I discovered Alina’s art while exploring her mother’s artist coop in Cuba, which facilitates three or more various artists. Her mother, Martalena, is an acclaimed Cuban artist who paints visually compelling subjects that reference political and literary themes with metaphoric significance. In this traditional setting, Alina’s edgy pop-art stood out as a strong voice for a disenfranchised youth population. Upon meeting Alina, I realized the issues she discussed about Cuban society were significant to my research area regarding how and why fear silences, and its adverse effect on a democracy. After discussing the similarities and differences between a democracy and a dictatorship, I returned to the studio a week later and commissioned Alina to create an artwork that compares Cuba to Canada by incorporating into her piece how money affects the people in its society. As a recent graduate from the art program at the University, and uncertain if she would be allowed to accept a commission with such political overtones without penalty, Alina invited her University professor to assess my request. Her professor encouraged Alina to accept the commission and I left her with a Canadian looney and one-dollar coins from each of Cuba’s two currencies, the CUC and the peso.
Cubans are not permitted to use the CUC, a currency strictly reserved for tourists. Their work pays them in pesos, and the average Cuban earns what translates to approximately $15-25 CDN per month (this salary applies to any profession – from a physician to a bartender). Cubans can only make purchases using pesos, which are approximately 1:24 the value of a CUC. However, the cost of goods (including food) is the same for tourists as it is for Cubans, which is roughly the same price, if not a little higher, than it is in Canada and the US. This economic structure results in a “tourist apartheid”, which forcibly separates the tourist population from the locals and prevents most average Cubans from accessing basic commodities such as food and clothing. It also ensures that a highly educated and well-informed population is perpetually condemned to abject poverty, with little hope of ever surmounting it. Speaking out would definitely ensure the protester loses their job, including their meagre monthly allowance. They also risk affecting family members and the loss of their jobs as well. As a consequence, a black-market, which buys, sells and trades goods and services, has emerged. This second (and “illegal”) economy serves an important and significant roll in every Cuban’s survival, even though they could be arrested and jailed for partaking.
Three weeks later I arrived to collect the commissioned artwork, carefully displayed on Alina’s workstation. “Those are my hands”, she noted. I smiled when I saw it – so much expressed through metaphor that could not be said aloud. The small red and black hands reached upward while securely tied to power and money, with a red Canadian leaf and a Cuban star floating between. “Why green?” I asked, referring to the bright green background of the painting. “Because green is the colour of nature, of life” she easily declared. A moment later she added, “and money.” The contradiction and hypocracy between life and money is what Alina’s painting expresses, which makes it the brilliant art that inspires this work.