Justo de Ruvalcaba are considered the most outstanding poets of the 18th century. The consolidation of Cuban poetry was reached in the 19th century, with verses as beautiful and profound as those of Julian del Casal, Placido, El Cucalambe, Juan Clemente Zenea, Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, Juana Borrero, Jose Jacinto Milanes, Luisa Perez de Zambrana, Jose Maria Heredia and Jose Marti; creating an exquisite verse which despite its romanticism, surpassed the boundaries of pure emotions and feelings for that of political commitment. Cirilo Villaverde wrote Cecilia Valdes, the greatest Cuban novel of the 19th Century. Other important novelists include Ramon Meza and Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda. The fame of the island was enhanced during the 20th century by authors such as Jose Zacarias Tallet, Regino Pedroso, Regino Botti, Nicolas Guillen, Carilda Oliver, Jose Lezama Lima, Eliseo Diego (Juan Rulfo Award), Cintio Vitier, Fina Garcia Marruz, Pablo Armando Fernandez and Dulce Maria Loynaz (Cervantes Award) whose prestige and acclaim surpassed the national boundaries. Narrative is the genre most extensively preferred by young writers such as Alberto Garrido and Ronaldo Martinez, who were awarded the Casa de Las Americas Prize as eloquent proof of the vitality of contemporary Cuban literature.
Although the first Cuban film “Simulacro de un incendio” (Fire Drill) was shot in 1897 and during the Republic more than eighty long feature films were made, it was not until the triumph of the Revolution that grounds were laid for a virtual national film industry. The creation in 1959 of the Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematograficos (ICAIC) represented a radical step in this direction. In 1960, “Cine Cubano”, a magazine Published by the ICAIC, was instrumental for disseminating information regarding the institution’s creative theory. During that same year, Tomas Gutierrez Alea released “Historias de la Revolution” (Stories of the Revolution) the first long feature fiction film made after the Revolution. Julio Garcia Espinosa, also in 1960, released “Cuba Baila” (Cuba Dances). During this initial stage, also known as the “Golden Decade”, important films were premiered. Santiago Alvarez, a renowned documentary film maker with extraordinary virtuosity continued working throughout forty years. “Fresa y chocolate” (Strawberry and Chocolate) the most successful film in the history of the Cuban film industry, was nominated for an Oscar Award in the category of Best Foreign Film. This enabled Cuba to enter the world film market. Many Cuban films have obtained numerous awards and acknowledgements at both national and international film festivals.
Cuba has also been beautifully portrayed in photos. On April 4, 1840, the Havana daily “El Noticioso y Lucero”, announced the introduction of the first camera in the island. Pedro Tellez de Giron, the person in question, took the first documented photograph; however, this photo was lost. During the beginning of the Independence War, photographer José Gomez de la Carrera, whose graphic coverage of events laid the grounds for contemporary photo-journalism, set standards which have seldom been surpassed. The first specialized publication “Boletin Fotografico “(Photographic Bulletin) was launched in 1892. In 1887, the book “La fotografia al alcance de todos” [Photography at the reach of all] was published by the Solar Alvarez Publishing House, covering a period which spans from the beginning of the century to the thirties and contains photographs by Generous Unchaste, Lopez Ortiz, Martinez Hills, Ernesto Ocean, among others. During this period, images acquired great importance in the different periodical publications. The work of Joaquin Bless, a middleclass photographer with exquisite taste, especially in his treatment of nudes and portraits, is truly noteworthy. During the years immediately before the Revolution, the work of Constantine Arias and Moses Hernandez (Diario de Cuba) ,as well as the graphic achieves of Bohemia magazine and Dario de la Marina newspaper in Havana, offered a comprehensive vision of the agitations and social process the island was living through. Alberto Diaz, Korda, Raul Corrales, Osvaldo Salas (who covered Fidel Castro’s visit to New York in 1953) and Ernesto Fernandez are the most outstanding photographers of this decade. After the victory of the Revolution, the works of "Marucha", "Mayito” and Roberto Salas were exhibited in the First Cuban Culture Exhibition organized in 1966 under the auspices of Casa de Las Americas. The first international exhibit of Cuban photography was organized in Mexico in 1976. It was so well received the following year another exhibit, “History Cuban Photography”, was launched in the same city. In recent years, several authors have resorted to photographic essays and films which stand out for their beauty and for the content of their compositions.
When Christopher Columbus first sighted the “most beautiful land that human eyes ever beheld”, Cuba was inhabited by agro-ceramic indigenous communities who also carved wood and weaved baskets, as attested by the writings of the Spanish conquistadors and in the archeological and anthropological finds. African culture contributed numerous creative elements, especially ceramics and seed works. However, artists in order to preserve the original designs and religious elements of their work were forced to resort to new materials and texture which would ensure the permanence and continuity of their traditions. Contemporary crafts have developed pieces of practical use, employing materials supplied by the local industries. Although in some cases, the pieces were made for purely esthetical and decorative purposes, only a few craftsmen are truly considered artists. Julio Cesar Garrido and Carlos Espinosa are famous in the tobacco industry for their works made of cedar wood and leather. Several of these pieces were auctioned during the Habanos Cigar Festival in 2000. Artist and ceramist Alfredo Sosabravo received the National Fine Arts Award in 1998 for his work in which ceramics plays a prominent role.
Cubans have always excelled in architecture, as can be seen in the design of their historical sites and colonial cities. The original Hispanic model, predominantly from southern Spain, rapidly acquired its own features in response to the requirements posed by the humid tropical climate. Large fan windows, balconies and other functional adaptations made houses more opened and communicative. The presence of window blinds and other protective elements produced a special visual effect, especially the wrought iron gates and multicolored windowpanes. Novelist Alejo Carpentier referred to Havana as the “City of Columns”, because of the spacious porticos overlooking its numerous parks and square of the city.
Neoclassicism prevailed during the 19th Century, adding a special touch of class and distinction to the houses and public buildings built by the Creole bourgeoisie. Palacio de Aldama (Aldama Palace) and the Calzada del Cerro (a thoroughfare in Havana) are eloquent examples of the level of mastery achieved by local architects and builders. Throughout the 20th Century, examples of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Eclecticism and Neo-Historicism filled the city with their graceful forms. The first was introduced by a Catalonian master and was followed by Eclecticism, later generalized throughout the country, while Art Deco and Neo-Historicism marked the beginning of a modern more rationalist movement. As a result, Cuban cities, especially Havana, are of significant patrimonial importance due to the convergence of multiple styles and outlooks, for the enjoyment of both the local population and visitors.
In an effort to dissuade pirates from looting and destroying the cities, the Spaniards built a system of fortresses throughout the country which are currently opened to visitors. The one surrounding Old Havana is of particular interest: La Cabaña, the largest fortress in America; the “Castillo de la Real Fuerza”, a castle complete with moat and drawbridge, also the first fortress built in the Americas and the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, more commonly known as “Morro Castle”. When traveling across the country, we also recommend a visit to Castillo de Jaguar, overlooking Cienfuegos Bay in the central region of the country; San Pedro de La Roca Fortress, perched on a hill guarding the entrance to Santiago de Cuba and the Fuerte Matachin in Baracoa , in the easternmost region of the country.