Reigniting Havana: Neon Returns to the City

A pair of Cuban have embarked on an illuminating (sorry) art project here in Havana, the LA Times reports. The two are reigniting the lost neon signs that covered Havana in the 1950’s. Back then, it was something of the Las Vegas of the Caribbean—or, more accurately, Las Vegas became the Havana of the United States after the 1958 Revolution when the new Cuban government closed down the casinos, private businesses and the tourist industry catering to foreign visitors.

Though what they represent may have a complicated history, the signs themselves are nonetheless gorgeous reminders of a bygone era. Unfortunately, many of these signs have been broken or removed as businesses shuttered their doors and the materials to repair them became scarce on the island.

Kadir López Nieves and Angeleno Adolfo Nodal hope to change this. They’re restoring and rebuilding Havana’s neon, one sign at a time. Nieves, a contemporary artist from Cuba, has teamed up with Nodal and another partner, William Merriken, both LA businessmen. Nodal, born in Cuba but living in the states, believe this project is emblematic of the changes in Cuba.

“It marks a new era, a return of the light, of hope,” Nodal says on a walking tour of the signs in Havana.

They’ve completed 42 signs so far, with help from one of Havana’s last remaining neon glassblowers, Guido Hernandez, who makes the signs by hand. They’re organizing small fundraisers and art projects to bankroll the project and working with building managers to approve each installation. They say the neighborhoods are delighted with their work.

As they should be. The results are gorgeous in person. On a dark corner of the Capitolio, just off of Havana’s main drag, you can find now find the bright blue neon of the Cine El Mégano. No longer a cinema, the space now serves as the headquarters of a local band.

The group isn’t stopping there. They’re also creating a private museum for neon signs and classic cars, set to open in 2017, following in the tradition of this Polish museum displaying Soviet-era signs. Interesting that these signs were used in Poland to advance communist ideals, while in Cuba they were seen as bourgeois and against the spirit of the revolution.

It will be exciting to see where this project goes, but it certainly looks like the neon dawn of a new era.

Read more about this project in the LA Times.

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