Within the Revolution

October 09, 2018

Adrienne Hardin

It’s one thing to learn about art history in a classroom, but it’s entirely different experiencing it in person. Within the Revolution: Art, Media, and the Built Environment was a course centered on art, architecture, and visual culture in Havana, Cuba, with a focus on the role of nationalism and revolution, says Fredo Rivera ’06, assistant professor of art history. He traveled to Cuba with 15 students over spring break. “The opportunity to consider art works and buildings we studied in class on site and within their contemporary context revolutionized our understanding of Cuba and the role of visual culture in our everyday life,” he says.  

Making Connections around the World

A decades-long embargo has reduced most Americans’ knowledge of Cuba to stereotypes: old cars, cigars, and rum. 

But beyond those, Cuba has thriving art and music scenes and a culture that each student connected to in their own individual way.

During a tour of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, the guide stopped at a painting of Cuban peasants by Eduardo Abela. The group almost passed it by until Rivera pointed out that the painting had been funded by the Works Progress Administration, a program founded by Harry Hopkins 1912.

Walking along the Malécon—Havana’s infamous seawall and promenade—induced a sense of surrealism as a group of local teens danced to Camila Cabello’s “Havana,”a song that had been playing repeatedly on radio stations in Iowa before the trip. “Being at the Malécon and learning to salsa connected me to my passion and showed me how dancing can be a way to connect with another culture,” says Elvira Nurmukhamedova ’19.

Students chat while in Cuba

For all the deliberate connections the students made, just as many were purely coincidental. Ellen Taylor ’19 was walking down the street in Old Havana on a Saturday morning when she heard someone call out “Shabbat Shalom!” to her. “The Hebrew greeting was, of course, deeply familiar to me! To my surprise, I suddenly found myself among my community in a place that had previously felt foreign to me,” says Taylor. “Beyond offering a look into Jewish life in Cuba, the connection I made with the rabbi provided me with a new understanding of belonging and community that transcends borders. It was a moment that I wasn’t a stranger in Cuba.”

Two students talk with locals in Cuba

The connections students made with Cuba and its culture and people would not be limited by the nearly two weeks spent on the island. “As an artist, the trip helped me realize how connected Cuba is to Mexico,” says Giani Chavez ’20. “It’s inspired me to go back and search more into my own Mexican culture.”

Where is the Revolution? 

Student takes notes in notebook

The Cuban Revolution officially ended in 1959, but it’s still nearly impossible to turn a corner without seeing a likeness of Fidel Castro or Che Guevara. “The most surprising element to me is how revolutionary ideas are everywhere. The revolution is still present, even after all this time,” Hanna Kessel ’19 said over lunch in Camagüey, birthplace of Ignacio Agramonte, a Cuban revolutionary and major general during the Ten Years War.

When asked about the possibility of a second revolution during a lecture on race in Cuba, University of Havana professor Tomás Fernandez Robaina, responded, “I have lived and I have enjoyed one revolution. Two revolutions would be too much for me.”

But in a tour of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, the tour guide repeatedly asked and answered, “Where is the revolution? The revolution is here.”

As the class traveled across the island, they managed to find their own bits of revolution. To one student, the revolution was found in being present and connecting with people in a way that can only be done free of the distraction of the Internet. For another, it was in an edition of The Communist Manifesto published by the Cuban Institute of the Book, hidden among the stacks in a magpie’s nest of a bookstore. To another, it was recreating one of famed Cuban artist Ana Mendieta’s siluetas on a beach in Baracoa. 

Two students looking at books

Learning and Teaching Globally

Students looking at artwork in gallery

Over time, people forget the facts and statistics learned in a classroom, but it’s impossible to forget the feeling of that first step into a different country. “Going to Cuba transformed a 2D education into a 3D education. Being immersed is a completely different experience. We got so much more information just by being there and seeing it,”says Nurmukhamedova. “We learned about Cuba from the mouths of people who live there.”

The students who traveled to Cuba aren't the only Grinnellians who will benefit from this course-embedded travel—it will also help to globalize the curriculum for future classes. “I feel more comfortable now including the case of Cuba in my Nationalism syllabus since I have firsthand experience of the ways in which it fits existing theories and contrasts with cases I already include,” says Gemma Sala, associate professor of political science and a co-leader of the class. “Our visits to national museums and historical sites allowed me to see how they represent nationhood, all of it in ways I could not have captured so clearly by merely reading academic pieces from afar.”

Student taking notes

Upon returning to campus, the class studied the impact of art and architecture after the Revolution. Abdiel Lopez ’18 reflected on the impact the trip had on the materials covered after their return: “Being in Cuba and seeing how people talk about racial politics was more illuminating than reading from the books alone would have been. The trip highlighted and captured nuances that books fail to distinguish. One of the books we’re reading now discusses political theory, but witnessing educators and professionals directly talking about how it affects their practice has given me a more holistic view of what we’re reading. The trip helped bridge the gap between theory and practice.”

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