Natural Abstractions Cuba Commission

 Excerpt from Artspace’s Global Spotlight Feature

From Cuba With Love: Artist Bill Claps on the Island’s DIY Art Scene

June 30, 2016

The objective of my trip to Cuba was to travel to Humboldt RainForest to photograph endemic plant species for my most recent series, “Natural Abstractions,” inspired by the nature motifs in 19th-century Japanese prints that in turn influenced the European Impressionists.   I traveled with the documentary filmmaker David Kennedy, spending time in the rugged and less traveled eastern part of Cuba—Santiago and Guantanamo provinces.

I had been to Cuba the month before, when I spent two weeks alone traveling back and forth across the length of the country (47 hours of bus travel in 14 days) with the goal of shooting in Humboldt. Unfortunately, when I finally arrived in Baracoa on the previous trip the weather was nonstop rain, with another week of heavy weather projected, and I was not able to make it to the forest because of the conditions on the rutted and partially unpaved roads. 

Determined to finish the project, I went back to New York and planned another trip. This time luck shined on me. Accompanied by Kennedy, my filmmaker friend whose last name elicited surprise and good-natured jokes at the ticket counters everywhere we stop, we arrived in Baracoa after a seven-hour bus ride from Santiago, crossing the mountains and arid plains of Guantanamo province.  

Baracoa, Cuba is about as far from Havana as you can get in the country, both geographically and culturally. Located on the north coast at the far eastern corner of the island and only accessible by boat for almost 400 years, it is Cuba’s oldest and most culturally unique town. It’s surrounded by high mountains and abuts both the driest and the wettest areas of the country; there are arid semi-desert plains to the east, and to the west sits the Humboldt national reserve, the largest rain forest in the Caribbean. 

We attempted to stay outside of Humboldt forest in the small beachside village of Maguana, but it was too difficult to arrange the logistics of the daily transport to the rain forest (we weren’t able to find a driver in the village with a car sturdy enough to make the trip—they were all afraid of breaking an axle). We turned back and decided to make Baracoa our home base and hire a car daily to take the one-and-a-half hour trip past the cacao and coco farms along the rutted and partially unpaved roads. 

Fortunately, we connected with Enrique, the proud owner of a fire engine red ’57 Ford. Its long and wide chassis base and loose suspension were ideal for gliding over the huge potholes in the road, and we sat back took in the ride, floating in its red and black cushioned seats that felt like a saggy mattress with loose bedsprings.   

Humboldt is the largest rain forest in the Caribbean and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 90% of its plant species are endemic (found only in this rain forest), a highly unusual scenario resulting from a combination of the ecosystem’s isolation on an island peninsula surrounded by semi-arid land and the exceptionally acidic underlying rocks, which gives rise to highly adaptive plants that don’t live in other soil conditions.

Humboldt is also an important bird and animal sanctuary, home to many rare tropical birds including the Zunzuncito, the world’s smallest bird. New plant and animal species are regularly identified in the park by research teams from Germany, Canada, and the U.S, with many species still undiscovered. 

Our guide Javier is a former employee of the logging company that previously held the logging concession in the park. Patient and methodical, he identifies over 50 endemic species as we hike through the rain forest.  Fueled by cucurucho, a concoction of coconut, guava, honey, and papaya served in a palm frond cones, we moved through the forest photographing and documenting the species.  

One of my favorites was Cocotrina Halesander, named after the eponymous Alexander Humboldt, the naturalist-explorer who first came here in 1801. An endemic palm tree with circular fronds, it punctuates the forest with translucent geometric patterns.  Of course, there’s also Lengua de Vaca, a plant commonly known as Raspa Coolo (ass scraper), whose underside is used in lieu of toilet paper by the locals.  We were fortunate enough to see many rare birds and even spotted a Cuba Libre, a hummingbird sized bird with a beautiful translucent blue body.

The wealth of photos I collected were more than enough to provide source materials for the project I had undertaken for Artspace.