It was twelve o’clock when, after many days of delays and hesitations, I decided to press the key on the website of a low-cost German company. I seemed to have heard a click when 580 euros disappeared from my bank account. It took me some time to fall asleep. In the sky of the mind, a plane was pulling a banner with You’re going to Cuba! I fell asleep after a while and, guess what, when I checked my mail in the morning, the trip was confirmed. I was going to perform a show at the #00 Habana Bienal, the first biennial of art organized by independent artists and not by the Ministry of Culture as in previous years. At the beginning of May 2018 I arrived in Havana. The biennial events took place in all of Havana’s neighborhoods, but on the seventh day they happened in Vedado, the district where I lived for a month. It took me three minutes to get out of my host’s Italo’s house. That’s how I discovered Yo Soy Quel El Que Soy, a house that does not look like anything familiar in Havana, city where architecture is amazing anyway. Perhaps the closest comparison would be the Hundertwasser Museum building in Vienna. Italo Exposito Lo Giudice and his partner, Lara Romero, created and live in this magical place. The fact that they put their house-gallery at the disposal of the #00 Bienal led to reprisals and sanctions from the government. But the night I got there, it was a jolly evening full of art, music, rum, and wonderful people.
Jean-Lorin Sterian: When did you open the gallery?
Lara Romero & Italo Exposito Lo Giudice: The first exhibition was shown in December 2008.
J-LS: What was the context in your life when you started?
LR & IE: Inaugurated the first exhibition as soon as I finished transforming what was once just a workshop into my own house and an exhibition space. But this process was interrupted for two years and the current stage began four years ago with the name »Yo Soy El Que Soy« — which includes all the remodeling and current architecture of the space that is still in process. This stage is mainly the result of my life as a couple with Lara Romero. It has been a common project; achieving it has been a common effort. The work of the Ecuadorian artist Boris Vallejo and Gabriel Coto, an Argentinian artist, has also been essential.
J-LS: Why did you do it?
LR & IE: We believed in our work and we needed a place that would not fail us for secondary interests, in which we could experience our creativity and our art in the most authentic, permanent way. This small house, kept by my family for generations, became that ideal place.
J-LS: What was the political context?
LR & IE: Leaving behind the times of Hugo Chávez, who in 1998 with his support to the Cuban government, marked the Cuban political-economic situation for almost 15 years. These were times of certain economic stability, always including poverty but with a few possibilities for individual development. This individual development was finding its place within US President Barack Obama’s efforts at approaching and understanding Cuba. Private initiatives flourished, driven by these policies, to then collapse once again, destroying all those efforts. Today we are under the same mandate. People change but the policy is the same, cautious and of little initiative, while we are asphyxiated more harshly than ever by the most powerful country on earth (USA).
»Leaving behind the times of Hugo Chávez, who in 1998 with his support to the Cuban government, marked the Cuban political-economic situation for almost 15 years. These were times of certain economic stability, always including poverty but with a few possibilities for individual development.«
J-LS: Does the government interfere with your project?
LR & IE: Yes, several times and almost from the beginning, but they never interrupted any activity.
J-LS: Did they create any obstructions?
LR & IE: No, until this year’s #00 Bienal, when they did. I was fined for making an exhibition in the framework of this event and expelled from the creator’s registry (which means not being able to legally commercialize my artistic work in Cuba) but the activity could be done, which was the best visited so far.
J-LS: How often you manage events in your place?
LR & IE: It depends on the year. In recent years we usually organize a monthly activity.
J-LS: How much has your life changed since you opened the gallery?
LR & IE: It has changed us a bit in terms of privacy, but I must admit that it does not weigh on us because we take it as a social contribution to our community and it is the lifestyle we have chosen. We live in the gallery. It is our home and our studio, open to the public 24 hours a day.
J-LS: What is the feedback from the people? How about foreigners?
LR & IE: The feedback has always been positive, from all kinds of people. It does not matter the nationality, sex, religion, race or age. They are the best part of this experience.
J-LS: What kind of art do you exhibit in the gallery? What has changed in your life since you turned your place into a gallery?
LR & IE: In the gallery there is a permanent exhibition of oil painting, sculpture (marble, terracotta, roots) and architecture. The gallery is a work of art in itself. Through recycling and reusing I built my house almost from the ground up. When we organize events we also include music, poetry, performance, and any form of artistic manifestation. That enriches the space; the gallery is nourished by the artists and artists from the gallery. It is not a gallery in the most conventional sense of the word. It has not stopped being our house, nor our place of work. We make specific openings, for which the place is prepared because many people come. The rest of the time it is an Open Studio for pedestrians; even so our lives are still quite calm.
»In the gallery there is a permanent exhibition of oil painting, sculpture (marble, terracotta, roots) and architecture. The gallery is a work of art in itself. Through recycling and reusing I built my house almost from the ground up.«
J-LS: Do you work with curators?
LR & IE: Not so far. I’ve done work with curators in other galleries, as a guest artist.
J-LS: Did you present your own work as well?
LR & IE: Yes.
J-LS: How do you advertise the events?
LR & IE: I call a few friends and so each artist uses their means. In the end we are many who meet. Telephones and Facebook are the most-used tools.
J-LS: How many people did you usually have in the audience?
LR & IE: Between 40 and 70 people, normally. There have been events such as the 00 Biennial of Havana, which more than 70 people attended.
J-LS: How would you describe your house in three words?
LR & IE: A little piece of land that you have to take care of. Land, take, care.
J-LS: How important is socializing at your meetings? Is art a pretext for socializing?
LR & IE: In this case art is the reason for socializing; we meet to listen and see the artistic expression of anyone who wants to do it.
J-LS: Are the neighbors part of your audience?
LR & IE: There are few neighbors who come to the activities, but they are always related to my work in one way or another.
J-LS: What was the best thing that you got from the gallery?
LR & IE: The shared joy, the expressed freedom, the communion in a universal spirit, over personal experiences, race, religion, political position, sex, profession or age. The sharing is the best I’ve taken out of this experience, a full sharing. I cannot ask for more.
J-LS: Do you know about some similar initiatives?
LR & IE: Yes, other independent initiatives in Havana: Espacio Aglutinador, Coco Solo Social Club, Cristo Salvador Galería. Just to mention a few in which I have exhibited as a guest artist.
J-LS: What is home to you?
LR & IE: Our own place in the world.