May 30 2012

STANDARD DISPATCH: Behind the Scenes at the Havana Biennial

Photographer Rey Parlá recently flew down to Havana with his brother, the painter and Standard collaborator José Parlá, and French artist JR, to document the pair's spectacular collaboration for the 11th Havana Biennial, "Wrinkles of The City." José and JR created a series of monumental mural portraits of 25 elderly people who survived the Cuban Revolution. Below, Rey shares his thoughts on the project, and the legacy of public art in Cuba.

Los Surcos de la Ciudad: La Habana, Cuba (Wrinkles of the City, Havana, Cuba by JR and José Parlá


  1. Insider's View: Reading Between The Pictures
  2. by Rey Parlá
    GETTING journalists to drop the hyphen in Cuban-American is like asking to shutdown the embargo. Instead of acting like a bridge the hyphen has acted its part for too long, visually it is a symbol of division. It feels right to me and the pronunciation flows better when we write and say; Cuban American, there's a seamless bridge there, the sounds connect, a phonetic symbiosis takes place as the two words unite into a dynamic phrase, into one intonation, a beautiful integration. In the same way, this synergy of positive energy is what French artist JR and Miami born, Brooklyn based artist José Parlá have achieved in their grand scale collaboration in Havana, Cuba for the 11th Biennial of this city with the support of the Wifredo Lam Contemporary Art Center. If their works and direct contact with the communities in neighborhoods like Los Sitios in Habana do not evoke the theme of reflection, magical subtleties, face to face sharing, and a new open dialogue, send me back to Cuba.

For the collaboration, both JR and Parlá went to Cuba on an initial scouting and audio-visual research mission where they photographed random elderly people on the street. In this interesting collaboration, Parlá also takes on the role of photographer opening up his palette and composition to the camera's picture frame, which makes these two artists' creative efforts as exciting as Picasso’s and Braque’s continued dialogue and relationship with cinema, and their respective mediums.

"In a society like ours we are constantly bombarded by images of faces, most of the time these faces are of famous people. Usually and normally, these images do not represent the opinion of real and common people. I want to make anonymous people the center of attention. To take their faces to the streets and redefine the notion of heroes," says JR. "People are very educated about art here, but a lot of them don't go to galleries, so it's really important what we're doing here, bringing art to the public. The finished murals and all of us have been welcomed here because everybody connects with the works and have something poetic to say, something is deeply felt when they stand and look up at the murals, something beautiful and magnificent has occurred. Historically, walls have exhibited the voice of the people. We have enjoyed working here very much," adds Parlá.

With simple and humble ending thoughts we should ask, how do we define or relate to a society that has limited the information people see to the point where artists like JR and José Parlá have been allowed to create gigantic works of mixed media mural art that pay homage to and mirror the image of the common Cuban folk other than high level Cuban leaders? When several hundred people in more than one multiple mural locations ask if a gigantic picture on the wall taken by JR or Parlá happens to be mistaken with Camilo Cienfuegos, Che Guevara, Raúl Castro or his brother, are we dealing with ignorance, fear, or coercive persuasion naturally born of an island’s captured psyche by its own history?

JR and Parlá have built yet another inevitable bridge with Cuba with photographic images and painterly gestures charged with lyrical memories and a nostalgic past giving way to a new abstraction that melds the old with the new, but none of this would have been possible without the artists’ friendship and open dialogue with each other – the kind of diplomatic chemistry that is born out of respect and is much needed in the world.