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From the Shadows into the Light: FeFa in Cuba

FeFa in Performance.

(To read other articles in our Arts-Policy Nexus series, click here.)

By Louisa McCall

Cuban-American artist Magdalena Campos-Pons' experience of displacement and dislocation from her family and homeland feeds her restlessness and inspires the creation of her alter ego—FeFa. FeFa is a representative of Cuban cultural complexity and is currently part of the Artists’ Prospectus for the Nation.

Beginning in 1976, Campos-Pons made frequent trips to Cuba with her husband and collaborator Neil Leonard. Both were careful observers of recent changes in the Cuban landscape. The artists sensed a tipping point was near for Cuban society and used artistic platforms to encourage change in a way that could not be done except through the language of art.

The Pregoneros

For years, street sellers in Cuba, known as pregoneros, were forced to whisper their advertising chants. The sound of their voices had been silenced under a regime that prohibited open market activity. Several years ago, however, as Neil Leonard sat on his wife’s family’s porch in Matanzas, he began to hear their songs more clearly.  There was a shift happening in the streets; change was in the air.

Leonard heard more than the “for sale” messages being conveyed; he heard the richness of tone, the poetic composition, the ancient quality of the pregoneros’ practice.  He and Campos-Pons decided that the character FeFa (family abroad) would impersonate a pregonero, but instead of selling products, she would sing about love, family, new consciousness, the future.  Out of profound love for both Cuba and the United States, FeFa sang an appeal that the artificial separation between the two countries be broken.

What does the language of art allow you to say that cannot otherwise be conveyed through words? Art is an act within the larger performance of life, and through its use of metaphor and symbolism, it can change the nature of the conversation, voice silent sentiments, and help us to imagine a better future.

FeFa sought to collaborate with pregoneros, and not just appropriate their identity for her own ends. As a result, the FeFa project included a competition among pregoneros for best overall song, best melody, and most poetic lyrics. The competition was staged in the heart of Havana, a place that had once been dangerous territory for pregoneros. By constructing a cultural platform for the street crier, FeFa not only legitimized the act of selling openly but also the pregoneros’ practice as a valuable form of folkloric art.

It is an important indicator that Cuban officials allowed the performance to take place. Even more remarkable, there was a nationally televised competition of pregoneros’ songs following the FeFa performance.  Did FeFa’s intervention change policy in Cuba regarding the pregoneros? Certainly the art project changed the country’s consciousness about street criers, and changed consciousness is a prerequisite to policy change.

The Exchange of Gifts

A major component of the FeFa project was the focus on the giving of gifts and the potential of generosity to assuage the anguish of separation. Each time she visited Cuba, Campos-Pons felt the weight of responsibility experienced by family members abroad for bringing goods to families at home in Cuba. Cuban exiles perform this ritual daily: one can witness the clandestine performance at Miami International airport day in and day out. 

For the FeFa project, Campos-Pons spent many months in Boston working with students and collaborating with businesses to assemble gifts that could be distributed publicly to Cubans at home as part of the performance. Bread, soap, razors -- whatever was needed -- was brought with the artists and students to Cuba. Gift packages were exchanged in broad daylight in the heat of Havana. American students baked with Cuban bakers. In the context of an art project, the forbidden practice of exchange and generosity between Cuba and the US was showcased.

The recent easing of travel restrictions and lifting of some economic sanctions between the U.S. and Cuba was concurrent with the FeFa project. FeFa did not cause the changes, yet it gave a palpable feeling to the atmosphere of change and the representation of change. The artists were invited by Cuban officials to present their project at the Venice Biennale 2013. Notably, the artists adapted the FeFa character to the site, but the meaning of the metaphorical character was the same: Cuba endorses the complex identity of world citizens who call for love, unity, and generosity.

Art, in this case FeFa, creates an enduring image, a spectacle, which stirs the passions and aspirations of ordinary citizens to advance political change. 

Pregoneros Research in Matanzes. 

Organizing with pregoneros prior to competition. 

Neil Leonard introducing the pregoneros competition in Havana, 2012.

FeFa in performance at the Havana Biennele. 

*****

*****

Louisa McCall is the co-director of Artists in Context.

[Photos courtesy of Louisa McCall.]

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