Nilo Julián González Preval. All photos by author.

A Conversation With OMNI: The Underground Voice of Cuba

Havana Activism
by Matthew Abrams Jan 6, 2014

While it may be
policy or government that becomes Cuba’s history, it’s the artists who tell her story. A story found not only in the revolutions of visionaries, but everywhere. Usually the artist focuses on an element of this story to illuminate, and in time many collaborations create a picture.

But one artistic group in Alamar, a municipality east of Havana, has found a way to create entire pictures at once. In single movements they explore the tentacles of their world through a cocktail of imagination, expression, and brotherhood. Banned from festivals and forced underground, they exist without limits. The group calls themselves OMNI.

* * *

I walk under the Never Ending Poetry sign and through the blue double doors. The men and women of OMNI huddle around a laptop. Some sitting, some standing, some standing on chairs. Poetry and books fill the walls of what looks to be an artistic warehouse. There is a kiln. Vice grips. Legs of a manikin hang from the ceiling. The corner holds shelves of empty bottles of Havana Club rum. There are four Soviet typewriters on a table, one painted blue with white polka dots (which they use for rhythm and harmony when they make music). In the center, a dozen chairs line the circumference of a red anarchy sign. Five smaller anarchy stars between the arms of the main star. In the middle, a bouquet of flowers in a wine bottle.

Everyone is watching a video of Amaury. He’s about six feet tall, but he seems taller. His eyes are in perennial bloom. His dreadlocks are thick at the base and come to a point like a pinecone. He wears a one-piece dress that’s sleeveless and purple. His locution is poetic, his expression primal. Amaury helped begin the group six years ago and is standing next to me.

Some vintage typewriters

Vintage typewriters that OMNI incorporates into the music they make — they believe that by using historical “instruments” they will better integrate the big story into their expression.

In the video Amaury is wearing a suit, standing solid and silent in the trendy area of Havana. Under a beige full-length trenchcoat he wears a black suit with polished shoes. He holds a sunflower, the bloom just over his head. Seventy-five people are gathered. Some talking, some staring. A van goes by slowly, the driver watching. People drop out of the circle, others fill in. The city moves but Amaury is still like glass. A Chinese man in a blue shirt stares with his arms crossed. The police arrive. Slowly yet deliberately the officer clenches Amaury’s tricep.

Now the number of people has doubled. More people are talking. Amaury moves slowly with patient resistance. Some tourists take pictures. Amaury continues to look straight ahead while keeping his sunflower still. A couple people flip screens on camcorders. The officer continues to push Amaury off the curb so he’s standing within the open arm of the police car door. Amaury is now shorter than the cop on the curb. Some tourists yell at the officer. For the first time Amaury stops looking into the distance and looks into the officer’s eyes. They stare at each other until another officer pushes down on Amaury’s shoulder and bends him into the white car with red siren on top.

This is an expression of OMNI. This is their art. They call it “happenings.”

Most of the group continues watching other happenings. From one person freestyling poetry atop a bus stop, to a group carrying a nine-foot cross onto the bus and across the city. Rene, a member of the group, and I walk to the couch. The train tracks of a scar run under his left eye. His dreads are coiled like a dozen springs. Rene is battle tough and street wise, but he gives the greatest hugs in Cuba. He asks me what I want to talk about.

I say, “What is OMNI?” He pulls a foot-long Cohiba from his shirt pocket, lights it with a Zippo, and puffs, taking his time.

Rene: “It is a school like none other. But here you don’t just find the education you do in any school, this is a school of life. It’s my temple. The place where I read myself spirituality. In essence, it is the possibility to become.”

The dank aromas of the Cohiba fill the room. David comes over. He is light skinned with long dreads. A nylon shirt with butterfly collar. Barefoot, rip in the knee of his jeans.

People planning next event

OMNI community meeting planning out their next public “happening.”

David: “What’s the question?”

“Que es OMNI?”

David: “Oh no!”

He slaps his forehead and sits next to me.

David: “It’s a space where a group of brothers cultivate learning in themselves and the group.”

Amaury arrives. The Cohiba is passed.

Amaury: “Here you can touch the ground; you can be useful, directly useful. It suggests practice and spirituality. It’s a place that allows our authentic mind and a process of carrying the testimony of our existence. The idea behind OMNI is that it is EVERYTHING. And our attempt of reaching this name is our exploration.”

Nilo finds his way over and sits on the floor. He smiles at the conversation. He’s missing a front tooth. Nilo’s eyes are wide. He is curious and eager like a boy in a frog pond.

“What is special about Alamar that has allowed OMNI to become?”

Nilo: “Alamar is virgin space. There are communication difficulties between this urban nucleus and the…what is called, the ‘capital.’ We have generated a population more or less stable without a cultural link to the city.”

David: “Also, we have very little tradition. Alamar is developing independent culture. It’s here where we had the first rock festivals, the first hip-hop festivals. It is here where the young culture is emerging and burgeoning.”

Conversation about revolutionary culture

Smoking a cigar and talking about the revolutionary culture of Cuba.

Nilo: “In 1970, Alamar was chosen to bring the expansion of the city to the east. There were more than 10,000 military technicians from the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Germany. The exiled Chileans started arriving soon thereafter and then hundreds of Latin Americans after the coup d’etas. From 1974 to ’78 we received about 2,000 Jamaicans. And together we grew up.

The youth here, we are out of generation, out of tradition…like out of circuit. We are rootless. We don’t adapt easily to the education, the society, and the state of things. From birth, we carry an impulse, a beat that makes us inadaptable.

And this, the House of Culture, is very fertile land. But due to social, technological, and economic situations, we haven’t had the possibility to fully develop. Here we are budding, like in standby. We eat food and we shit. Art in its essence is the same; we consume a social diet and the artist digests and makes the excretion, the — art — with the same necessity.”

“Talk about the artist’s social diet in Cuba.”

Amaury: “It is all one movement. At the time of excretion I am in the sense of digestion and at the same time contributing to the food before it is digested again. The question I ask myself is ‘how to defecate in the best way possible?’ But in modern times it has become one big defecation.

The art I have chosen is living life with integrity, circulating the galleries of life. As Borges said, “We are all men.” I allow the income of the forces and it is the poetry and the art which have the optic faculty of comprehension and penetration. I don’t have a total comprehension of contemporary art, but I do have a little lantern with a vibratory role in a light field. Emanate, defecate, receive the defecations of others, contribute to the nutrition and the process of life.”

“Do you ever find it difficult maintaining the integrity of the individual while existing within a group?”

Nilo: “The group is necessary to maintaining the integrity of the individual. It is very unlikely we would have been able to grow with the same speed and the same energy should we have done it exclusively in an individual manner. Society tends to homogenize. Even with the diversity of Havana — a tablecloth is draped over us to put everyone equal. We wind up not talking about our interests and we become like a wave on the ocean in our sameness.

OMNI is a flower and each of us its petals. Not that we are all equal — in one flower some are straighter than others, some stronger. But we all are the same rose, the same bud. Even the withered petal is part of the whole. Even if the petal falls down. The architect Mies van der Rohe is correct: ‘The part is the whole.'”

Amaury: “It’s like the Hindi who meditates on the breath because they are the breath of Brahma. And the breath of Brahma for the Hindi is the soul of the world. You realize that although you individualize, you belong to. As Lezama said, ‘the Cuban also needs half a night with his God.'”

Kids of Havana

Kids playing marbles on the streets of Havana.

David: “It’s like a car that has a wheel, an engine, tires — ”

Amaury: “And an exhaust pipe!”

David: “Then we recognize how important the others are and we fall in love with each other and it is within that environment which we cultivate ourselves and what we can bring to the whole.”

Amaury: “When we started it was very external, but once we began interior traveling, we found the unity. It was in the meditation that we found the core of all the elements to be the unifying factor. And in the reflection of the others we find our soul’s design.

But just because we have a unity doesn’t suggest a collectivity. For everything we experience there are thousands of collaborations which lead to this end point. Once you take the distance and look at the planet you realize that you don’t see exactly many things. Then when you touch the central atom, you start feeling the original source.

OMNI is about experiencing the diversity of the world and experiencing the individuality of the self. And more so to experience the diversity and unity at the same time — within and without ourselves. Science allows us the world’s exploration in a clever and pragmatic way and the art gives us the winds for the imagination…in all the complexity.”

“Tell me something you know for sure about Cuba.”

Amaury: “What’s the importance of having a meeting of diversity and tolerance if only a few people talk “from everybody for the good of everybody.” What I know for sure right now is that this is based on fear…and the fear engenders our belligerence. People need to recognize the unity. People need the unity on the unity.

As things are, the fear doesn’t allow us a choice to make a website, to perform in functions where there is something of light…. So I create ways to give my light. It is good that you are here, in Alamar, a city that doesn’t often touch people. It’s good that you don’t necessarily have to go to Havana to live an experience. And…at the same time Cuba is a periphery of the world and inside this periphery we are a periphery. These peripheries generate a lot of light. If you submerge us in water we will still make sparks.”

“What else would you like the world to know about OMNI?”

Nilo: “Everything! You asked us about our social influence, and while it’s true our artistic attitude is also a political attitude, there is much more. Amaury thinks in a series of social personages that I see, but am not interested in. And that is a very important part of us. For example, sometimes I sleep with men, not just women, and that is important to be seen. ”

    Nilo stands up and has me follow him to a wool suit hanging on the wall.

“Look, this is a design from the first hip-hop festival, ‘From Alaska to the Patagonia.’”

    He walks me to the books.

“And that we read Nicolas Guillen, Ghandi, the 4 required books of Fidel. This is what we do to be as we are. We spend hours talking about baseball and Cuban music or the hours that Rene is playing chess down there. How can somebody play chess for 10 hours straight? Look, this is painted by David. He also sings and plays the guitar…this is not a criticism, but if you can help him with that we’d appreciate it. The OMNI group is more than its social work. The social work is the result of one part of what we are as people. Because I’m not always thinking on the society. Sometimes I’m thinking on masturbation. Sometimes I’m with myself, on the floor of the ocean looking at sea shells in my tranquility.

Look at Amaury, he is like 5 years without talking on Mondays and fuck me because Monday is the most important day. And also, I love you…do you understand me? Sometimes I speak a little quick.”

Street art

I Love Cuba — was taken walking the streets of Alamar.

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