Artists’ books from Cuba

The Latin American and Iberian Collections team has recently acquired a small but utterly compelling collection of books published by Ediciones Vigía. These are beautiful and hugely imaginative hand-made artist books created in Matanzas, Cuba. Although in nature very different to the Cartonera collection we have built over the years, Vigía books also help us ask questions about the possibilities of creating and disseminating art and literature in a context of material scarcity.  

Ediciones Vigía was founded by the poet Alfredo Zaldívar and the artist Rolando Estévez in 1985 but did not originally start as a publisher: it began as a cultural association organizing events for the local community to learn about Cuban and international authors. They would produce invitations for such events held in the then named Casa del Escritor (The Author’s House) in the Plaza de la Vigía square in Matanzas.  

The invitations were created by Rolando Estévez and subsequently developed into more elaborate publications of literary authors, as he designed unique fold out books and booklets using all sorts of otherwise discarded material: different types of waste, seeds, leaves, stems, earth, cardboard, seashells, fabrics, etc. To print the text, they used a borrowed typewriter and a borrowed mimeograph.  

Rolando Estévez was part of Vigía until 2013 and then started working on his very own artist studio, El Fortín. He sadly passed away in January 2023 and with him Cuba lost a pillar of its book and art production. Since 1998 Agustina Ponce has been the editor at Vigía and now leads a team of highly skilled young book makers who are keeping alive the publisher’s ethos.  

Until recently made in editions of 200 copies only, Vigía’s titles are very elaborate collectable books aimed at selected audiences. In this they differ from cartonera publications. Some items distinctively belong to MOMA’s collections and have also featured in several exhibitions outside of Cuba. One of the main advocates and promoters of Ediciones Vigía and Ediciones El Fortín and a long-time personal friend of Rolando Estévez is Luis Retta, a book seller from Uruguay who provides academic libraries around the world with books published in several countries in Latin America. In a very interesting conversation Luis and I had about Ediciones Vigía, he told me that now, due to even greater difficulties with availability of essential goods, the team of young artists who replaced Rolando Estévez are further reducing the print runs of their editions. As another example, he spoke about how the lack of paper, among other things, has led the renowned magazine Casa de las Americas to no longer publish in print. In an interview (*2) given some years ago, Agustina Ponce, said that Vigía could in fact be considered as a publisher for times of poverty. On the other hand, Rolando Estévez -and this is also Luis Retta’s view- argued (*1) that actually the publisher emerged purely out of an aesthetic need to create something beautiful. That is, scarcity not as vehicle for but as the road to travel on in the process of creation; or as something that can probably fuel but not ignite this process. First the driving force of creativity, and then the adaptation to scarcity. In this sense, then Agustina Ponce’s statement rings very true:  

Son libros que llevan nuestra energía, con una carga de emociones donde, además de las manos, laten el corazón y el espíritu del creador.  

As a book seller, Luis Retta has helped Ediciones Vigía and El Fortín navigate the intricacies of the United State’s embargo of Cuba. He was the intermediary, at no extra charge for Rolando Estévez, when it came to selling his stunning artwork “Otra piel para otra entraña” to the Library of Congress. The work is a book-dress: poems by Cuban and US women poets are meant to be worn. It was made to measure for Ruth Behar, a Cuban-Jewish-American poet and anthropologist:   

We shall continue to watch out for further developments for Ediciones Vigía and El Fortín. In the meantime, we wish the Cuban people strength and a return to conditions where their extraordinary and definitely not scarce imagination and artistry can continue to thrive. 

Clara Panozzo

Further reading:

Behar, Ruth, Cordones-Cook, Juanamaría, and Schwain, Kristin. Handmade in Cuba : Rolando Estévez and the Beautiful Books of Ediciones Vigía. Gainesville : University Press of Florida, 2021. Ebook.

Nochi, Kim and Rudloff Stanton, Anne. Ediciones Vigía books in art and cultural history.  Columbia: University of Missouri, 2012. Dissertation.

Graveline, Laura. Books as Art: Twenty-One Years of Handmade Books from Cuba’s Ediciones Vigía.  Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Fall 2006), pp. 26-29.

¡CUBA LIBROS! Ediciones Vigia, the Cuban publishing cooperative, shows off its resourcefulness in a traveling exhibit of handmade books. American Craft; New York Vol. 62, Iss. 2,  (Apr/May 2002): 76-77.

(*1) Alegria, Maria Eugenia, et al. “Vigia: the endless publications of Matanzas.” Michigan Quarterly Review, vol. 33, no. 4, fall 1994, pp. 828+


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