The New York Times writer Holland Cotter visits Havana for the 2015 Biennial and shares his insights of the heavily attended art gathering. His words ring strong yet true. I somewhat expected usual mainstream press to simply glorify all the fabulous events (which made for a hell of a sexy week), but to my surprise, Cotter truly dug beyond the surface. I am not somebody to vilify the enjoyable experience, on the contrary, I DJ’d the opening of the ice-skating rink pictured above, and confess, it was an incredible evening full of joy, curiosity, and the warmth from the Cuban people. As a Cuban-American, this increasingly warp speed opening of Cuba is a complex journey for our souls to process.
Pointing out the comparisons that this could be the next Venice Biennial, Cotter shares:“The [Havana] biennial was not originally created with that crowd in mind. Founded in 1984, it was devoted to artists who found no welcome in heavily subsidized European extravaganzas like the Venice Biennale and Documenta. In those pre-globalist days, the Havana show provided a platform not only to artists from Cuba but also from Asia, Africa and South America. Working with a minute budget, it was conceived as a kind of anti-spectacle, with a vision of art as a loose and elusive social experiment, not a brand to sell.”
He then goes on to mention the white elephant in the room, the unheard Cuban voices. “As if applying a reality check to the biennial’s pose of cosmopolitan openness, last weekend the government’s censoring forces swung onto action. Their target was the itinerant Cuban-born performance artist Tania Bruguera, who has not been allowed to leave Havana for the past six months on charges of disturbing the public order”.
He then goes on to describe one of the main venues showing art, a place called “Zona Franca” (Free Zone) which converted an 18th Century Fortress and all its little bricked out caverns into a myriad of installation rooms. Cotter writes that Zona Franco also takes you “physically inside a piece of history, namely a 500-year-old chunk of Old World colonial architecture designed by men who wanted to keep the New World both under their thumb and at a distance”. Strong words, but an astute observation. Once again, I walked all along the fortress rooms myself because I had to see for myself, and carefully absorbed all the works that Cuba’s artists had to share, many of them loaded with messages in this era of rapid change. The art seems to speak more than the journalism does in this country, so right now, it is my only vein to the people.
Upon finishing the article, I noticed one of the readers commented additionally on the artists left out of these exhibitions. Louis Never writes, “Most marginal, if not absent, from this Biennial, such as: Lino Vizcaino, Carlos del Toro, Rubén Rodríguez, Lizardo Chijona, Enrique Giovanni Miralles Tartabull, Poder, Norberto Marrero, Arien Guerra Porto, Eduardo Hernandez Santos, and Alejandro Montesino”. She then goes on to say, “The political parameters that define, if not straightjacket, this event are unfortunate, but I’m confident that good, solid work will transcend what is fleeting, such as politics”. Amen Louise. Let’s hope the independents, and less privileged art voices in Cuba begin to show their works more freely by the next Biennial.
Read the whole NYT article, The Havana Biennial is Running at Full Throttle.
All Photos by Lisette Poole for The New York Times