Wilfredo Prieto

An installation from “Mountains With a Broken Edge” a group show curated by Wilfredo Prieto at the Bicycle Factory, in Havana’s Vedado, 2015.

Photographer: Franco Pagetti

Havana is a seductive city of enduring beauty and exuberant nightlife, caught in a time warp between a troubled past and a transformative present. When I arrived there in May, via a charter flight from New York, almost six months had gone by since President Obama ordered the restoration of diplomatic relations with the government of President Raúl Castro. Despite the 54-year embargo on trade with and travel to Cuba, the city was flooded with Americans.

If the Stars and Stripes had yet to fly over the modernist building that would soon reopen as the U.S. Embassy on the Malecón—the city’s coastal highway and seawall—a short stretch of the promenade offered something unthinkable even a week before: a sandy beach. Its live palms and thatched umbrellas shaded white plastic deck chairs, whose occupants clearly were delighted by the beach’s sudden appearance. For most Habaneros, the sea is a border that cannot be crossed. I was told that’s why the chairs were turned away from the water.

The beach was actually an installation by Arlés del Rio, one of 51 artists in “Detrás del Muro” (“Behind the Wall”), an exhibition of public art running concurrently with the 12th Havana Biennial. Contrary to its name, the biennial occurs every three years on average, because of minuscule funding, yet it remains a critical platform for local artists isolated by the embargo, as well as international ones seldom seen in Cuba. This year, the citywide exhibition also provided an opportunity to take in Havana before American interests could “ruin” its authenticity with crass commercial development—a widely perceived threat.

In fact, there was no need to rush. “Everything is very slow here,” said Adonis Flores, a 43-year-old Cuban artist participating in the biennial whose photographs take potshots at the military. We met at a cocktail party hosted by Juanito Delgado, the curator of “Detrás del Muro.” “People are tired,” Flores said in halting English. “Worn out by hardship.” He was referring partly to fallout from the Special Period, years of severe deprivation and widespread hunger that followed Russia’s abandonment of Cuba after the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union. “It’s very difficult for artists to get materials. And life, in general, is hard.”

I believed him. My hotel, the once grand Presidente, definitely had seen better days—decades before Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution. The hot water was spotty, and connecting to the anemic Wi-Fi could be a trial—a common experience in Havana. Yet signs of change since Obama’s December 17 speech were everywhere. The driver of a taxi I hailed one evening—an American car made in 1949 with an electric blue paint job—had pinned both American and Cuban flags to the dashboard. A few months earlier, he would have risked being hassled by the police. Now it is a symbol of optimism.

“I can hardly believe what’s happening,” Delgado exclaimed over dinner at Río Mar, an attractive paladar (privately owned restaurant) on the Almendares River. “The energy in the streets now!” added the Cuban-born New York gallerist Alberto Magnan. “All the new restaurants! And Cubans are eating in them—not just tourists. When a Cuban can afford a dinner at Río Mar—it used to cost a month’s wages—it’s a sign of new prosperity.”

Cubans in the arts constitute a privileged class. As cultural ambassadors, they may travel more freely than other citizens, live part-time in other countries, are relatively uncensored by the government, and can keep money they earn abroad. This can create a degree of envy among those stuck at home. “We support one another,” Flores told me. “But we don’t like each other.”

Most of them reside in the generally middle-class neighborhoods of El Vedado, Nuevo Vedado, or Miramar. The artist Wilfredo Prieto recently bought an 18th-century Spanish colonial mansion in Vedado, where one night he held a candlelit dinner in its palatial hall. Basically, the house was decomposing. Wooden scaffolding was all that kept its formerly frescoed walls and 26-foot-high ceilings from crashing onto the dinner table, which Prieto had fashioned from the same planks he’d used for the scaffolds. Sixty guests were celebrating both a group exhibition he had organized and his acquisition of the mansion, which, even in its current condition, cost $300,000—a fortune by Cuban standards. “We had help from collectors,” explained Rebeca Blanchard, whose Nogueras Blanchard gallery represents Prieto in Spain and is working with him to turn the house into a nonprofit artists’ residence.

Until four years ago, when Raúl Castro amended property laws to allow Cuban nationals to buy and sell homes that had previously belonged to the state, artists—or anyone else—had little hope of owning property on the island except by permuta, bartering one house for another of the same size and value. It was via a complicated, triangular permuta that Pamela Ruiz acquired the generously proportioned eight-room home in Vedado she shares with her husband, the Cuban artist Damian Aquiles, and their son, Bastian, a freshman at Wesleyan University. An American who formerly worked in New York as an agent for fashion photographers, Ruiz has powerful social connections in both countries. “We all cried on December 17,” she said. “Obama’s speech was our Berlin Wall coming down.”

Ruiz is the cofounder of Cuba Untitled, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering relationships between American and Cuban entrepreneurs through conferences and dinner parties, like the one she gave the evening she held a show of Cuban art in the house and its lush garden. About half of the guests were visitors from the States, and the rest were locals. The latter included Mariela Castro Espín, the director of the Cuban National Center for Sexual Education and an advocate for LGBT rights. She is also Raúl Castro’s daughter, and the principal influence on his recent reforms. That alone could make her a prime candidate to lead her country in the future.

Another example of warming relations between America and Cuba was “Wild Noise,” an exhibition at Havana’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes of works from the collection of the Bronx Museum of the Arts. It took three years for Holly Block, the Bronx Museum’s director and an authority on contemporary Cuban art, to arrange the show, in exchange for one that will travel to New York. The opening drew a large crowd curious to see art that a paucity of books and restricted Internet access had made new to them. Block was the first to introduce the generation of artists who came of age during the Special Period to the New York art world. They included Carlos Garaicoa, Los Carpinteros (then a three-man collective), Alexis Leiva Machado (who goes by Kcho and is a superstar in Cuba), and the performance artist Tania Bruguera, a cause célèbre since her arrest and detainment for creating a public disturbance days after Obama’s pronouncement, when she attempted to stage a free-speech rally in Revolution Square. “The ’80s community left as exiles,” Block said, “forced out by censorship or because they were paid a pittance by the government. I connected with the ’90s generation, which decided to stay in Cuba and make something happen.”

Among the exiles was the celebrated painter Tomás Sánchez, 67, who settled in Costa Rica after stops in several other places, including Miami. He was marginalized, he told me at the Bellas Artes, where he and Prieto each had solo exhibitions, because he practiced yoga and Transcendental Meditation. That made him a counterrevolutionary. Before his exit, in 1989, he resorted to designing sets for a puppet theater. “It’s not so bad now,” he said. “I think there has been a change in the Cuban soul.”

That was evident in Glenda Léon, a 38-year-old artist whose sophisticated conceptualism was initially dismissed by her male contemporaries as “too feminine.” Magnan, who is Léon’s New York gallerist, guided me into a room at the musty Development Center for the Visual Arts, where she was installing a baby grand piano, the keyboard of which she had shaped into a perfect square. The sculpture spoke volumes for voices silenced by repression.

From 2003 to 2009, while George W. Bush was president, few Americans went to Cuba, Magnan told me, and Cuban artists were denied visas for the U.S. They got by with help from collectors who were able to travel on humanitarian visas with American museum groups and buy art from the source. Howard Farber, the Miami-based American publisher of the website Cuban Art News, ** first came in 2001 with a group from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This year, he established the Cuban Art Awards, wherein an international jury grants cash prizes to the best and most promising talent. “I’ve never seen so much quality from so many who have so little,” he noted. The market for Cuban art now, he added, is “out of control.” During the prize ceremony, at the Wifredo Lam Center of Contemporary Art, which organizes the biennial, the top award—$10,000—went to the 44-year-old Cuban artist Alexandre Arrechea.

Arrechea, based mostly in New York, emerged in 1994 as a member of LosCarpinteros, graduates of Havana’s famed Instituto Superior de Artes whose architecturally based sculptures and drawings double as biting social commentary. Arrechea went solo in 2003 and uses his father’s apartment in Vedado as his studio. The state-owned Galería Habana, which represents leading Cuban artists at art fairs in Europe and Latin America, takes up the building’s ground floor. The remaining Carpinteros—Marco Antonio Castillo Valdés and Dagoberto Rodríguez Sánchez—still work together out of a large four-story house in Nuevo Vedado, under the watchful eye of police video cameras. “It’s all about control,” Rodríguez Sánchez said with a shrug. “When you have so much surveillance, you get used to it.” The house has a singular history: It was built in 1959 for René Vallejo, Fidel’s personal physician and confidant. The Carpinteros pointed out a bricked-up doorway that once connected to the property next-door. Legend has it that Fidel often used it to slip inside, unnoticed, to spend the night in peace.

“Havana is still a city of secrets,” said the Mexican-born artist Gabriel Orozco, who visits Havana twice a year. With the conceptual-art giants Michelangelo Pistoletto, Daniel Buren, and Joseph Kosuth, Orozco was to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Arts of Cuba that week. “You need someone to show you the best places,” he said.

For me, Fabien Pisani was that person. On the day we had lunch at Santy, an open-air sushi restaurant in a fishing village at the edge of Havana, one of -Fidel’s sons was eating there, too. A 44-year-old documentary-film producer and musician, Pisani left Cuba for New York in a late-’80s exodus of musicians, artists, and writers—a generation he said is now repatriating in “massive” numbers. (He returned in 2007 and travels back and forth.) He was organizing a music festival and developing a film about his father, Pablo Milanés, a revered founder of nueva trova music who participated in the revolution but has been openly critical of the government for almost 30 years. “My father would give all of his money to the Cuban government,” Pisani said. “If he was performing for 100,000 people in Mexico, he would get a $10 per diem. He gave millions.”

Milanés plays chess with Jorge Perugorría, Cuba’s leading movie star since his 1993 debut in the gay-themed, Oscar-nominated Strawberry and Chocolate. Because his last name is something of a tongue twister, he has gone by Pichi since childhood. Trained as a painter, he frequently has exhibitions while working full-time as an actor or director. Perugorría speaks no English, so Pisani translated when we went to the actor’s comfortable Cuba-modern home in the suburb of Santa Fe, where Fidel and Raúl Castro are also rumored to live.

“I never wanted to leave Cuba,” Perugorría said. His international stardom gave him the freedom to work wherever a job took him, and he was one of the first actors to resist handing over his salary to the government. Now 50, he’s considered untouchable, Pisani said. Currently, Pichi is collaborating with two other artists on the design of a public toilet. “Our bathroom is also a place to make love,” he said, laughing. “It has accessories.” It also comes with instructions: drawings of Kama Sutra positions paper the walls. “In Cuba, people live in crowded conditions, so they go to public bathrooms to make love in privacy,” he explained. “The idea is to call attention to the need for more toilets.”

Indeed, to be Cuban is to be resilient, to be creative, and to make do. Take Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, the former wife of the Venezuelan billionaire businessman Oswaldo Cisneros. A prominent collector in an art scene that has few, she left Cuba in 1960, when her family moved to Venezuela. In 2001, she relocated to Miami, where she set up the Cisneros-Fontanals Foundation, which holds 2,600 works of modern and contemporary art from Latin America, as well as international photography and video. “I like discovering things,” she said. Three years ago, she rented and proceeded to restore a ramshackle estate in Cubanacán, a suburb where the residences of foreign ambassadors are nestled in a sort of private park patrolled by uniformed guards.

On the night of the biennial’s opening, she threw a bash for foreign visitors, local cultural figures, and friends. “It’s difficult to make a dinner party here,” she said. “There are no caterers. No plates. No glasses. I had to bring every plastic thing I could from Miami.” The Cuban rock star Kelvis Ochoa performed with his band—after he cooked fish for 100 guests, Daniel Buren among them. Gazing across the garden and swimming pool toward the crowded dance floor and expansive house, the French art star winked and said, “Everyone should be a Communist.”