Arte a lo Cubano
Alumbrones, a documentary by Bruce Donnelly
Growing up in South Africa, filmmaker Bruce Donnelly had always wanted to see Cuba, romanced by descriptions and pictures from family members who had traveled there. When he finally arrived in the communist nation to film Alumbrones, a documentary feature on Cuba told through interviews with 12 contemporary artists, the reality wasn’t so different from what he imagined. “It hasn’t changed much in the last 50-something years,” Donnelly told Pasatiempo. “I was fortunate in that I got to experience Cuba first-hand and not as a tourist. From the first day I arrived, I got to spend time in people’s homes and got to know them intimately. Had I just gone as a tourist, I might have missed what it was like to be in the home of a Cuban family.” Alumbrones screens in the Coronado Room of the Santa Fe Convention Center on all three days of Art Santa Fe.
Two of the artists featured in the documentary, Darian Rodriguez Mederos and Luis Toledo del Rio, are in attendance, represented by Conde Contemporary, a Miami-based exhibitor with a booth at the fair. The artists are two of four young people who shared an apartment at the time of filming as students of Edel Bordón, also in the film, who taught them painting at the San Alejandro Fine Arts Academy in Havana. Their interviews were an unexpected surprise. “Edel and myself have come to know each other very well. We’ve become great friends outside of the film. He turns up close to our last day of filming and says, ‘I have four young guys who are students of mine and they’re brilliantly talented, very smart guys. I highly recommend that you chat with them.’ On the last day of filming we went to their apartment. We were blown away by just how in tune they were with everything going on around them. They also provided a different side to the film which I didn’t anticipate going in. They were this other generation. It’s interesting to compare this generation with other kids their age around the world. There’s a real difference in terms of access to information and the internet, phones.”
Donnelly, who immigrated to New York City in 2006, where he founded his company Lost Boys Productions, was inspired to do the film after seeing an exhibition of contemporary Cuban art in Boston. “A lot of the artists who appear in the film are some of the first artists whose work I saw on exhibition,” he said. “They really inspired me. What I liked was that every artist had a different style, a different approach. Some were very humoristic, some were very graphic, a lot of fantasy art. I like that a lot of Cuban art is almost this dark comedy.”
The film depicts Cuban artists adapting to the challenges of contemporary life in Havana: rolling blackouts intended to preserve petroleum used for electricity, limited access to art supplies, restrictions on travel, and the effects of the U.S. embargo. The documentary’s title Alumbrones references the “unexpected, short-lived bursts of light” that interrupt long periods of power outages on the island nation. Luis Rodriguez NOA works mainly at night despite the blackouts, creating Joan Miró-esque visions of Havana’s thriving street life. “His work in particular I have a real passion for,” Donnelly said. “His studio is in central Havana, so it’s this chaotic, crazy neighborhood that just doesn’t stop. There’s noise and people and traffic all the time. It’s chaos, not because everyone is busy and has something to do but because they’re all looking for something to do. Whatever Luis hears or sees or thinks about is on the canvas, almost stream-of-consciousness, and he really captures the moment of whatever is happening around him at the time.” Donnelly left part of the production crew’s battery-powered light kit behind for Luis to use during the blackouts. “Realizing the conditions he had to work in at night, I thought, ‘This is crazy. I’m going to leave some of my light kit for him,’ which helped him enormously.”
When the film crew arrived in Cuba, the person who was supposed to guide them through customs didn’t show up, leaving them to sort out details on their own. From a local company, Cuba Film
Productions, they learned what to expect, and had to provide details on who was being filmed and where, the content of the film, and what equipment was permitted. “There was a lot I had to learn and familiarize myself with and be mindful of going in to the project,” Donnelly said. “There are certain restrictions and regulations they have there that make filmmaking challenging. It was not impossible to film there and there are ways to get permits and make yourself known, but for sure, it’s a little bit of a headache.”
According to Donnelly, a lot of the artists featured in the film incorporate imaginative elements into their works. Part of the reason, as painter Pedro Pablo Oliva states in the documentary, his words representing an older generation of artists, is that many Cubans are in the dark as to what’s really going on politically. “Fidel Castro is very private about his personal life and his family,” Donnelly said. “There’s a fantasy about what really is happening in the world around them. They have such limited access to the rest of the world so they’ve developed these fantasy ideas, these concepts to describe what is beyond the wall, so to speak. Blackouts, lack of materials, so much of that kind of thing, they find ways to make work in their favor, whether it’s through the materials they use or through the kinds of art they produce and the stories they tell. It all comes through in the work.” — Michael Abatemarco
“Alumbrones” screens at 3 p.m. on Friday, July 10, and at 1 and 3 p.m. on Saturday, July 11, and Sunday, July 12, in the Convention Center’s Coronado Room.
Darian Rodriguez Mederos with a self-portrait; opposite page, top left, Bruce Donnelly in Cuba; top right, Luis Rodriguez NOA in Alumbrones; images courtesy Lost Boys Productions