New OTR mural celebrates Cuban culture, diversity in Cincy

ArtWorks is celebrating the completion of its latest Over-the-Rhine mural, this one honoring Latin culture and representing the organization’s push to promote the various unique cultures that make up the region.

“Azúcar!” features two individuals playing bongo drums against a deep lavender background, with lines radiating outwards. The designer, renowned illustrator and artist Jorge Rodriguez Diez, referred to the piece as a tribute to Afro-Cuban singer and pan-Latina icon, Celia Cruz, who died in 2003. 

The exclamation “Azúcar” (or “Sugar”) was said often by Cruz, a larger-than-life personality widely known as the Queen of Latin Music.

Overall, the design highlights Cuba’s complex history while also questioning it, Diez said. The piece at 1405 Walnut St. features stylized graphics and images typical of Cuban culture. 

The inspiration behind the look and feel of “Azúcar” – as well as Diez’s other works – are his own experiences as a Cuban artist and immigrant. Now a Miami resident, Diez is the chief curator and executive director at the Museum of Contemporary Art of the Americas.

Diez said “Azúcar!” aims to reflect the resilience of the Cuban spirit.

ArtWorks plans to dedicate the mural on Sunday, June 23. The public event will include salsa dancing and music, specialty food options and words from Diez and the young apprentices who painted the mural. The presentation will begin at 1:30 p.m.

“ArtWorks created the ‘Azúcar!’ mural to showcase Cincinnati’s commitment to inclusivity and artistic expression,” said Jill Dunne, the organization’s senior director of marketing and communications. “We are thrilled that it was designed by the brilliant Cuban artist Jorge Rodriguez Diez, who considers Cincinnati his second home.”

Using art to promote inclusion, diversity

Teaching artists Laura Diaz Perez and Joy Li worked with a group of 10 youth apprentices, ages 14 to 21, to paint “Azúcar!” over a series of weeks last fall. The apprentices were Nico Breen, Sanada Caldwell, Julisa Chinchilla, Kaleah Crump, Grey Garrison, Isabella Hren, Kayla Jackson, Cora Legere, Nyla Reed and Teo Uribe.

Dunne noted that process taught the apprentices about the “cultural richness of the Cuban community, while adding a bright, stunning visual to OTR.”

“Azúcar!” was a collaboration between a variety of partners, including Urban Sites, Lisa Saia, Leonard Saia and Dena Cranley. Other partners were Jens Rosenkrantz Jr. and M. Katherine Hurley, the leaders of the “Bridges Not Walls” project uses art to build connections between Cuban and American people.

The mural ties into ArtWorks mission to support what they view as Greater Cincinnati’s growing commitment to embracing its multicultural identity. According to the 2020 U.S. Census, nearly 7% of Cincinnati residents born outside the United States, almost twice as many as in 2000.

L to R: Jens Rosenkrantz Jr., Colleen Houston, and Jorge Rodríguez Diez at The Annex Gallery.

In 2023, ArtWorks started a mural series to celebrate the various cultures in the city. Dunne described it as a way to “democratize art and foster inclusivity within Cincinnati’s artistic landscape.” Recent tributes include the “Love Wins” mural in OTR, which celebrates 50 years of LGTBQ+ Pride in Cincinnati, and an Indian mandala painted outside Esoteric Brewing Co. in Walnut Hills. 

At least four other murals and major projects will be completed this summer, including the “Avondale Heroes” mural at Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio. A celebration for that piece will take place on May 24.

ArtWorks will also mark the opening of a new exhibition, “Lavender Balm: Expressions of Queer Resistance,” on May 31 at its V2 Gallery on E. McMillan Street.

“Through intentional community partnerships and programmatic design, we aim to celebrate our diverse community now and into the future,” said Colleen Houston, ArtWorks CEO and artistic director.


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