These Artists Are Giving Havana’s Neon Signs a Second Life

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How do you know that a city is truly cosmopolitan? From Tokyo to Times Square, from Bangkok to Vegas, it is the neon signs illuminating the night, fixating names and logos in the consciousness of passersby. It is the multicolor scripts that compete for space and attention, from the marquis, the rooftop, the façade or the balcony, that signal not just what they sell, but where you are.

Havana has been out of the neon spotlight for a long time. Many of its once luminous signs have gone dark, broken or abandoned for half a century. “Some people no longer looked up,” says Adolfo Nodal, the former head of Cultural Affairs for the City of Los Angeles and a Cuban American. “They no longer had a reason to do so, particularly given the precarious state of the city’s sidewalks. But this is changing now.” Saddened by the state of affairs, Nodal was motivated to redress the situation.

The Habana Lights Project is the brainchild of Nodal and Havana artist Kadir López Nieves. While López Nieves was known for his artistic recreation and re-contextualization of popular commercial signs from yesteryear, Nodal was famously responsible for the restoration of some of the most iconic neon signs in the City of Angels. When the two of them met, it was only natural that Havana would be next.

Since 2014, the Habana Lights Project has restored and re-lit dozens of signs around the city, including those for popular theaters, cabarets and department stores. The refurbishment has been made possible thanks to the enthusiastic participation of numerous supporters, from neighborhood advocates to professional craftsmen. Experts in related trades that work with metal and glass joined in, in many cases refilling discharged tubes manually with neon gas, a painstaking process.

But this is only part of the process. What artist López Nieves has gotten right is the insight that bringing back to life these lights, once left for dead, is no longer about illuminating what was dark. It is about memory, and memory is selective. The past might be its elusive object, but the present is what gives it purpose and meaning.

The role of art is to shed light on a social situation, so as to generate a critical distance from it, and López Nieves is applying this goal both literally and figuratively. His task is not one of preservation for nostalgia’s sake. Instead, he highlights a past of progress, commerce, and leisure. But, for a restoration to hold contemporary meaning, it cannot only be literal. Havana is not a living history museum like, say, Colonial Williamsburg. It is a city alive today. Thus while some of his pieces are bound for the art gallery, others become public art with a purpose.

In many instances, López Nieves creates brand new pieces, like “Arte Corte,” a sign for a hair salon that is one of the most booming businesses in Havana today, becoming an anchor for neighborhood revitalization in Old Havana.

In other cases, the artist re-contextualizes signs that may or may not have actually existed as such. He superimposes the actual neon lights on other images that serve to create a critical distance, as in “Norge,” a brand of electric appliances that was once popular in Cuba.

Finally, his site-specific installations for galleries, both in Cuba and in the United States, have engaged with the new context as well as with local artists, to foster a dialogue about the sensorial experience of urban revitalization.

By definition, a sign is never just a sign. A sign embodies meanings that are socially constructed and therefore ever changing. Signs are alive, like the people who see them and decode them. The Habana Light Project is about memory insofar as memory is a product of the present. It might never take us to the past, but it will certainly accompany us into the future.

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