HAVANA — Kadir López was working in his studio at his elegant home here when the doorbell rang. It was Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.
“I had no idea they were coming,” said Mr. López, whose work incorporates salvaged American signs and ads that were torn down after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.
About an hour and $45,000 later, Mr. Smith had bought “Coca Cola-Galiano,” an 8-by-4-foot Coca-Cola sign on which Mr. López had superimposed a 1950s photograph of what was once one of the most bustling commercial streets in Havana.
A year later, recalling the event, Mr. López is still happily incredulous.
“Where else in the world does Will Smith turn up on an artist’s doorstep?” he said.
The man I most admired in my Cuban hometown — second only to my father and to the native son who played center field for the national baseball team — was someone that could make magic with a brush, some oil colors and a canvas. Or charcoal and a blank piece of paper. Wherever he’d set up to sketch or paint, kids and adults alike gathered around him, watching in quiet reverence as his visions came to life. He was a few years older than me and I never knew his real name, only his nickname: El Gongui.
One day I got up the courage to ask him to teach me how to draw. He asked if I had ever done it. I hemmed and hawed and said that I had done some cartoons and caricatures. When he convinced me to show them to him, he was very complementary. I probably doubted his sincerity, I’m not sure. It’s been a long time. But El Gongui offered me some tips and told me that I could ask him anything I wanted about painting. I never did, of course. I was a shy twelve year-old. But I continued drawing and shadowing him whenever he’d set up outside and secretly wishing his talent would wash over me.
No one in town was surprised when El Gongui was accepted to the National Academy of Fine Arts in Havana. He went away to study and I continued sketching and drawing and hoping to one day paint like him.
Even before the all-clear was sounded, during the October Missile Crisis in ’62, my parents had applied for a visa to travel to the U. S. I was seven at the time. It would take eight years for the exit permit to come through. It felt like growing up at an airline terminal or a train station. There’s not much living to be done because you’re always waiting for your trip to be announced.