An unassuming small town that shines like no other
A sleepy fishing town on the outskirts of Havana that would be forgotten were it not for one of its prodigal sons: Jose Rodriguez Fuster, the man responsible for turning this small village into a living piece of art; Jaimanitas is now firmly on the tourist trail as more and more curious visitors make the 45-minute journey from downtown to immerse in a Cuban fantasy land like no other.
Sitting quietly on the outskirts of western Havana, Jaimanitas is now home to Fusterlandia, an art project in the city that started when its founder, Jose Rodriguez Fuster, decided to liven up the sombre façade of his hometown by decorating the exterior of his house with intricate mosaic embellishment. Slowly, the project took over the entire neighbourhood to include blocks of flats, schools and even medical centres. Today it shines brighter than ever as the finest example of Cuban ingenuity, flamboyance and colourful flair.
Naïve meets Catalan Modernism, Gaudi-style
Inevitable comparisons have been drawn between Fuster’s masterpiece and Gaudi’s Parc Guell in Barcelona, with the Catalan artist’s signature “trencadis” style (recycling broken glass and ceramics to create mosaics) having also been adopted by Fuster, who has declared himself a Gaudi fan: “My spiritual father is Picasso and my favourite uncle is Gaudi.”
The main difference lies in the style, with Fuster’s distinctively crude, child-like, whimsical depictions best identified with the Naïve art movement. His often comical, somewhat abstract portrayal of people, objects, deities, historic moments and day-to-day situations are the finest representation of Cuban Naïve art, brought to life in the most original way. This being a coastal town, references to fish and sea creatures are many and varied, as are Cuban flags and Cuban crocs in different shapes, sizes and contexts. There’s also a strong focus on love, hearts and the Cuban countryside, with roosters and men clad in the ever-present “guano” hats starring in many a feature.
Not just art but real, lived-in homes
As the works gathered pace, some neighbours applauded Fuster’s monumental efforts to single-handedly transform this godforsaken town and agreed to be part of it all, allowing the artist to spruce up their homes with lively mosaics and ceramics. Many led a helping hand in the process and as a result a new wave of local artists spawned. In fact, a good proportion of Jaimanitas’ residents have become artists in their own right, opening up shops to sell their own ceramics, paintings and crafts.
Yet a good number of the buildings and houses bearing Fuster’s handiwork belong to ordinary people with different professions that have nothing to do with the world of art. Whether or not they had any input on the tiled images now showing on their houses’ exterior façade, most seem overjoyed at the attention their once humble abodes now receive.
Colourful town, proud dwellers
Whether or not they like Fuster’s style, the vast majority of “Jaimanitians” (because saying all of them would perhaps be too big an assumption, though I probably wouldn’t’ be wrong) are indeed proud of their town, one that previously lacked anything interesting and had nothing worthy of merit or attention and one that no tourist ever ventured into before. Now it grabs headlines, magazine front covers and drives the inspiration of many newly-trained local artists, taught by Mr Fuster himself in his workshop – Taller Fuster.
A visual hotpot of local culture and flair
You might look at each mosaic work gracing this town’s streets and walls individually and think there’s no significant connections among them or nothing strongly relating them to any particular aspect to Cuban culture. Yet you’d be wrong. While there are many seemingly isolated works, from standalone trees and flowers to cats and ambiguous faces, nothing about the art here is random or haphazard. It might look that way, but that’s only because it’s meant to.
From the abundance of Cuban royal palms (the island’s national tree) to frequent representations of the sea and its creatures (including mermaids) to bat-like flying cats, gigantic chess figures, dreamlike fantasies and candid depictions of rural life; this is Cuba at its most genuine and pure, with a tinge of nostalgic innocence pervading its essence.
Patriotism with a hint of history
Now there’s more than one symbolic hint or link to Cuban history in Fuster’s mosaics, too many to name in fact, and most relating to the triumph of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution. One of the biggest and most vivid of these examples is the one shown above, illustrating the famous “Desembarco del Granma” - the arrival of Fidel, his brother Raul, Che and other iconic heroes of the revolution, to the island’s eastern coast, aboard the aptly named “Granma” boat. The troop of rebel “guerrilleros” landed in Playa Las Coloradas and thus renewed the fight against dictator Batista.
The photo below to the left shows the corner of a street wall crowned by the five-pointed lone star (“La Estrella Solitaria”), the ultimate symbol of independence and Cuban sovereignty, as famously worn by Che in his beret. Next to this image, the photo in the middle shows a structure topped by the sculpture of a hand dressed in the colours of the Cuban flag with a huge eye in front. The five fingers of the hand represent the five Cuban intelligence agents unjustly incarcerated by the U.S. government and held in prison for over a decade. The eye is a passive gesture of warning, like “we’re keeping a close eye on you U.S., we never forget about our five”. Obama has since freed them so it now stands as a testament of a recently solved dispute with the U.S. The last picture to the right needs little explanation, with the crowning sun making a reference to the land of eternal sunshine and never-ending summers.
“The croc that bites its own tail”
There is a saying in Spanish that goes “El pez que se muerde la cola” which is often translated into English as “The snake that bites its own tail” even though “pez” in Spanish mean “fish”. In English the snake is more commonly used to create the visual image but in Cuba, and more specifically in Fuster’s vision, neither animal takes the role. Instead, it’s a croc, an endemic one often referred to as “caimán” and the saying goes “el caiman que se muerde la cola”.
This is artistically represented in Jaimanitas, in more than one way and in more than one location. A symbol of a paradox of cause and effect, the image of an animal eating its own tail is often used to represent a problem that has no solution, like a vicious circle. It’s also used to represent eternity or infinity, like a never-ending loop. Whichever way you interpret it, you’ll find plenty of inspiring, reptile depictions here.
The chance to take a slice of it all home
All along Jaimanitas, but especially in the area surrounding Casa Fuster (a.k.a. Fusterlandia) many houses’ patios and main entrances have been converted into shops were owners-cum-artists sell their wares and crafts. You will find paintings for sale on their porches, ceramic works hanging from their walls and all manner of arts and crafts on their makeshift stalls.
Many of the artists have been trained by Mr Fuster himself and have him to thank for the income they now receive thanks to the many tourists flocking here. Pieces on sale are on the expensive side but be mindful that entrance to everything here is free and whatever you buy or however small a donation you give to local guides or artists, goes into the expansion and safekeeping of this colossal project. Plus, you’ll be taking home a true original plucked right from the most artistic source and backdrop imaginable.
Often referred to with a nickname honouring its transformer, Fusterlandia is a term sometimes used to encapsulate the entire town, but it more specifically refers to the centrepiece of it all, the piece de resistance: a mega art development that you can gain access for free within a limited timeframe (it closes for lunch). It might look like a theme park but it’s actually Jose Fuster’s home, and if you get lucky you might even catch him there and engage him in conversation (best brush up on your Spanish though!).
It is here that the whole project kicked off, you can see the painstaking effort that went into every detail and how it inspired new artists in this town, many of whom then went on to be part of the project and helped take it to other nearby homes, lifting this impoverished town out of its gloom and doom by injecting colour and fantasy. The best part? It’s not finished yet…and there’s no due date or any indication as to when Fuster will stop expanding and spreading its colourful joy.