PennDesign News

Posted June 7, 2017
  • “Acknowledging the far reach and expanse of the tourism industry, I seek to portray just how each of these places that I travelled to also left its mark on me. I touch, just as I am touched.”

    Araba Ankuma, untitled video still, 2017

Field Report: Studio Havana 2017

A new exhibition at PennDesign goes off the beaten path to capture the vitality of Havana by night and by day, in public and in private. The exhibition features original photography, video, and photo-based sculpture and installation by 15 undergraduate and graduate students in the Department of Fine Arts who traveled to Cuba’s capital in the spring. Participating students include: Gina Alm, Araba Ankuma, Belden Carlson, laura c carlson, Gerardo Cedillo Servin, Amy Chen, Sofia Deopolos, Royce Drake, Starr Herr-Cardillo, Johanna Matt-Navarro, Asha Sheshadri, Larry Shprintz, James Allister Sprang, Alina Wang, and Sky Yooo. Following is an excerpt from the introduction to the catalog by Senior Lecturer Gabriel Martinez and Senior Lecturer Brent Wahl.

At first appearance, Havana can seem like a time capsule — caught between a mélange of exuberant colors, rhythms, and a history imbued with glamour and desire. Unfortunately, these observations are too often represented by assumptions that perpetuate established stereotypes. It is impossible to appropriately respond to the current cultural climate of Cuba without considering the country’s tumultuous historical past or acknowledging our privileged position as visitors. This travel abroad opportunity explored the complexities, incongruences and significance of Cuba’s contemporary cultural and social climate during this particular moment of innumerable transformations.

Cuba is a country that has suffered through a turbulent history of colonialization, slavery, occupation, and revolution. For more than a half-century, the people have been suppressed by political, social, and economic isolation causing much distress to an already complex narrative. Most recently, with the death of Fidel Castro and the thaw in relations with the United States, Cuba's wholly unique social environment is on the threshold of profound change. While visiting Havana, these shifts prompted us to reflect upon the city’s dynamism, the complicated reasons for its decrepitude, and its peculiar impression of feeling a bit topsy-turvy.

This studio explored the complexities, incongruences and significance of Cuba’s contemporary cultural and social climate during this particular moment of innumerable transformations.

A place of immense beauty and vibrant creative energy, Havana is the first Latin American location for the current Studio Abroad. Fifteen undergraduate and graduate Penn students were selected after a rigorous and highly competitive application process to participate in this bi-annual occurrence. This Studio Abroad program, founded because of the generous support of Howard A. Silverstein and Patricia Bleznak Silverstein, has enabled students to travel internationally and participate in short-term residencies since 2009. This course comprised of three phases over the course of a semester: on-campus research and presentations on the city’s history, contemporary culture, and social climate; on-site completion of independent photography-based projects engaged in a cross-cultural visual investigation; and a culminating exhibition at the School of Design.

This travel abroad opportunity offered unique insight into a culture at a pivotal point of change in its history, and provided ample subject matter for substantial inquiry, critical examination and visual exploration. While preparing and researching for their proposed projects abroad, we encouraged students to defy expectations and to avoid well-worn visual platitudes associated with the picturing of Havana, especially within the context of the representation of Cubans. In March, the group traveled to Havana for an immersive two-week experience. This studio abroad also incorporated a two-day trip to the visit the picturesque valley of Viñales, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where we stayed in intimate Casas Particulares. Upon our return to Havana for the final eight days, also staying in family homes, students devoted focused energy to their independent projects. Employing disparate strategies and investigating specific subjects, students interacted and responded critically, while treading lightly and respectfully in the city and amongst its resilient, proud and resourceful citizens.

Studio Havana 2017: Silverstein Photography Studio Abroad Exhibition is on view through Thursday, June 22, 2017, at the Charles Addams Fine Arts Gallery, 200 South 36 Street, Philadelphia. Gallery Hours are Monday - Friday, 9:00am - 5:00pm. The Studio Abroad program is generously sponsored by Howard A. Silverstein and Patricia Bleznak Silverstein.