Quarantine Notes from Havana

Friday May 8th, 2020

Vancouver Biennale artists and curators live all over the world, spanning 6 continents. Today we share insights from Cuban artist Rafael Villares. He was part of our 2019 Artist Residency program, and we asked him to give us his perspective on this era of COVID-19 from his home in Havana, Cuba.


I have been trying to adapt myself to the quarantine for about a month. We live in a completely different reality in which one feels tiny and insignificant compared to the magnitude of the problem. I can’t deny it feels a little bit scary at times and then, suddenly, the sensation goes away when I see the smile of one of my daughters. I live with my 5- and 2-year old daughters and my wife in an apartment in Vedado, Havana. Sometimes it can be difficult to explain to the children that you cannot go out to play or walk.


Not having a clear date for how long this closure will last produces great anxiety. So, we try to reimagine the walls of the apartment as something else: sometimes the dining table covered with a bed sheet becomes a tent inside the Amazon jungle, or a box transforms into a spaceship where we are able to make an intergalactic expedition to some far off edge of the universe. Love and simple things, setting our minds to vacation mode, is our best shelter right now.


My wife and I are both artists and we now take turns to work, take care of the girls and do the household tasks while we are in quarantine at home. There are no longer personal sanctuaries to make art. I used to bike to my studio daily, now I don’t even know if I could afford to make the rent by the end of the year. I closed up the studio and brought home a small table with some inks and dry pastels. I have a sketchpad that I have started to draw on, with the idea of making a little quarantine portfolio book, similar to the one I did for the Vancouver Biennale International Residency last year.


I have looked back at my practice, looking for interesting starting points that I may have left unexplored. The best time to reconsider yourself is in times of crisis—to identify which decisions drove you to the point you are at right now.  Now it is easy to manage your time to do that because there is a mandatory pause in the world.


People at home, silent cities with empty streets and a freefall in the economy discourages the hope of many … It is a pause that took us by surprise, taking us away from the intense dynamics of a life that we were so immersed in. This forces us to slow down and rethink, reimagine our priorities. We have no other way than to live day by day without making big plans for the upcoming months.



Maybe, this is the price of believing that we were invincible. Perhaps, it was a mistake to think that something happening on the other side of the planet was not going to affect us. For the first time we are together in this, we share our sorrows and our joys together. There are more things that unite us than those that differentiate us.


It is also curious that chaos is taking over the world. The crisis is collective, those places that seemed impenetrable, have material and economic insufficiencies now. In Cuba, that crisis is accentuated by the pandemic, but somehow, we are used to live through crises. The long lines and the empty shelves at supermarkets are a reality that is no longer just ours; reports of a lack of supplies can be seen on all the tv stations in the world.


The art residences, exhibitions and projects that I had on 2020 have been rescheduled. Not knowing the future gives you the skill to focus only on the present. Wanting to survive, being a survivor, is a state of mind which pulls down the curtain of the unnecessary and inevitably it fades. Then you understand that the essential things were always there. When all this is over, I think the great teaching will have been to understand that we live in a world from the inside out, full of interconnections and that within that great network having each other is enough. The resulting humanity after Covid-19 will be able to do more with less, I hope.


In my experience, the fundamental changes brought out by the Coronavirus has been the isolation. We have been deprived of all physical interaction to turn fully to cellphones and digital platforms. On the web there are not only the hopes of reaching each other but also more than ever, the fears and insecurities of everyone. This will certainly change todays paradigms even more for the future. Or by the contrary, after the quarantine is over, we will appreciate more the necessary hugs of a friend than the hysterical search for a like on Facebook.
Our collective reality is a call for transformation. When all this ends, I hope that art shapes itself into the axis of change. Art must become the lever that moves the world to rebuild itself from better paradigms than the previous ones.


Rafael Villares
IG: @estudioradaelvillares


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