Between the Official the Alternative

What Happened With the Havana Biennial?

The traditional Havana Art Biennial was cancelled this year, resulting in strong protests and discussions in the Cuban artworld. But the story does not end there. One group of artists organized an alternative biennial.

Dannys Montes de Oca, director of the Wifredo Lam Center of Contemporary Art, declared the cultural implementation of the term “Third World” as one of the main contributions of the Havana Art Biennial. Said Third World included the countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, The Caribbean and the Middle East, but also cultural practices of marginalized minorities inside developed capitalist states. Thus, the Havana Art Biennial formed part of a Latin American political agenda proclaimed by the Cuban revolution – by means of other institutions such as Casa de las Américas – and from this perspective it contributed to a generation with a continental mindset, a mindset which was politically and economically “Third World” oriented and in counterposition to international capitalist models.

The Biennial – actually, since 1994 a triennial – is the most significant event for Cuban visual arts. Its program of exhibitions, curator meetings and invited artists generates an atmosphere of exchange and enrichment which contributes to a renewal of the theoretical discourse and the Cuban creative scene. During the celebration of the Biennial, the selected artists interact with the public in the squares, streets and demolished buildings of Havana. In recent editions, collateral exhibitions have stood out such as Detrás del Muro (“Behind the Wall”) and Zona Franca (“Free Zone”), transforming the Malecón beach promenade and the Morro-Cabaña complex into incredible art stages for collective participation. In that sense, the 13th Havana Biennial in 2018, which has now been postponed until April-May 2019, remains interested in examining the creation process as a live event or ongoing experience, departing from the title “La construcción de lo posible” (“Construction of the Possible”).

The cancellation of the 2018 Biennial due to Hurricane Irma in September 2017 and the impact this had on the cultural institutions and infrastructure in Cuba, seems to bear evidence of the increased political tensions, as well as the exhaustion of cultural organizational structure on the island. It is well known that in Cuba, great events do not take place simultaneously: from the Book Fair to the Theater Festival, the Ballet Festival or the Film Festival – these events are held in temporary succession, which prevents their coexistence. The centralization of the Cuban administrative system favors a vertical structure of surveillance and control, which ensures the ideological order during the only “mega-event” developed in a specific space and time.

Therefore, the coincidence of the 13th Havana Biennial with the transfer of mandates established for the first time in almost 60 years outside the official family, e.g. the Castro family, was less than convenient. In the context of the appointment of a new president, the government could not allow a new Tatlin’s Whisper. Let’s recall: In December 2014, the renowned Cuban artist Tania Bruguera was arrested at her home in Havana after reinterpreting the performance Tatlin’s Whisper in the Plaza de la Revolución, originally presented during the 2009 Havana Biennial. The performance consists in the establishment of a podium where members of the public are invited to speak uncensored for one minute. Bruguera’s arrest triggered a process of imprisonment and repression against Cuban civil society and fostered a wave of protests from the international art community. (See for example the debate “The Biennial of Havana: To engage or to boycott?”, published on the website of the Cisneros Collection).

The decision to postpone the Biennial caused substantial reactions on the Cuban art scene. In the words of the main forces behind a new alternative event, the #00Biennial, artist Luis Manuel Otero and art historian Yanelys Núñez, the #00Biennial was created “at a moment when the Cuban cultural authorities announced the suspension of the 30 year official Biennial. The news circulated on social networks where it also generated intense debates.” The debates sparked a number of questions such as: How come the artists were not included in making this decision? And how much longer will the Cuban government operate authoritatively regarding the immediate future of its citizens? “Among the many proposals which appeared”, Otero and Núñez explain, “one was to organize the Biennial independently from the state and we took the step forward to make this happen.”

Luis Manuel Otero and Yanelys Núñez are also the authors of other artistic projects noted for their political-activist dimension: the Museum of Dissidence in Cuba and the Museum of Politically Uncomfortable Art. In the words of the organizers, the #00Biennial, which takes place between May 5 and May 15, 2018, emerges with the intention of “supporting the development of Cuban culture at a time when the country experiences a strong crisis of faith, increases the banality and despair”.

The #00Biennial aspires to function as an organizational platform for various independent spaces (studios and art residences, alternative organizations and cultural initiatives) whose practice may establish a dialogue with the concepts of the popular and its imaginary. More than promoting the insertion of the artist in official institutions, the #00Biennial faces now the challenge of legitimizing local creative practices within in a context of international visibility.

Aldeide Delgado is an independent historian and curator. She has been awarded with the Investigative Grant and Production of Critic Essay 2017 issued by Teor/ethics. Her interests include gender, racial identity, photography and abstraction in the visual arts. She has been a speaker at the California Institute of Arts, the Spanish Cultural Center Miami, the University of Havana, Casa de las Américas, the National Library of Cuba and the 12th Havana Biennial. Se studied art history at the University of Havana (2011-2016). Her articles have been published in Art OnCuba, Cuban Art News, Arte Al Límite and Artishock. She is a current collaborator of Artishock in Miami.

Translation from Spanish: Zarifa Mohamad Petersen.

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