The Art of Dominoes

Baseball might seem to be the national sport of Cuba, but a game of dominoes is for all to enjoy - and you see it being played all over Havana.

Game of Dominoes on verandah in Havana, Cuba

Like this serious group playing or silently observing, near the University.

Watching the concentration of both observers and players, I was reminded of the quote of Max Euwe:

Strategy requires thought,

tactics requires observation.

Both are required to be a respected dominoes player – and the skill speaks well for the development of creative and strategic thought that is the hallmark of people in Cuba – people who have made innovation an art form with their solutions to everyday problems.

Domino game on verandah in Havana Cuba

In the craft market one day I saw a stall selling dominoes in boxes that were works of art in themselves.

I couldn’t resist – and ended up buying five.

Stall selling Domino Boxes at Havana Craft Market in Cuba

Many were painted as if to replicate the Camelos – long improbable buses made from semi-trailers that were used to transport hundreds of people at a time in stifling heat and close bodily contact.

Although I bought the dominoes with the intention of giving them as gifts, they have stayed with me through all my travels, for they portray the Havana of the time, with the strange mix of vehicles…

Cuban Domino Box with Camelo and small classico

..the classic cars…

Cuban domino box with Camelo and colourful classic car

…trucks jammed with people, like those you see waiting on the highways beside the man in the yellow jacket that shows he is an official human taxi control centre, as he gathers destinations and matches them to the passing vehicles, despatching people accordingly…

Cuban domino box with bus and truckload of people

..whether in a truck…

Cuban domino box with Camelo and truckload of people

…or classic car ‘Cuban Nationals only’ taxi.

Cuban domino box with bus and pink classic car

One domino box painting featured a family in a classico – even with the kids misbehaving in the back…

Cuban domino box with bus and green classic car

As well as the bigger domino boxes there were some larger, like this one with colourful larger classic cars…

Cuban domino box with Camelo and classic car

…and on the smaller domino boxes, there are smaller Classicos of more humble status, painted beside the smaller buses like those that ply the routes from Habana Centro to the barrios and to nearby districts.

Cuban domino box with bus and small blue classic car

One of these looked distinctly like a Morris Minor 1000…

Cuban domino box with bus and Morris Minor 1000

..and on another is one of the then newly introduced Chinese motorbikes.

Cuban domino box with bus and motorbike

As with so many things in Cuba, in creating these artistic domino boxes, the opportunity is not lost to leave you with some typically ironic Cuban humour.

Cuban domino box with DOMINO NOSTRUM painted on rear window

On the back of several of the domino box buses is painted:

the destination: Vedado

the year the box was made: 2000

route: M1

…and on the rear window, a clever word play.

"DOMINO NOSTRUM"

Cuban domino box with DOMINO NOSTRUM painted on rear

Choose from the following list of options as to what this means.

It could be a blessing in Latin from the Atonement: "Domino Nostrum"

…or literally say “our masters”

…or it could simply be saying “our dominoes”!

At any rate, each of the painted boxes holds a complete set of carefully made dominoes.

Cuban domino box in shape of bus

The craft market in Havana where I found these treasures contains a wide variety of things - with an equally wide variance in quality

Havana Craft Market

It’s worth visiting more than once, as the vendors vary and I didn't see the Domino people again.

Artwork in the Havana Craft Market

For the purists among those reading, you may be mulling over the much debated question that often arises about such things as my domino boxes.

Are such things art?

Or are they craft?

This is an unending debate: What constitutes one as against the other?

I find them quirky. I like them - and that is good enough for me – and rather than leap into that discussion, I prefer to look at my domino boxes as really fine design.

Millard Sheets is recognised as the founder of what later came to be known as the California Water Colour Movement. In addition to water colours and illustrations, he painted murals, was a printmaker – and notably – also an architect.

But it was in his role as an art judge, that Mr Sheets (great name for someone who must have used thousands of sheets of paper in his lifetime of art and architecture) made the observation that:

Good design is a great combination -

of common sense, unusual imagination,

clarity of purpose, aesthetic insight

and a deep reverence for the love of life.

The painted Cuban domino boxes would not be classed as great art by many – but the fact that they are so beautifully crafted from the humble materials available, are functionally effective – both as domino boxes and for the dominoes within - vividly depict things uniquely Cuban, are witty, colourful and timeless in appeal –qualifies them in my mind as very good design.


More Havana pages:

Havana Angels

Havana Capitol Building

Havana Creative Transportation

Havana Classic Cars

Havana Political Demonstration

Havana Fish and Philosophy

Havana Street Water-Skiing

Havana Grandeur

Havana Back Street Rambles

Havana Agricultural Fair

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