By John Timpane, Inquirer Staff Writer
January 21, 2016
Image: Michelle Angela Ortiz works on a 2015 project in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Julissa Gomez
For a muralist, a big wall with nothing on it is like . . . a blank canvas as big as a parking lot.
Michelle Angela Ortiz is a Philadelphia painter, performer, and writer - and a cultural envoy. On Sunday, she will fly to Cuba to help paint a large mural in Havana. She'll be there for 31/2 weeks, on a cultural exchange program organized by the Meridian International Center in Washington, a nongovernmental organization that works with the U.S. State Department.
On Dec. 11, with a new grant from the State Department Bureau of Education and Public Affairs, Meridian sent representatives to Havana to meet with artists, gallery owners, foundations, and potential in-country participants - and to scout out a nice, big, blank wall.
They found one: very nice, very big, very blank.
"It's an amazing space," Ortiz says. "It's a walking tunnel that connects the Parque Maceo in central Havana with the Malecón, that waterfront you always see in photos of Havana. It's a big meet-up place in town, with lots of pedestrian traffic. We have the walls going in and out [to paint]. It's huge, and a lot of people will see it."
Nothing's drawn yet, nothing designed. The whole idea is for Ortiz to work with local artists in Cuba to figure out what the mural will show and say, and then get the equipment and supplies and create the thing. There's a schedule: The unveiling will be on Feb. 15 or 16.
According to Terry K. Harvey, vice president of cultural programs at Meridian, "You should have seen Michelle when she saw how wonderful the space is - she was like a kid in a candy store."
Getting permission to do murals on public walls is not so easy to do in Cuba. Yet the Ministry of Culture came across, and quickly.
"We were really amazed that the municipality of Havana said yes, and said yes so fast," Harvey says. "Maybe it's a sign of the times, a sign of growing trust."
Ortiz, born in Philadelphia to Puerto Rican and Colombian parents, is among the first artists to be selected for this kind of exchange to Cuba. She certainly has a track record, having been a cultural envoy since 2008. Last year, she took part in a mural in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and she recently returned from an envoy mission to Mexico.
Her public artwork has appeared all over Philadelphia, a great place for murals. In October, as part of an immigration-theme project titled Familias Separadas (Separated Families), she created the temporary installation Eres Mi Todo (You Are My Everything) in City Hall's compass rose courtyard.
That was a culmination of years of close work with Mexican immigrant families in town. She's also known as part of the performance-art trio Las Gallas. In May 2014, they traveled to Cuba for a workshop with hip-hop artists and to perform. She also networked while there, identifying some of the artists she'll work with on this new mural.
"Over the last 15 years, in Philly and abroad, in projects in places like Costa Rica and Ecuador, I've been using art as a means of social catalysis, a forum for the community, to transform physical spaces into something new," Ortiz says. She has a strong philosophy: "I've tried to make art that intervenes in public spaces, speaking through the voice of the community, in places where people have to pay attention."
Bringing Ortiz to Havana was, Harvey says, largely a matter of timing. Meridian had a mural-arts initiative that had gone to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Colombia. Then the State Department extended grant money for programs in four more countries: Turkey, India, Brazil, and - the last one chosen - Cuba. "All this," he says, "of course coincides with President Obama's recent actions with regard to Cuba."
The point is not to project American values. "We're not trying to go down there and tell them what we want or what they should do," Ortiz says. "We're really trying to shy away from politics and propaganda and focus on these people, these artists, in this neighborhood. We're putting their work front and center; I'm more of a facilitator. The artists will go away and use the rest of the supplies and do murals in other communities."
Going away is also part of the drill. Meridian and Ortiz want this project to resonate.
"I want to ensure that the training of the artists means the artists can sustain the work past my departure," Ortiz says, "and strengthen the work they are already doing."