Little Havana is more than just a place to dine, shop, imbibe and generally have a ball. While the choices of attractions to experience are copious, from trying Cuban cuisine at the Little Havana Food & Cultural to visiting Agustin Gainza Arts And Tavern, all of them are beautifully encased into one giant art gallery. Everywhere you look in this animated district there is aestheticism. Besides the masterpieces from famed artists, you can appreciate that this neighborhood will even elevate its utilitarian planters and receptacles to colorful and snazzy museum quality.
What’s unique about the craftsmanship in Little Havana is that each piece of art tells a story. And that tale is in the eye of the beholder. For while the talent of the Little Havana virtuosos is to effectively share their deepest emotion, the true measure of these artisans is their ability to empower their wide-eyed fans the freedom to interpret the original parable through their own lens.
And who better than to offer their very own personal perception of Little Havana art than my fellow guides at Miami Culinary Tours. So, I chatted with these vast vessels of knowledge as they shared their passion for the different artworks that spoke the most to them.
“I believe an artist is a product of their environment,” says painter Magnus Sodamin of his vivid, botanical artwork, which is heavily influenced by his Miami surroundings. That’s why guide Gina N. has chosen a bold, huge mural painted by this beloved artist as one of her favorites. “I love this piece because it links the neighborhoods of Wynwood and Little Havana together as Mr Sodamin has splashed his talents across both vicinities where I love to tour around my guests”, says Gina. “The entire wall sits at the 1600 block, the western entrance into the heart of the commercial center of Little Havana, a perfect greeting to the area.”
“The piece has a colossal black background with tropical flowers painted in mostly orange, red and green with Magnus’ signature style of dripping paint. Magnus paints with his surroundings always in mind. He often visits Miami’s Fairchild Botanical Gardens where Mother Nature has an art showing daily”, Gina exclaims enthusiastically. She goes on to say, “When you look at his works it conjures up feelings of a rainy tropical afternoon with nothing to do but listen to the sound of the watery drops and maybe sip on a cafecito and munch on a pastilito, so having this large mural based in Little Havana is so very fitting.”
After you follow Gina’s directions to enjoy art with a side of rich Cuban coffee and a delicious Cuban pastry, mosey from the Magnus Sodamin mural right across the street to enter the well-known Agustin Gainza gallery for a peek at a painting cherished by guide Ria C. Located at 1652 SW 8th Street, silver-haired Cuban artist Agustín Gainza and his beautiful wife Ester operate not only a popular gallery, but the space is also a cozy taverna. As you loll yourself into the relaxed rhythm of this shop with a well-mixed mojito in hand, be sure to ask Little Havana’s cherished couple for a view of Ria’s favorite series, “Las Moninas.”
“The series “Las Moninas” is one of my favorite collections in his gallery, it features, as Agustin says-“Mulatto girls blazing with tropical colors and lights”. He says these women were inspired by the painting of Velazquez, “Las Meninas”, Ria explains.
“One of the women in this series is named “Rubi” and she is my favorite because she stands confident and proud adorned in a colorful dress and headdress in a ballerinas pose ready to dance. The vibrant colors and shapes in her outfit are representative of the many colors of the Caribbean. Whenever I see Rubi’s portrait it brings a smile to my face, it makes me stand a little taller, and fills me with confidence that I can carry more than I think I can.”
Ria goes on to say that the gallery is a must-do stop on any Little Havana itinerary. If you have a chance to visit a few galleries, make sure this one is on your list. Not only will you get to appreciate the famous Las Moninas series, but you might find yourself inside this glorious atelier for many hours as there is so much that Agustín and Ester want to share with you. You might also have the chance to revel in a painting in progress, as this is also Agustin’s working studio. Have a good chat with him and you’ll learn his prismatic pieces are his way of telling his journey from Cuba to the US-a fascinating story that comes as an extra treat for visiting the Gainza’s salon.
Stay in the same block and you’ll stumble on the works of Molina, the objects of guide Jen P’s affections (1634 SW 8th Street). The artist, Mr. Molina, is one of the 125,000 Cubans that came to Miami in 1980 on the Mariel Boatlift. He spent his first twenty years in New York and then moved to Miami in the year 2000.
“While walking the streets of Little Havana one can’t help but admire the art. This especially holds true with the gallery of Mr. Molina. The paintings in his gallery have always carried a spell over me. The large oil on canvas in Mr. Molina’s window literally stops me in my tracks,” Jen says dreamily.
“His signature style focuses on the eyes of the subject. He extends the eyes out in a horizontal fashion drawing attention to the windows of the soul. Mr. Molina’s art provokes an ethereal feeling. His bold colors and repeated patterns can take one very far away. They are bewitching as equally stabilizing. I believe this juxtaposition is his secret weapon in drawing the viewer in.”
Jen urges to view the painting currently in the window, simply titled Earth & Ocean. “It draws a parallel reference to the island and sea surrounding Cuba. Although Mr Molina says some might refer to the painting as
Yemoja, a major water deity from the Yoruba religion.”
Mr. Molina paints the Gods and Deities of the Yoruba religion, often referred to as Santeria. The artist also points out he paints all the beauty of his Island from the Cuban culture to the flora, fauna and farmers and so much more.
As you exit this shop, spend the rest of your time in Little Havana gazing upon guide Lana O’s street art recommendations. “Little Havana is full of meaningful art pieces, some cheerful and optimistic, others-sarcastic and even socially tragic. Of my favorites to share with my guests are the signature colorful tiles on the walls of the buildings that are so often taken for granted just because they belong to the neighborhood so organically”, Lana says.
These street art pieces are authored by Nelson and Ronald Currás, twin brothers
who arrived to Miami in 1980 from Havana. They were influenced by a Herrera Zapata primitive art ceramics exhibition when they were young and thus discovered their calling was art. The pieces can be found scattered throughout the main drag of 8th street and are adorned with all the symbols of Cuba one can imagine-from tropical flowers, fruit, bongos, cigars, coffee, dominoes and Orishas ( deities in the syncretic religion of Santeria) to El Malecón, the legendary esplanade that stretches for 8 kilometers along the coast in Havana.
“What is unique about the brother’s style is that as true twins and mirror reflections of each other, left-handed and right-handed, the brothers would work on the same piece with four hands. The final result never was only Nelson’s, more precise and geometric, or Ronald’s, more flowing and romantic-it was their piece together. I love their style because it reminds me of Cuba with its bold colors. The tiles speak to me because the primitive imagery is as old as the history of humanity”, Lana says.
Close to the magnificent works of Lana’s adored Brothers Curran, you’ll find my two favorites stretching across the entire northwest wall of Azucar Lane at 15th Avenue and 8th Street. To me, Little Havana is a profound study of contrasts. There are very young residents strolling arm and arm with their elderly abuela; boisterous music contrasts sharply with the whispery voices of those paying respects at the solemn Cuban Memorial Boulevard; gargantuan plates of Cuban ropa vieja diametrically oppose thimble-sized portions of cafecito-these stark contradictions makes my heart sing. And so I am most at home in Little Havana when I gaze upon the two very different murals facing each other on this wall, one by Reynaldo Artires and one by Daniel Fila.
The first masterpiece graffiti by Artires ( it’s called “masterpiece” because it takes up a huge amount of wall space, has at least three colors and goes way beyond mere words as in more standard graffiti art). This mosaic-like piece called “Amor al Arte” or love of art, depicts much happiness. It captures the joy of Cuban exiles making their home in America more comfortable by bringing their own traditions to their new habitat. Dance, music and love of life is portrayed in this stunning work. My interpretation of Artires’ intention is to show how the Cuban community freely expresses their passion for the “art of life.” This is the spot I end my tours because my groups have spent their last few hours engrossed with a community that wears their upbeat emotions on their sleeves. This sunny and memorable tour de force by Artires summarizes their visit to this community so very well.
In opposition to the joviality that Artires invokes, the second mural on this wall by Miami-born Daniel Fila ( he is also known as Krave) creates a deeper mood. He is a multifaceted artist whose work ranges from mural installations to figurative and abstract paintings, animations, and urban sculpture. The danger, intrigue, originality and urgency associated with graffiti would become one of the central themes in his development as an artist. Fila started to paint potent images to set himself apart. Although much of Fila’s street art can be found throughout Wynwood and the Miami Design District, Fila has ventured into Little Havana’s burgeoning art scene with this mural entitled “Ladies in White” which means “Damas de Blanco.”
Damas de Blanco is an opposition movement in Cuba. It was founded in 2003 by wives and other female relatives of jailed dissidents. The women protest the imprisonments by attending Mass each Sunday wearing white dresses and then silently walking through the streets in Cuba. The color white was chosen to symbolize peace. For me, Fila’s work is so different than the Artires mural because instead of symbolizing bliss, this piece is about true sorrow. It is the sadness that Cubans carry heavy in their hearts. But being such gregarious and warm people, their melancholy about the Ladies in White movement is something they will discuss with you only when prompted. Interestingly, Fila refers to himself as a “Miami boy”. He doesn’t have Cuban lineage. But, he was so moved by the story of the “Ladies in White” that is why he painted the mural in honor of them.
For an ideal spot to end your art journey through Little Havana, take a step right around the corner from the Artires and Fila jewels and duck into Azucar, the area’s most famous ice cream emporium. Grab your scoop of Cuban ice cream and return the crowning accomplishments to take a seat under the shady tree that separates the two works of art from each other. Once rooted in place, slowly savor your frozen treat as you reflect on all the artistic creations you have seen and start conjuring up your very own special interpretations of your favorites.
By Robyn Webb