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Illustration by Katy Dockrill

While most Canadians are still stuck at home, we can still dream about the cultural destinations we once embarked on prepandemic … and will soon experience again. Here, the Globe Arts team reflect on their favourite international cultural memories and what the necessary domestic equivalent might be.

The day after I arrived in Havana in May, 2018, I ran into the closest bar for shelter from the pouring rain. Behind the tourists dancing and the band playing lively salsa music, the TV screens showed devastating news: A plane had just crashed in the city, killing more than 100 people.

This juxtaposition seemed to represent the reality of the Cuban people. Tourists come, we romanticize the vintage cars and “frozen-in-time” aesthetic against a crushing, highly political backdrop where the hosts that feed us breakfast in our casa particular often can’t meet their own basic needs.

A wall is covered with a mural of the Cuban flag and an image of revolutionary hero Ernesto (Che) Guevara, in Havana.The Associated Press

The city wasn’t as festive in the days following. While its residents mourned those who died, many cultural attractions defining Havana as one of the world’s great art cities were closed.

Nevertheless, as I walked around dreamlike streetscapes, I found that there was still enough art to explore. Muralism in Cuba looks like a conversation being had in the wide open between 1920s-to-1950 modernism, beaming post-revolutionary portraits of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, and new voices representative of the country’s diverse African, European and North American demographics.

For many years, artwork without an overt political message has flourished, such as the ultra-colourful murals and scrap-metal sculptures (by surrealist artist Salvador Gonzalez) in the Callejon de Hamel, a back alley in Centro Havana highlighting Afro-Cuban culture.

The Mural of Prehistory was painted in the 1950s to portray evolutionary history up until the age of humans.Gustavo Andres Murcia/The Globe and Mail

Two hours west of Havana, during a cave expedition among mountains that seemed to be in suspended animation, evoking a scene from the movie Avatar, I was stopped in my tracks by a massive painting on the side of a 120-metre-long mogote, or stone hill.

The vibrant Mural of Prehistory is one of the largest murals in the world, painted in the 1950s to portray evolutionary history up until the age of humans. The artist, Leovigildo Gonzalez Morillo, would speak through a megaphone to the painters as they scaled the rock wall, directing them as if they were his paintbrushes. Morillo was inspired by the work of Diego Rivera, a leader of the Mexican muralism movement of the 1920s through to the 50s.

The vibrant Mural of Prehistory is one of the largest murals in the world.Aruna Dutt/The Globe and Mail

But the state-sanctioned obsession with tourist-friendly muralism and public art comes with its restrictions.

This week’s sweeping protests in Cuba follow years of harsh crackdowns by Cuban authorities on artists, journalists and other dissidents in the country – corroborated by a recent Human Rights Watch report which claimed artists and journalists who are critical of the government have been detained, prosecuted and jailed. In 2018, the same year I visited, the Cuban government instituted Decree 349, a law requiring artists to obtain official government approval before presenting any work publicly.

With years of economic hardship after decades of U.S. sanctions, infrastructure and basic resources were already strained before the pandemic shut down Cuba’s vital tourism industry, and the country has been facing a record spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths in recent weeks.

Cuban artists and cultural figures have been among those leading the protests against the government’s handling of the pandemic and the economic crisis, but those attempting to document the movement through videos, music and other online expression soon found their access to social media restricted.

During this time of upheaval around the world, amidst a global pandemic, artists are taking to the streets to express their emotions, creativity and values – including right here at home in Canada.

The Mural Festival of Montreal (Aug. 12-22) will feature public arts projects, interactive installations and musical performances. The Vancouver Mural Festival (Aug. 4-22), features 60 murals with tours, talks and live performances, many of which are led by Black and South Asian artists.

Nuit Blanche, Toronto’s annual all-night celebration of contemporary art that takes over the streets of the city, has yet to announce whether it will hold in-person events for this fall’s edition. But programs such as StreetARToronto and STEPS Public Art have supported the city’s public art scene in recent years, including STEPS’ ongoing work in Toronto and other communities across the province to revitalize their main streets through art.

Last June, around 40 local artists transformed downtown’s Graffiti Alley with a one-kilometre stretch of painted murals of prominent Black figures. And at a time when patios were the only dining-out option, South American-Canadian muralist duo The Clandestinos transformed RendezViews, one of the city’s largest outdoor patios, into a technicolour dream.

In Mississauga, an interactive art piece by Mexican artists Esrawe + Cadena, Mi Casa, Your Casa, is running July 30 to Sept. 6. It invites visitors to step inside 14 red-frame houses inspired by lively street markets of Latin America where human connections are made every day.

And if you’re not near those major cities, be sure to check out Mural Routes’ online map of mural works across Canada.

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