Cuba Material

Collection of Objects from Cuban Socialism

/ 25 November, 2016

My generation, that which was born in the decade of the 1970s, knew a Havana that, before filling itself with ruins, had been full of pieces of junk. The relationship of the Cubans with the material world had begun to change since the early 1960s, when the State redistributed wealth and, a little later, decreed the rationing of industrial products. Since then, with the same enthusiasm with which they celebrated the Triumph of the Cuban Revolution, the habaneros—as the rest of the Cubans—dedicated themselves to keep everything they might need in another moment.

Three decades were enough to store a considerable quantity of objects, before the economic crisis caused by the fall of the Socialist Bloc and the disintegration of the Soviet Union compelled to grab hand to all the existing reserves. Cuba Material is a collection of those objects, mainly in the domestic sphere, consumed and kept from the moment of the Triumph of the Revolution, in January 1959, until the collapse of Soviet socialism in Eastern Europe and the end of the USSR thirty years later.

I began to collect a little after having created, in the beginning of 2012, the Cuba Material blog, conceived as an “archive of Cuban material culture.”[1] At that time, the Cuban society had gobbled up and transformed, because of the Special Period, great part of its material culture and had been vomiting the indigestion in trashcans and sidewalks, or in second hand street markets, in Cuba and in the World Wide Web.

After four years, Cuba Material gathers today about two thousand documents and objects of domestic or personal use, among them furniture, electrical appliances, dishes, food containers, school notebooks, uniforms, toys, pieces of clothes and shoes, jewelry, razor blades, vouchers, instruction manuals for electronic and electrical appliances, certificates of labor merits, graduation diplomas, medals and voluntary work certificates, and a long etcetera. Inherited many of these objects from my own family: school notebooks of my mother with revolutionary slogans reflecting the first hopes deposited in the world that the Cuban Revolution said it had decided to build, the layette and toys that once were mine, acquired under the rationing, that my family kept thinking on the grandchildren and great-grandchildren who would later come. My grandmother’s sewing molds, the polyester safaris of my father and the certificates of ownership of all electrical appliances my grandfather could buy with his “historical salary” as a doctor[2], are also part of the collection. Many other objects have come to my hands thanks to generous donations of very good friends, acquaintances and readers of the blog. As a group, these artifacts and documents reveal, as I have already commented with regard to the exhibition Pioneros: Building Cuba’s Socialist Childhood,[3] a politicized material culture, marked by the porosity of the frontier separating what is private and what is public. (…)

 

[1] See http://cubamaterial.com.

[2] Historical salary: Applied to any sector, not only in medicine. If a professional was separated from his position to assign him to a minor place, he would continue receiving the highest salary he formerly earned. (Editor’s Note)

[3] Interview made by Walfrido Dorta on the exhibition Pioneros: Building Cuba’s Socialist Childhood, inaugurated on September 17, 2015 in the Arnold and Sheila Aronson Galleries of Parsons School of Design, curated by María A. Cabrera Arús and Meyken Barreto.

 

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