DETAILS: There's a quote in the book about how Cuba is a first-world country dressed in third-world clothing.
Michael Dweck: Yeah, that's a great quote. It is pretty amazing when you talk to people in high school. They know more about the classics, music, geography, than any place I've ever been. In the sixties, Castro converted all the golf courses in Cuba into art academies that have these terra-cotta pods that look like women's breasts. They're shaped like that because there's windows all the way around and a skylight on the top, so you have perfect light all day. If you get into these art schools, you get a pod for five years with a partner. So there might be a saxophone player with a painter, or a contemporary dancer with a writer. It produces all these great teachers, people with a very well-rounded view of creativity.
DETAILS: Do these people anticipate a brighter future after Fidel and Raúl pass away?
Michael Dweck: When you say, "When Fidel dies . . . ," a lot of them get choked up. Now that he's older and went through an illness, he's gone from being dictator man to grandfather guy, and people feel a lot of the good he did, that he's all about Cuba. The country is broken, but they don't want capitalism to ruin what they have. When the Russians were there, money came in really fast, and the artists say, "We thought we had everything, but we had nothing—the work, conceptually, was garbage." Now they say, "We have nothing, but we have everything—and that is why our work is so good."
DETAILS: You've said that reportage was not your goal with this project, but the work feels more akin to photojournalism than your past work.
Michael Dweck: It's true that The End was a bit of fantasy and reality mixed together. It was what I thought surf life was like. In Habana Libre, everyone was real, but I also had in mind a certain narrative. Some people might look at the work and go, "Why aren't you showing the poverty and the old buildings and the old cars and stuff?" That doesn't interest me. What interests me is the heat and the seduction and the suggestiveness of this place. And I wanted people to see that there's an elegant, sophisticated side of Cuba that the rest of the world hasn't seen. I guess I'd say it's a seductive narrative of class—in what's supposed to be a classless society. What I realized is that in New York, the currency—besides being good-looking—is being successful. But in Cuba, your currency is your talent. Javier probably made $10 a month. Januaria told me she made $15 a month. But they still have social currency, they're still part of this farandula, because of their talent.
DETAILS: What do you think is going to happen to this group in 10, 20 years?
Michael Dweck: Well, I hope that they keep the essence of Cuba alive. I hope that they don't become rich, spoiled artists, like everyone else. I hope that they travel and they come back and make Cuba even better for artists, because Cuba could be art central. I have a sense that they'll come out of it okay. Because they all hold their hand on their heart when they talk about Cuba. Like René Francisco—he's a painter who's in the book—for three years he was watched by the government because he did a series of paintings they called subversive. They came over to his studio almost every day to see what he was working on. So he has a couple of nasty things to say about the Cuban government. But at the same time, he's a guy who secretly has been going back to his own town every single weekend for seven years, and he's building his own school for the children there because the government can't do that. He's a sculptor and a painter, but he takes all his money and funnels it quietly into this village. And when you ask him, "Why do you do that?" he says, "Because I should. I want to help Cuba." He could live anywhere. They all hold their heart and say, "If we left, there'd be no Cuba."
Also on Details.com
Photographs from Michael Dweck's Habana Libre
Robert Mapplethorpe, Revisited
How Artist Francesco Vezzoli Is Changing the Way You Look at Celebrity
Artist Francesco Vezzoli's Experiments With Fame