Lloyd Gite is an adventurer and a risk-taker. His previous career as a television journalist took him all over the world, but it was stops in Africa that caused him to fall in love with the continent and its art. He's since returned to sub-Saharan Africa dozens of times to find paintings, ceremonial hats, textiles and tribal masks for The Gite Gallery, all of which the gallerist displays in a home-like setting against vibrantly colored walls.
So, when Gite heard from his travel planner – the same one who guides him on all those great art-finding trips to Africa – that a trip to Cuba was opening up, he jumped at the chance. It was an education-based trip, as strict tourism is still not permitted for United States citizens, with stops at museums, market places and public art projects.
Gite says it was eye-opening to discover that the people of Cuba look exactly like people in Texas – with skin color ranging from very fair to extremely dark and every shade in between. During his trip, he found himself gravitating toward the Afro-Cuban artists, those who have mostly West African ancestry, and purchased more than 60 pieces of art on paper and canvas, including a few works by the noted painter and engraver Eduardo Roca, who goes by the name Choco.
“He's one of the most famous printmakers in the world; he's an incredible printmaker. The only reason we have prints is because [his works] are so expensive,” says Gite, noting that Choco's works are on view in several of the museums. “He has several heads; heads and faces. Those are really, really cool; strong.”
Gite visited street markets, private artist studios and art galleries to purchase work by famous and emerging artists. “The museums had treasure troves of works. Just absolutely phenomenal,” says Gite. “We couldn't spend enough time in the museums. [Cubans] are very much into art, and especially public displays, public art projects, especially Havana, metal sculptures, wood sculptures, a lot of ceramic.”
Gite says that the artists he encountered were a mix between self-taught and those students from the Superior Institute of Arts, which is known for its rigorous education. Works brought back by Gite come in a range of sizes from 12 inches to five feet, and include Surrealism, exultant chromaticism, everyday scenes, archetypes and Cubism. “There are several artists who have incorporated that particular style [Cubism], which I love, but you have to realize that Picasso's style came from Africa; that's where it originated. So it's only natural that that style of art would sort of linger on,” says Gite.
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We asked Gite about his impressions about the Cuban landscape and community. “Absolutely gorgeous. We were in one of the houses built in 1500. The craftsmanship; it was still functioning. The architecture would blow you away,” says Gite, who says it also was amazing to see all of the pre-1960 vintage American cars still on the street. “The food was absolutely great. They've allowed people to open their homes and sell food out of their homes as if it was a restaurant. The food was just incredible; outstanding food. The cities are so cosmopolitan. They're so with it. You wouldn't think that Havana would be so hip: the music, dress, hairstyles, incredible people and places. We also got to see the Ernest Hemingway house. It's an incredible, beautiful home, as if he left one day and planned to come back. There are these huge windows which circle his whole compound. His boat is there, where he buried his little animals.”
It seems that Gite has fallen in love with yet another country. “For me to experience the art of Afro-Cuban artists was exciting. I wasn't used to hearing about black artists coming from Cuba; it was a real eye-opener.” There are still a few road bumps in the acquisition of art, as it's not easy to ship artwork directly home, so he's planning another trip very soon.
A launch party for the Afro-Cuban art collection is Friday, March 4, from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. at The Gite Gallery, 2024 East Alabama, 713-523-3311, thegitegallery.com. Free.