Ian Marcos Gutiérrez, a 23-year-old printer at the Taller Experimental de Gráfica, in Havana, helps the author prepare a block of lithographic limestone for printing. (Arien Chang Castán)
by Mimi Dwyer;
Photographs by Arien Chang Castán
Lithography arrived in Cuba before anywhere else in the Americas, as a way to protect the sanctity and integrity of the country’s industry.
By the early 19th century, Cuban exports, especially tobacco, had a prestige that made them valuable throughout the world.
Exporters wanted a way to protect Cuban industry from counterfeiters.
Using lithography, they could make seals and rings that both decorated their products and distinguished them from those of competitors.
The process depends more than anything on the repellent properties of oil and water, and their interaction with limestone. By using acids, powders, solvents, oils, and gum in specific combinations, lithographers manipulate the places a stone receives ink.
In this way, they can use a stone to print precise and intricate images onto paper.
Cuba imported thousands of lithographic limestones from Germany in the 1800s, when the technology was first emerging.
Cuban businessmen brought machines from France and Germany and lured experts to Havana who knew how to use them. Many of the original machines still work.
The Taller’s oldest is an intricate, red woodcutting machine from 1829, still used by artists every day.
In the 1950s, shortly before the revolution, aluminum replaced lithography as the best way to protect product identity, and the stones fell into disuse.
Campesinos started to use them to make walking paths through muddy fields. Habaneros, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, laid them around the city along with whatever other stones they could find to serve as barricades.
Cuban lithography would have died then but for a few artists who recognized the value of the craft.
They lobbied the government to protect the stones, and in 1962, as minister of industry, Che Guevara signed a mandate to provide materials, space, and machines to Cuban lithographers in the name of art.
The Taller was born from that directive, and it remains the oldest and best known print studio in Cuba.