SALVADOR GONZALES ESCALONA
Painter, Muralist, Sculptor
The Cayo Hueso neighbourhood, near the University of Havana, has its share of crumbling infrastructure, despite the on-again-off-again restoration projects of the past decade. Yet there’s one part of Cayo Hueso where urban decay has been vanquished, where the dazzling has replaced the dismal, where a pyrotechnic explosion of poetry and music and painting broadcasts Havana’s vibrancy and invites the world in for a closer look.
Callejón de Hamel (Hamel’s Alley) is many things to many people. It is a testament to a community’s creativity, because the profusion of sculpture and murals here are the work of people who live in the alley and outlying neighborhood. It is a celebration of Afro-Cuban culture. It is a Santeria shrine. It is a wild rumba street party every Sunday afternoon. And it is the place that Salvador González Escalona, the artist who started the whole thing back in 1990, calls home.
As the story goes, Salvador (as almost everyone calls him) came to the alley to paint a mural on a friend’s house and wound up painting everything else within reach. The neighbours, some alarmed to see this metamorphosis taking place on their street, got involved. “The reaction was amazing,” Salvador recalls. “People came up to me and said, ’Maestro, I have a little bit of red paint,’ or yellow, or a little printing dye. I wound up painting with whatever materials turned up."
Salvador lives and works in a grotto-like flat that you enter from somewhere in the middle of the Callejón de Hamel. A seemingly endless procession of art collectors or, more frequently, curious tourists file in to admire the watercolours and charcoal drawings that Salvador offers for sale. Neighbourhood boys hang around outside, hoping to sell a homemade CD featuring one or several of the groups that have played here during the legendary Sunday rumba sessions.
With a neat salt-and-pepper beard and a stern gaze that conveys seriousness even when the rest of his face is smiling, Salvador doesn’t just look like a professor. Ask him about the themes in his paintings and he launches into a discourse on Cuban ethnology worthy of any university lecture hall. And then he’s on to religion: "I am talking about the religion known as Santería, which comes from the Yorubas; Palo Monte, which comes from the Congo; Abakuá, which has to do with Calabar [the Cross River Delta in Nigeria]; and maybe some manifestations of spiritism, a cultural expression of the ordinary folks in our country." Salvador is himself a Santeria priest, having undergone the Changó initiation ceremony.
With barely a pause, the artist segues into Cuban music history: “In this alley many years ago, in the 1940’s, the cuban musical movement known as ‘filin,’ songs of feeling, was born. It started Angelito Díaz and his father, Tirso Díaz. But that movement moved on and Callejón de Hamel stayed in the dust, forgotten in time.”
Gradually Salvador comes around to the colour-drenched water towers, the trompe l’œil foliage, the inspirational messages, the Duchampian found-object sculptures and the rest of the visual stimuli that has chased the dust away with a vengeance: "These walls express in one form or another the feeling of African art - that is, the presence of African culture in our country. You’re meant to live with the images and sculptures in the Callejón, as you live through the rumba parties, the theatre, the poetry-readings and everything else that happens here. For many of us this is a thing of magic, because it is the result of a conversation with the orishas [Yoruba deities] over a period of many years. This is the place where Obbatalá [the Orisha who witnessed the creation of the universe and appears as a white dove] finally lands after flying and flying and flying.”
Callejón de Hamel
Between calle Aramburu and Hospital, Centro Habana