Cuba’s cooler than ever. Every week a new bar, restaurant or event space opens, often owned by the Cuban creative class, the artists permitted to sell their work internationally. They bring a unique sense of individuality and beauty to their spaces. Simple, with few tables and small menus, they serve whatever food is available to buy that day. Standing out from all others is the Fábrica de Arte Cubano (FAC), a combination bar, gallery, musical hall and event space located in an old factory in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana.
The sprawling FAC houses dozens of alcoves for relaxing, watching a show, taking in artwork, listening to music, or grabbing a bite to eat. It even has a closet-sized shop for merchandise from Clandestina, Havana’s hottest design collectives. Each space is unique and provide endless discoveries hidden inside their nooks and crannies.
Prices are Cuban friendly; two dollars American gets you in. That’s low enough for an average Cuban with a side job to afford. So unlike many Havana jazz nightclubs, dance halls, and art galleries, the FAC welcomes a mix of both foreigners and Cubans, offering a real view into the pulse of the country. The tourists tend to come early, while after 10pm the long line out front seems largely local.
In that respect, The FAC represents what Cuba’s been trying to do for last two decades: leverage a rich culture of art and music to benefit artists, tourist and everyday Cubans. Founded by well-known Cuban musician X Alfonso, the space not only provides the opportunity for artists to promote and sell their work, but also takes advantage of loosening government regulations on private restaurants and businesses. It’s reminiscent of SoHo in 1990s, when New York relaxed zoning to allow artists to live and work in in post-industrial warehouse spaces.
The constant mix of tourists and locals also speaks volumes about the quality of art and artists curated within. The galleries are contemporary and filled with photography, painting, and mixed media pieces, many of which present distinctly Cuban subject matter. Some even contain subtle (or not-so subtle) nods to insider Cuban jokes or history.
On a recent visit, there was the word “Revolution” lithographed in the American Coca-Cola font, juxtaposed over black and white photos of 1950’s automobile crashes. And a sculpture using of bottles of Hatuey Beer, brewed by the Bacardi family before they fled Cuba during the revolution. Only the artists know whether these pieces are critical or supportive of their subject matter, or whether they even have an opinion at all, but they certainly spark conversation. The art also features an exciting mix of design, technology and media, including videos recorded by drones flying through the Havana Street and electronic, interactive dice games.
Live artists and musicians appear nightly, ranging from jazz to electronic to rock and roll. Meanwhile, the smaller event spaces often house fashion shows, choreographed dance performances and satires of the Cuban variety shows of the 1950’s. The late night show may be a documentary about the murders of Biggie Smalls and Tupac, or Oliver Stone’s Platoon. It really depends on the night.
But what’s attractive about the FAC is this mix of high culture and pop culture, often simultaneously. It draws patrons from all walks of life and all around the world, from international art connoisseurs vacationing in Cuba to young habaneros looking for a fun night out. And while the art is powerful and compelling, you’ll find many well-dressed Cubans relaxing in the lounge areas enjoying a beer to the tune of an American pop song.
It’s a space designed to promote the mix of ideas and the exchange of cultures overtaking Cuban right now—all in the format of the late night New York City club scene. A melding of world views that transforms the FAC into something far beyond a simple tourist attraction. Where anyone is welcome to take in a show, spend time with friends, or enjoy a mojito.
You may be tempted to show up before 10 to beat the line, but in Cuba no authentic experience is complete without a wait. And the Fábrica de Arte is well worth it.