Hamel Alley has its own personality, it doesn’t need anything else or nobody else to be what it is. It’s like Chinatown in Havana, or Obispo Boulevard, a place characterized by peculiar smells, colors and sounds. The alley smells, sounds, tastes and looks like Afro-Cuban culture.
Sunday is the best day to visit it, since it’s when the alley shows its true spirit. Sundays are like rumba. That day, the neighbors, dressed up as ancient gods of Yoruba pantheon, Orishas, welcome visitors and drums go loud.
The alley’s gateway was designed with rocks over rocks, which represent the everlasting condition of God and the Orishas. According to popular wisdom, those rocks are also called Otanes and that’s where warrior gods Elegguá, Oggún, Oshosi and Ozun get consecrated.
Near the gateway, an electricity post also welcomes visitors with the colors of France’s flag, an early sign of what’s about to be seen: an undisputable display of the syncretism between African and European cultures, two important ingredients in the “ajiaco” of the Cuban identity.
The French flag also refers to Fernando Belleau Hamel, French-German-rooted U.S. citizen that owned that land in the early 20th century. Hamel opened a raw material and smelting business that created jobs for many inhabitants in the territory, most of which were Africans or Chinese. He even supported the construction of houses for these workers around the neighborhood. That’s why the area was named after Hamel.
Once visitors are inside the Hamel Alley, they can see that the whole place and even the surrounding buildings were painted with intense colors, thus standing for the Afro-Cuban culture. These facades also show phrases, poems and thoughts written by such Cuban intellectuals and artists as Fernando Ortiz, Marti and Salvador Gonzales Escalona, the sculptor of the alley.
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There are plenty of installations made up of all sorts of objects and materials, with special emphasis on metals, since they are linked to orisha Ogún. The syncretism of Cuban Santeria facilitates the coexistence with Christian deities at the Yoruba pantheon and, even a sanctuary that represents the Palo de Monte practice, a religion from Congo. It’s especially interesting for visitors to see Shangó’s throne, where they take pictures and ask the saint for protection, as well as economic, spiritual and health stability.
That’s why it’s easy to find, within the alley, such diverse expressions as a dummy that symbolizes an African deity next to a passage taken from French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince”, and a bust dedicated to the Cuban Apostle Jose Marti.
The Alley’s history dates back to 1989 – 1990, when it was conceived as a social – community project. In that time, fine artist Salvador Gonzalez Escalona decided to repair the deteriorated facades of houses in the alley.
The facades of houses in the alley where painted like murals related to the Afro-Cuban cultural and religious syncretism, thus highlighting its importance in the Cuban nationality.
The most interesting aspect of these murals is their cultural- utilitarian sense. They abstractly reflect some mythic-religious elements of Afro-Cuban culture and their view of the world, along with needs, frustrations and deepest desires of local inhabitants, thus bringing about an amalgam of senses and collective concepts that illustrate local essences. On the other hand, this mixture beautifies and decorates the houses in the neighborhood. The creation of the alley has also allowed its inhabitants to diversify their economic management with a series of state-run and private initiatives that have thrived with the influx of tourists and visitors.
These are the reasons why the alley is far more than a community gallery or an “outdoor museum”, as it has been described. It is an experience that links art to the community local development and the enjoyment and appreciation of artworks, the historic-identity knowledge of the Cuban people by means of creation workshops for children and young people, lectures, theater performances, among other initiatives.
Hamel Alley is only 200 meter long. It comes to an end in front of a high school that also shows some of the alley’s art. When the kids finish their lessons, they visit the alley and they feel they are part of this space, so they are no longer dazzled by the art, identity expressions, the centuries-old multicultural connection; Hollywood has amazed by this place, which is extremely authentic and doesn’t boasts about its magnificence.
By Y.Menéndez / PanamericanWorld – Havana