Why Creative Spaces Around The World Can Learn A Lot From The Cuban Art Factory

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If there’s one thing I love to do on trips away, it’s hunt down art. Wherever I go, I’m always on the lookout for galleries, museums and creative spaces. My curiosity often leads me to the coolest streets, where I’ll find murals or remarkable works of architecture.

On a recent trip to Cuba, I made one of my greatest discoveries yet – the Fábrica de Arte Cubano. Otherwise known as the Cuban Art Factory, this incredible building is unlike anything I’ve ever come across before. It’s basically a massive gallery and nightclub rolled into one, combining art, live music, theatre, eateries, bars and pop-up shops.

From my experience, you either get one or the other: a formal art gallery, or a full-on rave pit. But, in this instance, the two share the same home. Like a lot of old industrial buildings, the Fábrica de Arte Cubano is tall, imposing, and doesn’t give too much away from the outside. It’s located in Havana – Cuba’s capital city – and feels somewhat out of place. As a Londoner, I’m used to such structures. It’s just not the sort of thing you expect to find in Cuba.

A former cooking oil plant, the factory was re-opened in 2014 by one X-Alfonso: a Cuban hip hop and Afro rock musician, known for his complex arrangements. Alfonso had a vision to transform the factory into something creative. Inspired by old warehouses around the world, he set to work on re-purposing it as a cultural hub.

What he achieved is nothing short of incredible. Who would’ve guessed that such an eclectic space could exist in a country where freedom of expression has traditionally been restricted? It’s neither state-owned, nor privately run, and instead functions as a community project.

The factory has several floors and multiple rooms, making it easy to get lost in. I literally felt like I’d entered a giant funhouse, not to dissimilar to ones I’ve seen in films. There are portraits inside, photographs, installations, even jewellery items. I remember going from a room full of gold leafed paintings to a packed dance floor and thinking to myself “Does this place ever end”? And, indeed, it doesn’t.

What’s most surprising is how civilised the factory is. Normally, in a space of this size you’d expect to see at least a few drunken people. However, I don’t recall seeing any, which is weird, given the number of bars on-site. Better still, it wasn’t overcrowded, but, rather comfortably busy. The last thing you want you when you’re taking in art is a load of gobby know-it-alls, stepping on your toes and talking shit. I’ve been there, it’s not nice.

The factory attracts a remarkably diverse crowd. Quiet, well dressed art enthusiasts seem to comfortably knock shoulders with ravers, where in other cities they might rarely share the same room. Were a space of this scale to exist in the UK, it would inevitably attract trouble and probably be closed down. It would also be really expansive. FDAC’s entry fee, however, is only 2 CUC per person (or £1.50, roughly). Sure, Britain has loads of art galleries, but few, if any, double as nightclubs. Picture it: a cross between Fabric and the Tate Modern. A man can dream.

Looking back on Highlight Nation’s first exhibition, I can only imagine what it might have been like to host it at The Cuban Art Factory. Our original aim for the event was to create a space where people of all creative persuasions could mingle, party, and talk art all at that same time. And, while we partially achieved that at Matthews Yard, The Cuban Art Factory seems to do it week in week out.

My main takeaway from the factory was even in face of communism and poverty, there’s still lots of room for creativity. And, with the right planning and innovation, you can make the impossible possible.

Inspired by what you’ve read? Click here to follow the Fábrica de Arte Cubano on Instagram.

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