JAIMANITAS, Cuba (Reuters) - From his second-story studio, Cuban artist Jose Fuster looks out over what he has wrought in the seaside village of Jaimanitas and, with a big smile, says, “I am completely crazy.”
Below, wildly colorful mosaics and large, fanciful sculptures cover his home and fill his yard in an explosion of art that has transformed the humble neighborhood into a island of brightness among Havana’s well-worn suburbs.
His home and studio are the epicenter of a work in progress in which Fuster, 62, has adorned houses on two streets with Picasso-like paintings and playful ceramic figures of the palm trees, roosters and crocodiles that reappear in all his art.
In front of his house, he has created a sort of tiled park that is a large communal chess board; behind that, a massive 25-foot (eight-meter) tall tribute to five Cuban agents jailed for spying in the United States, lauded in Cuba as the “Five Heroes.”
It is a fantasy land that is Cuban to its core in its bright colors, comical icons and political undertones.
Bearded and bespectacled, fun-loving and hard-drinking, Fuster has been called the Picasso of the Caribbean for his quirky style and is one of Cuba’s best-known artists overseas.
He has exhibited all over Europe and in the United States, which has a 47-year-old trade embargo against Cuba, although art is exempted. He has a website, www.josefuster.com, where his paintings, watercolors and ceramics are on sale for prices ranging above $10,000.
The Jaimanitas project, now 14 years in the making and, according to Fuster far from finished, is an attraction for locals and arts-minded international visitors.
The latter have to make an effort to find it because Jaimanitas, a ramshackle coastal community that straddles a river of the same name in Havana’s western suburbs, is well off the tourist track.
Fuster makes no apologies for being a loyal devotee of Cuba’s communist-ruled system nor a beneficiary of the capitalist world’s appetite for art.
By standards in Cuba, where people receive various social benefits but earn an average of $20 a month, he makes a bundle of money and has freedom to travel abroad that most Cubans do not.
But he views his sales as a source of hard currency for his cash-strapped country. He happily pays the required 50 percent taxes on art income and says he invests most of what’s left in Jaimanitas, either in the art works or in helping his less-fortunate neighbors.
“I have the idea that I have to give back part of my money,” he said. How much has he invested in Jaimanitas? “I don’t know. Everything,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. His neighbors use the funds for home repairs and other needs.
Spend time with Fuster and two things will surely happen — rum will be drunk and politics will be discussed.
An early afternoon interview begins with a glass of rum and ends with another as he sits down to paint a few tiles he will sell for $20 to less well-heeled customers.
“I’m always drinking. I am, unfortunately, an anonymous alcoholic,” he jokes. After a sip of seven-year-old Havana Club, he savors it with eyes closed, then says, “Que rico” (How delicious).
But the rum is just for fun, not inspiration, which arises from some inexplicable, unexpected place, if at all.
“I say what Hemingway said. I work every day. If inspiration exists, let it surprise me working,” he said.
As for politics, Fuster is a product of the revolution that put Fidel Castro in power in 1959.
He was a 12-year-old from a humble family living in the coastal town of Santa Fe, near Jaimanitas, at the time, and two years later went to the Sierra Maestra, the mountain stronghold for Castro’s guerrilla army, to teach peasants how to read.
He believes he owes everything to that period, which led him to train from 1963 to 1965 at the state-run National School for Art Instructors in Havana.
“I found art in the Sierra Maestra,” he said. “The Sierra Maestra was what gave me the inspiration to do art. There I found a world I’ve never abandoned — the palm trees, the peasants, the rooster, the horse.”
Those things are found in all his art because they are symbols of an essential Cubanness that he also finds in the island’s political system, which he says is neither communism nor socialism, but “Cubanismo.”
Cuba, he says, is not perfect, but has achieved an enviable level of social equality. “I am a Cuban citizen who lives in Cuba and agrees with the social system,” he said. “I think in this country there is justice.”
Fuster says his work occasionally includes a “constructive criticism” of the system, but he has never been censored, despite the Cuban government’s authoritarian reputation.
While he is not a native of Jaimanitas, it was there that he put his political beliefs directly into action. When he arrived, he saw a downtrodden community and as soon as he began to make money he started his art project in 1995.
It did not always go smoothly, for some neighbors objected and local bureaucrats put up obstacles. But now there is general agreement that Fuster’s art is good for the community.
“He has helped so many people and the art is so lovely. We now have a lot of pride in Jaimanitas,” said housewife Youvaleta Teri, watching her children play in the chess park.
Fuster says he has turned down lucrative projects in great cities such as Paris to focus on Jaimanitas because the love and respect of his neighbors is more important than money.
“This is a pretty place, a little fishing village. There’s no pollution, it’s good,” he said, “From here, we can shine.”
Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Philip Barbara