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

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

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?

I Self Devine and MN musicians join Cuban artists in new documentary
A still from Closer Than You Think

What was the experience like going to Cuba?


Rafael: Just like Paul, I honestly didn't know exactly what the hell I was getting into. Marlesa really just believed in me, and I believed in her whole vision, and I kind of just had to take a risk and go for it. There was so much going on, the culture is so vibrant. We painted a mural in Cienfuegos, we recorded a music video, did interviews with all the artists, we met new artists, we built new friendships and relationships with other artists and organizers and journalists; it was pretty epic.

Mariesa: One other thing we should mention is that the overall message over US Cuba Artist exchange is obviously having American artists and Cuban artists visit each other's country so that they can have that cultural exchange, and also to be able to participate in the collaborations and workshops, to learn from each other, to communicate. But then the overarching goal is to exhibit that collaborative work so that other people can see what was created by coming together. That message is about bringing American and Cuban citizens together in a non-political way, to get to know each other, because we're really shut off from each other.

Rafael: And we're so close. The documentary is called Closer Than You Think, and we really stand by that. I mean, Cuba is so close. Technically, Cuba is geographically connected to the same tectonic plates as the United States. A plane ride is like 30 or 40 minutes from Miami, so they're very, very close. My philosophy is, with the whole project, nothing should really stand in the way of people making these genuine connections, especially doing it in the name of art and free expression and communication.

Mariesa: It seems like it really breaks down the barriers, the social barriers. We have a different social system, we've noticed there's a big difference. It seems that connecting through art and music and just discussing it all of a sudden makes you more comfortable with each other and you're able to connect emotionally or socially a lot faster. For us, even though we had a big language barrier, it didn't matter. 

Rafael: There was still a really strong connection when we're there. Our Cuban family showed us so much love, they really brought us in like family.

Mariesa: We're shooting the second half of the documentary right now. US Cuba Artist Exchange will be taking another tour to Cuba, and we're planning a national tour next year, and then of course we'll be going back to Cuba again. We're gonna be starting a rotation next year of touring, exhibiting the work we made this time, and then creating more work while we're there. We're gonna be working on the themes over the next few months. We're really gearing up for the long haul, a really good long haul. The Kickstarter ends [Friday], and we're doing a "double your donation" right now, so anybody who pledges or increases their pledge now will get that part of it doubled by somebody. We'll be doing the premiere in the fall, somewhere. The story of what's going on here will continue, and we're really trying to build a cultural center of some kind here for this type of art and music and this type of communication and love.

Rafael: It's super important to us that we do maintain this relationship, because a lot of people, they go out to Cuba and have an amazing experience, and they never see their friends that they make ever again, because Cuba's been so isolated politically. One of our main goals is to continue those relationships. This isn't some quick project that we're gonna do, stick and move, in and out and that's it; this is a long-lasting thing.

Mariesa: I couldn't have said it better myself.
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