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Photo from Belle Carson

This year, 15 students extended their spring breaks to travel across Cuba in search of artistic inspiration. 

Every two years, the School of Design sends students to another country in its abroad seminar, which in past years has sent participants to Beijing, Berlin and Istanbul, Turkey. Undergraduate and graduate students are selected based on photo and video portfolio content and prepare for the trip throughout the beginning of the semester. This year's participants traveled to Cuba during spring break and the following week. 

PennDesign lecturer Gabe Martinez said viewing Cuban art and interacting with Cuban artists influenced students' projects and so the content of some of their projects actually shifted in turn.

Going into the trip, graduate student James Allister Sprang said he was interested in recording video and sound, with the intent to highlight danzon music — a genre native to Cuba — and its relationship to the Cuban people. While on the island, he changed his focus and instead gathered recordings of live musical performances, portraying himself as a composer in the center of all the action.

“When I arrived in Cuba, the waves were epic, so I decided to conduct my project in relation to the ocean with the intention of recording sounds of Cuba and in a way replacing the danzon with the sounds I acquired while in Cuba,” Sprang said.

After weeks of historical readings, film viewings and Spanish lessons in their class on campus, the group spent their first five days in Havana attending lectures and tours. Later, they traveled to the countryside to experience individual home stays where Martinez and PennDesign lecturer Brent Wahl conducted critiques of all of their work so far. 

“I think we got to understand certain aspects of Cuban culture in a way that most tourists don’t," Martinez said.

At the end of the first week of the trip, students returned to Havana. There, they honed in on the individual projects they had planned before the trip. Individual project topics included the opening of financial markets, the influence of Afro-Cuban culture and the nature of tourists themselves.

College junior Amy Chen focused on design practice in relation to Cuba's changing political climate. She photographed store front signs and collected flyers and menus for her research.

“Design is a practice that can always be contextualized and is influenced by the people who create it and consume it,” Chen said, adding that some Cuban designers she interviewed described the period from the 1970s to now "as an era where design has been lost, since there is no competitive motivation between companies.”

On May 18, there will be a final exhibition at Charles Addams Fine Arts Hall that will showcase all of the individual projects. Students can also publish their works online and in an official print catalog for the course.

For now, the students are catching up on classes and organizing their photos, footage and audio recordings — still ruminating on their experiences abroad.

“Everything surprised me about Cuba following weeks of preparation,” Chen said. “Cuba isn't a place you can really prepare for until you've been there and experienced it for yourself." 

"Even after you've been there and think you'd be able to prepare for your next visit there, Cuba is constantly changing so once you return, a lot of things might already be different," Chen added.