One morning on a quiet residential street in Havana’s Vedado district, a woman emerges from her apartment building and stands at the entrance, posing. She wears a lacy black top and neon red spandex leggings tucked into black high-heeled boots. The colour of her lipstick and nail polish match her leggings, which also match what are those things in her hair? oh yes, extra-large, extra-red curlers. “My clothes,” she says by way of introduction, gesturing with slow, elegant hand movements from boots to curlers, “are my life!”
Meet Maraya Shells (“the one and only!”). She speaks in aphorisms usually followed by exclamation marks (“Everyone has the right to shop!” and “We are beautiful and precious, but we have time for nothing!”). She looks like she has been styled by Pedro Almodovar to star in a John Waters movie set in some imaginary Cuban Las Vegas. In fact she is the alter ego and fantasy creation of Nadia García Porras, easily one of the most fascinating and inventive artists working in Havana today.
Not that all this is immediately apparent to Havana Cultura’s film crew, of course. We’ve shown up to interview Porras. Instead we are greeted by Maraya Shells who insists she is Porras’ sister (“Poor Nadia – she doesn’t have the hands of a princess like I do!”) and who finally agrees to be interviewed herself. But the interview will have to take place in a neighbour’s apartment whose décor is, for some reason, more to her liking.
The reason becomes clear once we’re inside. The apartment, inhabited by a kindly, non-spandex-wearing older lady, houses an extensive gathering of plaster Indian chiefs, huge plastic sunflowers, tiny porcelain figurines of children and caged (real) Budgerigars. Maraya Shells treats us to another of her hand gestures, tracing an approving arc from bird cages to framed reproductions of sunsets and waterfalls: “Todo es perfecto aquil!” We can’t help but agree.
When the interview is over she invites us next door to meet her “sister” with a warning: “She is crazy, you know she is an artist!” By the time we reconvene, the spandex, curlers and boots that were Maraya Shells seem to have vanished. In their place we find Nadia Porras reclining in a leather armchair, looking distinctly un-crazy in a white long-sleeved sweater and soft brown trousers. There’s not a plaster Indian in sight.
This flat, with its stunning low-rise view of the Malécon and the surf beyond, belongs to Porras’ mother, an art-history professor. On the coffee table sits the latest issue of the American art magazine “Art in America”. The shelves are lined with expensive art books (“From Baudelaire to Bonnard”, in English). The only thing slightly amiss are the photos scattered on the dining room table, showing Porras and some cohorts lugging something large and plastic around Havana, no doubt in preparation for a recent performance or installation.
So how does Nadia become Maraya, or vice-versa? “I’ve always liked camouflage,” Porras explains. “Plus, here in Cuba, everything is about pretending. I’ve always liked that side of this place.” Where her alter ego is all smiles and exuberance, Porras maintains an air of seriousness so convincing it’s hard to know when she’s joking. Maybe that’s part of the camouflage, too.
h/t Lillian Guerra