Milene Busutil, 33, lives with her husband, Julio, and son Saul, 3, in a clean and neat upstairs apartment in a quiet neighborhood in western Havana. Their small apartment, it is three rooms is within walking distance of the national academy of art, from which Milene graduated. So did many other top Cuban artists, one reason this small country of 11 million people produces so many world-class artists.
Milene received her "Licencada en Artes Plastica" in 1990, and began teaching soon after at the "Enrique Vose Varona" secondary school. She and her family split their time between Havana and their beloved country home in San Felipe, in the campo about an hour's drive from Havana. Milene has that rare combination of talent fused with a philosopher's intelligence. Look closely at the faces in "Clandestinos" or the noble face in "Condension del Alma," and you will see immediately that she is an excellent figurative painter. What sets her apart, however, is the insight and the meaning she gives her works.
"Milene believes art can make the person good," Julio explains. "Art is to change the world. If you have art in your home, what is it for?"
Indeed, that is the basic question Milene and the other artists in Ana's Art Gallery ask. What is art for? Some art, of course, is decorative, with nice colors to liven up a room. In Cuba, this is called artesinas and is sold to tourists along the Prado or in Cathedral Square. The most popular scenes are of "La Bodeguita del Medio" with a red Chevrolet (circa 1956, because this is the car mas fuerte), invariably painted parked in front of the restaurant.
There is also in Cuba, however, more so than in any country I've visited, much art that is made for meaning. And Milene's art is imbued with ideas, which, coupled with the pieces of scrap wood scavenged from the tumbling- down buildings, leads to a powerful expression of those ideas. During neighborhood walks, Milene and Julio search through the crumbling buildings to get the wood she paints on. Best, she says, are doors and chairs, and out of the entropy that knocks down the buildings come art. Creation, destruction and then re-creation: birth, death, resurrection. For Milene, to be a human is to be an artist. We are capable of it, she says in her paintings, if we make the ascent out of the satano, (the basement) into freedom.
And who is to be our guide along the way? Nature. To become a human being is to open your heart, to "integrate," as she shows in her series called "Integracion." Milene is most interested in alma or soul, the soul of quotidian life lived by regular human beings, who are all, in the end, wounded by the "slings and arrows of outrageous fate." To be a human being is to be wounded; you see her men and women with secular stigmata on their hands, feet and chest; because to engage in life is to be wounded.
How do we heal the wounds life deals us? This is the question Milene is asking in "Maquina to Heal the Soul." The answer is seen in the wood pieces with seedlings growing out of the wounds, or those mysterious leaves that are flowing to and from the wounds. It is as if from the suffering that produces the wounds comes new life" or, it could be said, a "New Man," or could it be, Friedrich Nietzsche's "over-man." It is the heart chakra opening up in these paintings, just as Milene had her own experience of rebirth in 1994, when she went to a weekend retreat for what he calls a "yoga cleanse."
"It is a yoga technique for cleaning the body," Julio explains, "a kind of introspection you make. You don't talk; you listen to the teacher and have instruction in breathing and the correct meditation position." Something very interesting happened on the first day of her retreat; Milene's body broke out in a rash. "Her body began was putting out something," Julio says. "I think it changed her. She had a different vision about all things after that."
That new vision was soon reflected in her work, as a new dimension entered her paintings.