havana jazz art

Reflections on the Power of Cultural Diplomacy in Cuba

A shock of recognition that happens when creative people from different worlds come together.

by Kalpen Suresh Modi

The flight from Miami to Havana is just over 200 miles, about the same distance as New York to Washington, DC. We touched down at Jose Marti International Airport in less time than it takes to make a pizza, and in so doing became the first official US Cultural Delegation to Cuba. There have been wonderful, detailed accounts of this historic visit, and its function (cultural diplomacy), nature (friendly and collaborative), and outcomes (artistic and financial commitments), so I won’t rehash those here. What I’ll focus on instead is the immeasurable component of art itself in the rebuilding of relationships at a people-to-people level.

El Taller Experimental de la Gráfica (the Experimental Graphic Art Studio)
Artists at El Taller Experimental de la Gráfica (the Experimental Graphic Art Studio) – Havana

Artists are known for conveying the human experience across borders, this is nothing new; just turn on Mr. Bean in any country and watch people smile. But the opportunity to share the universal joys and struggles of family life, of putting food on the table, of love and loss, of great friends – with an entire country that has been estranged for decades – that is something truly significant. Just like sharing home-cooked food, the arts nourish the soul and unify the human spirit. Cynics may roll their eyes at artsy-talk like this, but consider that fifty-plus years of embargo, restrictions on arts, sports, and culture, and a global arsenal of nuclear weapons have produced few tangible results. Cultural diplomacy plays a beneficial lower-cost, higher-yield role, and thanks to the work of Presidents Obama and Castro, the beginning of this relationship between the United States and Cuba, is now.

In Havana, we met with our artist counterparts: musicians, dancers, filmmakers, actors, authors. We watched films together, played music and danced together, discussed at length the challenges of producing art in Cuba vs America. The dialogue between our American artists and Cuban counterparts was friendly, funny, serious, and direct. We wanted to know if Cuba’s incredible system of arts schools is an actual meritocracy (it is). They wanted to know why despite having world-class films and musicians, our public funding for arts & culture is so abysmal (it’s complicated).

We toured the Cuban National Art School (Instituto Superior de Arte). Exhibit after exhibit there reflected experiences that we have no matter where we live. A curiosity about the solar system, reflections on family life, a gallery on marriage and love (yes, including beautiful pieces of same-sex spouses). Walking around outside, massive sculptures and evidence of a deep affinity for baseball. All of these decades apart, were we really that different? We experienced what President’s Committee Co-Chair George Stevens called, “the shock of recognition” that happens, “when creative people from different worlds come together.” I’ll never forget the incredible pianist Miguel Ángel De Armas Junior, who I met next to the art collective Fabrica de Arte Cubano; he worked his way through some spotty English, and my Spanish is nonexistent, but there we were, communicating for hours through this “shock of recognition” about how we approach the subtexts of emotion and joy towards a global audience in much the same way, whether it’s a passionate piece of his music, or a ridiculous comedic scene in one of my films. The point wasn’t self-aggrandizement. The point was: wow, all of these years of prohibition, and here we are, two artists younger than the embargo, recognizing the same humanity between our audiences, our societies.

The new US/Cuba relationship allows these artistic conversations for the first time. Cuban and American artists can now freely and directly engage and create in ways previously prohibited. We’ll preserve histories, advance ideas together, and build a more lasting peace than that achieved through traditional paradigms. All of this in the midst of a long list of other significant changes, including Major League Baseball negotiations, educational ventures, and business opportunities. For those of us born decades after our two countries severed ties in 1961, it’s hard to imagine what the last fifty-five years without artistic collaboration was really like. That time covers everything from the cold war to human space exploration; from the stain of racial segregation to the achievement of marriage equality under the first black president. It’s been a long time. And change has come. From Miami to Havana, what a wonderful time to celebrate the universality of the human spirit. What a wonderful time to celebrate understanding through art.

Kalpen Suresh Modi is an actor, writer, and producer. From 2009 to 2011, he was an Associate Director of the Office of Public Engagement at the White House, serving as liaison to Young Americans, the Arts, and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Before joining the White House, Mr. Modi worked as an artist and actor in Los Angeles and New York, and was also an Adjunct Lecturer in Asian American Studies, Film Studies, and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He served as a member of the Obama for America National Arts Policy Committee in 2008 and as a National Campaign Co-Chair in 2012. Mr. Modi received a B.A. from University of California, Los Angeles.

Reflections on the Power of Cultural Diplomacy in Cuba was last modified: October 5th, 2016 by Simons Chase