Passport to Cuba: The surprising connection between Cleveland and Cuba, and why it matters

In early October, Cleveland became the first northern port city to sign a memo of understanding with Cuba’s maritime administration—effectively paving the way for future trade possibilities. NPR’s “All Things Considered” called the move an “economic olive branch” amid rising diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and Cuba, and should the current trade embargo be lifted, Cleveland would likely be in pole position to conduct business with the island nation.

The agreement makes a fitting cap for what has been a year of rich synergy between Cleveland and Cuba across the spectrum—from art to entrepreneurship to architecture to dance. Much of the exchange took place under the umbrella of Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion: Cuba Edition, an international artist residency program that brought Cuban artists and creatives to work with Verb Ballets, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland Print Room, and the Collective Arts Network (CAN) Journal among others.

November marked the culmination of Creative Fusion with a trio of exhibitions: “The Art of Exchange: Contemporary Cuban Art in Cleveland” (November 2-December 15) at Cleveland Institute of Art; “Cuba Now: A Pop-Up Exhibition” (November 10-25) at Cleveland Print Room; and “Through the Lens: Rediscovering Cuba” (November 3-January 2) at the Trudy Wiesenberger Gallery at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center.

“It’s pretty incredible to have three significant exhibitions at one time in a city like Cleveland,” says Lillian Kuri, Vice President of Strategic Grantmaking, Arts & Urban Design Initiatives for Cleveland Foundation. “They represent the deep connections that have been built between Cuba and Cleveland, showcasing work from a robust exchange of ideas and artists. We’ve been told that nowhere else in the United States has there been this kind of exchange with this many significant artists.”

To Cuba Now co-founder Nick York sees efforts like Creative Fusion as a necessary bridge until positive relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume. “Things like Creative Fusion are exactly what we should be doing [in the interim],” says York. “Art transcends politics and allows people to exchange ideas and build personal relationships. The Cleveland Foundation and Cleveland Leadership Center are continuing to engage despite a challenging political situation, which is a testament to them.”

Uncovering the real Cuba

As a Cuban-born Cleveland resident of 18 years, Augusto Bordelois is someone who understands both places very well—to the point where he cringes every time he sees stereotypical representations of Cuba. “The old colonial building, the vintage American car, the guy with the cigar...those are the things you see all the time, but that’s not what Cuban culture is all about,” says Bordelois. “I go every two years and every time I can hardly recognize the country [because] it is changing so much.”

A renowned painter who specializes in “Caribbean magical realism,” Bordelois says he finds initiatives like Creative Fusion refreshing and much-needed. “These exchanges are bringing fresh new artists creating fresh new art that is much more relevant to what is happening in Cuba right now,” he says. “It’s a different exposure to what Cuba is really all about.”

<span class="content-image-text">Augusto Bordelois</span>Augusto Bordelois

While the synergies between Cleveland and Cuba seem to have hit a fever pitch in recent years, Bordelois says he’s seen the relationship developing for at least 15 years. “It started with the Cleveland Museum of Art bringing in Cuban artists to design floats for Parade the Circle,” recalls Bordelois. “Little by little, organizations such as the Cleveland Foundation and Cleveland Institute of Art have started to bring more artists from Cuba.”

Though Bordelois was not part of the Creative Fusion exhibitions, he currently has an exhibition at the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve. Titled “Visual Emotions: The Way I Remember You,” the show is a retrospective of Bordelois’ work and is his inaugural solo show as an Archived Artist. In conjunction, art and travel writer Irene Shaland gave a talk entitled “Cuba: The Land, the People, The Arts – 60 Years after Castro’s Revolution.”

Bordelois is also coming off a successful display at the Stephanie Tubbs Jones Gallery at Cleveland Hopkins Airport. From September 15-October 31, “Kaleidoscope” gave airport visitors a window into Bordelois’ Cuban upbringing and formative moments as an artist. “I have never gotten so much Facebook feedback as I did from those who saw my work in the airport,” says Bordelois, who estimates that his artwork was exposed to as many as 40,000 people traveling through Hopkins.

That was then…this is To Cuba Now

York also has a unique perspective on Cuba, having co-founded To Cuba Now two years ago “shortly after [Barack] Obama made the announcement that we would start normalized relations.” His business partner is Jorge Delgado, a former director of international relations for the Cleveland Foundation with strong family ties in Cuba. Their aim is to provide advising and immersion tours for businesses, cultural institutions, and universities interested in exploring opportunities in Cuba.

“When we formed the company, it wasn't to be a travel agency, but rather a business advisory company that could help develop long-term relationships and start the process of engagement,” explains York, a Cleveland resident of 20 years. “If you don't understand the culture in Cuba—its history, its enjoyment of art, music, and dance—you won't be able to fully connect in Cuba. [We sought to foster] that cultural component and understanding both on the U.S. and Cuba sides.”

Over the two-year period, York says that To Cuba Now led at least 20 trips to Cuba for both local and national organizations. Each itinerary was highly customized—for instance, the Cleveland Foundation’s tour included a presentation on the master plan for Havana and a trip to Malpaso Dance Company, while the Cleveland Leadership Center undertook a social work project and visited the University of Havana for a “Future of Cuba” discussion.

<span class="content-image-text">January Creative Fusion group at FAC</span>January Creative Fusion group at FAC

York and Delgado were also able to help kickstart potential deal negotiations for companies like Sherwin-Williams and Sunoco, but now he’s unsure of what will transpire under the current administration.

“People are pulling back and saying, ‘Let’s wait and see what happens on the political and diplomatic front,'” says York. “However, policy changes have not precluded people from engaging in Cuba and doing cultural exchange programs. Often, those can be key drivers to more engagement overall and can be great stepping stones [to better overall relations].”

Design in motion

Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (CUDC) is living proof that such exchange programs can have real, tangible impact. For the last two years, its International Design Exchange (INDEX) graduate studio has focused on urban regeneration strategies for both Cleveland and Havana, drafting design proposals and being mentored by Cuban architects Sofia Márquez Aguiar and Ernesto Jiménez.

“We focus on geographic areas by doing background research and site analysis, working on understanding the needs for that community, [and identifying] opportunities for redevelopment or ways to improve the physical environment,” says David Jurca, CUDC's associate director. 

This year, the INDEX students centered their efforts on Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood and Havana’s Vedado neighborhood (home to Fábrica De Arte Cubano (FAC), or “Cuban Art Factory”). Jurca and his team chose Glenville primarily due to its involvement in the FRONT Triennial as home to the PNC Glenville Arts Campus.

“On a much smaller scale, that site seemed like an interesting complement to the FAC as a cultural arts and design hub located within a neighborhood that could spur equitable reinvestment in the surrounding area,” shares Jurca.

Jurca has made two trips to Cuba this year—once in January as part of the Cleveland Foundation cohort, and again on spring break with his graduate students. Not only were the students able to view their chosen site (the El Fanguito slums on the outskirts of Vedado), but they also participated in a two-day workshop in which they received feedback and critique on their design proposal from local architecture and design students.

“It was eye-opening for them to compare their expectations of the site to the actual lived experience,” says Jurca. “The quality of the space and the architecture was very different than they had perceived through photographs and maps. The experience was very valuable in highlighting the need for on-the-ground experience of a place.”

<span class="content-image-text">El Fanguito</span>El Fanguito

When the group returned in April, they worked to “identify some of the ideas generated for Havana that have transferability to Cleveland,” according to Jurca. One major takeaway was the resourcefulness exhibited by the people of Cuba—specifically those living in El Fanguito who make “improvised housing” from scrap metal and wood.

“In the U.S., we aren’t as limited in our materials and sourcing of fabrication,” says Jurca. “We can definitely benefit from that mindset of creative design with constraints.”

Using that inspiration as a jumping-off point, the group organized a workshop on KSU’s main campus to build furniture for Glenville’s public spaces using salvaged wood palettes. They also solicited suggestions at a Gathering Glenville event in July, at which neighborhood residents requested more outdoor seating, benches, and picnic platforms. From there, they generated a prototype for a picnic platform to be built along E. 105th Street on the Glenville Arts Campus. 

"One of our goals was to encourage exploration on E. 105th between University Circle and the Cultural Gardens," explains Jurca. “The Glenville Arts Campus is almost like a lilypad between cultural venues centered in University Circle and the Glenville Neighborhood, which is an interesting correlation to Havana because FAC is in many ways a lilypad between Old Havana and the more tourist-oriented locations.”

Jurca hopes the picnic platform will act as “breadcrumbs” to facilitate that exploration. The team recently sent out files to have CNC cutting done for modular benches (aka “super seats”) that can combine together in different configurations. The project is set to wrap in December, which will also mark the release of the INDEX Studio Report.

“Based on the ideas we generated, the report will be provided to our partners on the ground, and we can use it to continue conversations with officials and local residents,” says Jurca.

The beauty of exchange

The fruits of CUDC’s labor can also be viewed at the current “The Art of Exchange: Contempory Cuban Art in Cleveland” exhibition at CIA’s Reinberger Gallery. One of the pieces on display is an old piano that visiting Cuban artist Aguiar repurposed into a bar and tabletop for a CUDC event held at the former Winnie’s Nursery in May.

“It was one of the first pieces we secured, and a symbol of a project Sofia did while in residence [with CUDC],” says Nichole Woods, Reinberger Gallery acting director.

<span class="content-image-text">Piano Fuerte</span>Piano FuerteThe piano is just one of numerous works that represent the collaborations that took place in Cleveland between local and visiting artists. Cases in point: jewelry created by Cuban designer and CIA artist-in-residence Yasniel Valdes with CIA professor Matthew Hollern over a period of three months, and a trio of photolithographic prints created by Cuban printmaker Sandra Ramos alongside CIA master printer Karen Beckwith.

“Given that there is a lot of renewed interest in Cuban art and exhibitions, we really thought this could be an amazing opportunity to display the entirety or extent that the [Creative Fusion] project encapsulated,” says Woods. “It wasn’t just that CIA hosted an artist from Cuba, but more about all of the amazing exchanges that happened between other host institutions and their artists.”

The exhibition features works from 13 artists in total, many of which display the resourcefulness that inspired Jurca and his students.

“That theme rings true for a lot of the work,” says Woods, citing Valdes in particular. “In Cuba, [Valdes] was using silver, but gemstones and precious stones were not widely available, so he innovated by using cut fabrics to invent his own gemstone. If he didn’t have a certain type of sandpaper, he would use the grit of a stone to sand edges. It’s not just about making do with what you have, but making something extraordinary out of it.”

Woods believes that, on a larger scale, such resourcefulness is what unites Cleveland and Cuba, and what drives the potential for their respective resurgences.

“There are so many similarities—we’re both cities by a body of water: the island by the sea, the city by the lake,” says Woods. “Cleveland has a history of being a city that was once very prosperous, but had a fall that led to a lot of abandoned properties and rampant poverty. People are turning to creative solutions to solve these problems and looking to places like Cuba where people are constantly doing that in order to make a better life.”

Jen Jones Donatelli
Jen Jones Donatelli

About the Author: Jen Jones Donatelli

As an enthusiastic CLE-vangelist, Jen Jones Donatelli enjoys diving headfirst into her work with FreshWater Cleveland. Upon moving back to Cleveland after 16 years in Los Angeles, Jen served as FreshWater's managing editor for two years (2017-2019) and continues her work with the publication as a contributing editor and host of the FreshFaces podcast.

When not typing the day away at her laptop, she teaches writing and creativity classes through her small business Creative Groove, as well as Literary Cleveland, Cleveland State University, and more. Jen is a proud graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.