EssaysWeekend

Cuban Book Art: Ediciones Vigía and the Beauty of the Everyday

Wooden plaque by Vigía’s door (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Since December 17, 2014, when U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, interest in our Caribbean neighbor has spiked. For more than half a century, almost since the victory of Cuba’s 1959 Revolution, U.S. policy toward Cuba has attempted to isolate the country and defeat its independent project of social change. Outright military attack, an economic blockade, illegal acts of sabotage, attempts on Fidel Castro’s life, brain drain, the preferential treatment of Cuban immigrants, crop and livestock plagues, and wild rumors have all been used — unsuccessfully — to try to bring the revolution to its knees. Although there are still some diehards in Cuba’s exile community and among its extreme Republican backers who would continue the tired Cold War policy, this change promises an opening welcomed by most on both sides of the divide.

Tens of thousands of Americans want to travel to Cuba “before things change.” This is a skewed assumption, because much has already changed, beginning with the 1989 implosion of the socialist bloc, which plunged Cuba into a period of severe hardship. The most difficult years, 1991 to 1993, were dubbed a “Special Period in Peacetime” by the Cuban leadership.. Although all areas of life suffered, the Revolution continued to subsidize art and culture. As literary critic Ambrosio Fornet has written: “We suffered reductions in the numbers of books published, a reduction in quantity but never in the importance given to the arts, never in quality.”

San Juan River as seen from Vigía’s second-floor balcony (click to enlarge)

A group of progressive governments throughout Latin America, defiant of U.S. domination, lessened Cuba’s isolation, as did increased trade and travel from almost every country but the United States. When Raul Castro took over from his ailing brother in 2008, he began instituting reforms designed to ease the country toward a mixed economy, while maintaining the most important socialist achievements such as universal healthcare, free education, and subsidized culture and sports.

Although the December 17 gesture between the two presidents augers big shifts, it will take an act of Congress to overturn the economic blockade: probably the biggest obstacle to Cuba being able to negotiate on an even playing field with other countries. The Cubans themselves want to preserve their hard won accomplishments. As Raul Castro has said: “We must go slowly, very slowly . . . but not too slowly.”

Cuba has long had rich traditions in literature, poetry, theater, photography, film, dance, music, and the visual arts. One thinks of Alicia Alonso, the great prima ballerina who stayed on after the revolution and developed a world-renowned school of classical ballet; of writers such as José Martí, Alejo Carpentier, Nicolás Guillén, or Nancy Morejón; painters such as Víctor Manuel, Wifredo Lam, Antonia Eiríz, René Portocarero, or Amelia Peláes; films such as Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment (1973) and Strawberry and Chocolate (1995); singer/songwriters such as Silvio Rodríguez, Pablo Milanés, Sara González and others of the Nueva Trova; photographers such as Korda, Raul Corales, or Grandal; to name just a few.

From the beginning, the Cuban revolution has paid attention to improving its people’s cultural level. Early on, Fidel warned against dumbing down artistic expression for the masses and urged raising people’s intellectual level so they could appreciate the best in the arts. The 1961 literacy campaign sent 100,000 adolescents out to every corner of the island; after one year they had reduced the national illiteracy rate from 76% to 3.7%. The country became one of the most literate in Latin America. Publishing, filmmaking, and other artistic endeavors are subsidized by the State, and most cultural events are free. Casa de las Américas, the institution responsible for piercing the cultural blockade, has a vibrant 56-year history of worldwide artistic exchange, a publishing program and several magazines, exhibition halls, an important annual literary contest, and more. Not a week goes by without it hosting at least one lecture, panel discussion, art opening or poetry reading.

Cabinets hold books produced in every one of Vigía’s 30 years. (click to enlarge)

Ediciones Vigía (Vigía Publishers) is part of this overall cultural history, and at the same time an exception to it. Its unique history is courageous and illuminating.

Vigía came on the scene in 1985 in the city of Matanzas just to the east of Havana. In a society in which almost every endeavor is managed by the State, a small group of local writers and artists felt the need to create invitations and handbills for readings and other cultural events, and they set about to produce them in an original way. Gradually small books were added to Vigía’s repertoire. To date there are more than 500 titles. Over the years, with vision and dignity, Vigía wooed the revolution: its founders were products of that sweeping social change even as they resisted its sometimes coercive power. I first heard about Vigía from friends, and from several films by Juanamaría Cordones-Cook (Ediciones Vigía: Poéticas visuales / Visual Poetics; La Habana expuesta, un diseño de Estévez / Havana on Display, a Design by Estévez; Un libro único de Estévez / A One-of-a-Kind Book by Estévez, all 2012). Then, in 2014, on a research trip to Cuba I took a day off and went to pay a personal visit. More like a pilgrimage.

Vigía celebrated its first 30 years with a festival held April 26-30, 2015. My partner, book artist Barbara Byers, and I were invited to attend: she to exhibit an example of her book art and I to present a bilingual edition of my long poem, La llorona, which would be launched along with several other new titles. The festival’s multiplicity of events provides insight into one of the Cuban Revolution’s most unusual and exciting projects.

On the festival’s opening night, dancers Marcelino Rivas Santana and Richael Rosales Rivero perform “Homenaje” in tribute to Vigía. (click to enlarge)

In a socialist revolution there is a great deal of centralization, and the variety of Cuban publishers have been State-run since 1959. Although there has always been a significant degree of diversity, with progressive forces, more often than, managing to win out over narrower visions, publishing decisions were often made by people who favored the priorities of State organisms. This could leave the more iconoclastic poets and experimental artists out in the cold. Tragically repressive periods, such as the so-called Quinquenio Gris (Five Gray Years) of the early 1970s, ignored or punished artists who were gay, who publicly opposed “revolutionary values,” or were otherwise outside the mainstream and therefore relegated to the margins.

During this period of painful ostracism, promoted by a narrow-minded leadership in the cultural sector, a number of important talents were unable to publish or perform. Many left the country. Some committed suicide.

(In the 1990s there was a public exploration of this sad page of Cuban cultural history. Artists and writers analyzed how the repressive period had developed and persisted for so long. Lectures and forums went deep. Safeguards were put in place so that such repression would not happen again.)

It was in the context of the Quinquenio Gris that Vigía opened its doors in 1985. Matanzas City has traditionally been rich in a variety of cultural manifestations. Theater designer Rolando Estévez and writer Alfredo Zaldívar created the impetus behind the project. Both have since moved on: Estévez now produces small editions and one-of-a-kind artist books under his own imprint, El Fortín; Zaldívar heads another local publishing venture called Ediciónes Matanzas, but remains active with the Vigía collective.

Vigía’s director, Agustina Ponce, with a clay oil lamp, symbol of the publishing house (click to enlarge)

Vigía’s current director is Agustina Ponce. Laura Ruiz has been a part of the publishing house for 27 years; she is its senior editor. And there are some three dozen others, among them editors, designers, those who do the manual cutting and pasting, and interns — including contingents that come regularly from foreign universities for weeks of work study experience.

Everything at Vigía is done by hand, and with throwaway or inexpensive materials. From the beginning the idea has been to create beauty from that which is readily available in a world of hardship and extreme scarcity. More importantly, the philosophy reflects a desire to demonstrate that beauty can be made from what is at hand, what anyone can obtain. In this way Vigía makes common cause with ordinary Cuban citizens, whose resourcefulness and ingenuity have become national characteristics, and exquisite design takes the place of broad consumerism.

Over its first two decades, Vigía produced an extraordinary number of books but remained known mostly in Matanzas, and to a lesser extent throughout Cuba. It wasn’t until its first appearance at the Guadalajara Book Fair in the 1990s that it became visible beyond the country’s borders. Today Vigía’s books are in important private collections throughout the world, as well as at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and other museums and libraries.

At its formal launch, designer Elizabeth Valero talks about my book, ‘La llorona.’ The book’s editor, Laura Ruiz, looks on. 

The publisher’s growth and immense success was based on several premises. It published, and continues to publish, the best Cuban and foreign literature: poetry, prose, song lyrics, literature for children, and a yearly magazine. Great writers, some of them shunned during the revolution’s unfortunate repressive periods, have enjoyed beautiful editions of their work. Among the press’s many authors are Emily Dickinson, Jorge Luis Borges, Gastón Barquero, Federico García Lorca, Dulce María Loynaz, Nancy Morejón, Ruth Behar, Natalia Bolívar, Fina García Marruz, and Eliseo Diego.

Each Vigía book is limited to a numbered edition of 200 copies. The very first rudimentary “press” was an ancient mimeograph machine. As the stencils wore thin, a volume’s final copies were almost illegible. Today books are fabricated using a scanner, hand lettering, leaves, sand, the bark of trees, seashells, stones, beads, bells, cutouts, feathers and fabric, as well as all sorts of castoff or inexpensive paper.

In one of Vigía’s workspaces, putting the finishing touches on a book (click to enlarge)

Over the years a community has grown up around the project; the people of Matanzas donate all sorts of things they think might be useful, such as the local merchants who bring offerings of used packing boxes that often provide the basis for book covers, and occasionally the collective puts out a call for something it needs. When it does, the response is immediate and enthusiastic. For a book design that called for its cover to be wrapped in wine-colored cloth, townspeople contributed wine-colored tablecloths, shirts, and dresses. Old sheets were dyed the required hue. Dozens of supporters made the edition possible, although each cover displayed a slightly different shade of wine red.

During our visit we noticed an elderly man sleeping on Vigía’s front porch. In the United States we would have identified him as homeless, which in Cuba has pretty much disappeared with the Revolution, so I was curious as to why he was there. I was told he has mental problems and refuses to take refuge in one of Matanzas shelters. He prefers Vigía’s portal. The Vigía collective makes sure he eats, and Agustina Ponce, the collective’s director, heats water for him to bathe, washes his clothes, and otherwise cares for him. Just one more example of what community means to these makers of books and sustainers of dreams.

Street near Vigía, Matanzas City. The quote on the side of the building is from José Martí. It reads: “The more artistic a craft, the richer the craftsperson.” The building houses the provincial artisans association. (click to enlarge)

In Cuba’s difficult, often messy transition from isolated Socialist State to a society that of necessity invites market considerations into the mix, Vigía is an example of diversity and openness that sets a powerful example, a space where the spirit of Revolution, at its most exemplary, resides. It helps that from its inception the project has been dedicated to an inclusive creativity. The revolution’s recognition of past errors with regard to certain repressive periods, as well as the importance it has always given to cultural expression, allows a project like Vigía to flourish. Thirty years after its initial tentative steps, the independent publisher retains the power of its original premise while making the revolution proud.

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