I Self Devine and MN musicians join Cuban artists in new documentary

Categories: Interview
A still from Closer Than You Think
I Self Devine and Yrak Saenz

With the intention of creating cultural dialogue and social interchange through collaborative art, the US Cuba Artist Exchange is in the midst of an ongoing mission to bring together local and Cuban artists from a variety of mediums. As documented by 612im for an upcoming film about the project, titled Closer Than You Think, Minnesotan artists I Self Devine, Malamanya, Sarah White, and more join up with Cuban songwriters, rappers, and visual artists locally and in Cuba to create new work that aims to break down the barriers between the countries.

Gimme Noise sat with Mariesa Ryan, the executive director and co-founder of U.S. Cuba Artist Exchange, and program coordinator and featured artist Rafael Gonzalez, a.k.a. Tufawon, to talk about the project, which you can contribute to through Kickstarter.

"Quiero Volar" Closer Than You Think | The Cuban Artist Project from 612im on Vimeo.

How did the Cuban Artist Project begin?

Mariesa: I went to Cuba a little over two years ago on a people-to-people tour, and kind of fell in love with the country and the people. I met the other co-founder of the organization, Milagros Chong; she was a Cuban guide, and we kind of schemed that we wanted to do something together. I went back four months later and started recording bands there, just sort of randomly, and [eventually] started developing a tour with these artists here.

Who are the artists involved?

Mariesa: Adrian Mumbo, Camila Diaz de Villalvilla are painters, they also do other mediums as well but they're mostly painters. And then there's artistic photographer Valenti, we have also Nelson Valdés Viera, who's a Nuevo Trova musician, he's a singer, guitar player, and songwriter, [and] one other musician, Yrak Saenz, who's a rapper from Havana.

So this collaboration works across mediums, too.

Mariesa: One of the ideas of U.S. Cuba Artist Exchange is, because there's a language barrier, we think that communicating our message through music and art is an easier way to communicate than pamphlets and articles and things like that. We're really passionate about good documentation, and that's why we have our video production partner, [Paul Irmiter of] 612im, who came with us to Cuba and is actually doing the documentary that we're filming right now. 

Is there an ending goal, or is this a continuing exchange?

Mariesa: The U.S. Cuba Artist Exchange is an ongoing organization. We're a United States national nonprofit organization. The documentary is more about highlighting what we're doing. Paul, the filmmaker, became really interested in the work that we're doing, and is just kind of inspired I think. He's trying to document the story part of it, what we're doing and how we're reaching people, our message, things like that.

Rafael: When we went out to Cuba in April, he didn't even really know what was going to come out of the whole thing. He eventually decided a feature-length documentary was going to come out of this, because there's so much going on.

Mariesa: In the future we hope to expand to other mediums of art, other performance art, dancing, things like that, but for now it's mainly visual art and music. I like to tell people that we lead with music. We think it's more approachable to a broader audience of people, and we always have Cuban art with us, but the main idea that I don't know if we've really said is that we create collaborative works. On the tours, the one that we went in April, we created the music video, and the mural, which we will be exhibiting at our exhibit on June 21.

We also are creating a mural on this building right here [on the side of] Paul's building, Scenergy Studio, and we'll be recording a lot of music with the two artists that are here. On June 19 at Icehouse at 7:30, we're doing a collaborative performance where we're taking Minneapolis musicians and they're each doing a song or two with the Cuban musicians, so it's going to be a night of fusion.

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