Amidst turmoil, the 14th Havana Biennale is currently on view, but questions still surround the controversial event

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In the middle of last month, the 14th edition of the Havana Biennale opened, not with a crash but with a groan.

The state-sponsored exhibition, historically Cuba’s most important artistic event, has long had a dual nature. It is a welcome platform for Cuban artists to present their work to the world, but also a tool of soft power for local government. And because of the attention it brings, positive and negative, it has also been a hotbed of political action.

“The main goal of the Havana Biennale is to project abroad an image of the Cuban art scene, that the state is so beneficent and everything is so wonderful,” explained Cuban artist and writer Coco Fusco. , a former participant in the exhibition. Artnet news. And yet, for guests, the prospect of participating may be too enticing to refuse: “Artists often make enough money from the sales of this event to live a year or two,” she added.

But this year, even in the wake of violent protests around government crackdown, soaring infections and a drastic economic downturn, turning down the invitation is exactly what many artists have done. Indeed, it appears that opposition to the exhibit overshadowed the event itself.

A declaration of protest

Before the show opened in mid-November, more than a dozen invited attendees refused to participate.

Among them, twelve of the participating artists: Yazmany Arboleda, Aimee Joaristi, Argüelles, Abel Azcona, Ursula Biemann, Anguezomo Mba Bikoro, Carolina Caycedo, Terike Haapoja, Miler Lagos, Joiri Minaya and Rosângela Rennó.

It also includes the curators Nicolas Bourriaud, María Belén Saéz de Ibarra and Hans Ulrich Obrist, as well as the writer Laura Gustafsson.

During this time, hundreds more signed an open letter calling for a general boycott. This included well-known figures such as Marina Abramović, Pablo Helguera, Teresita Fernández, Theaster Gates, Thomas Lax, Julie Mehretu, Cildo Meireles, Naeem Mohaiemen, Shirin Neshat, Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, Mari Carmen Ramírez and Robert Storr.

“The institutions and officials who are organizing the 14th Havana Biennale are the same who refused to listen to us,” reads the letter, written by the militant group 27N. “They have tolerated and participated in the violence perpetrated against Cuban cultural workers who seek greater autonomy for Cuban culture and the civil rights of our citizens.

“The problems we face cannot be reduced to an isolated case of censorship,” the document continues. “We are facing a systemic effort by the Cuban government to silence those who think differently. The lives of people in the cultural field are in danger.

Background

In July of this year, thousands of Cubans took to the streets in a wave of protests against the Communist regime of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel. The incentives were a lack of basic commodities, an increase in COVID-19 cases and the government’s undermining of civil liberties, including a controversial censorship law, Executive Order 349. Over 1,000 artists and creatives were detained during demonstrations.

The 14th edition of the Havana Biennale arrived in this climate. “Futuro y Contemporaneidad” (“Futur and Contemporaneity”) is the name of the exhibition, which for the first time is broken down into three different sections – or “experiences” – spread over its six months. The first two opened on November 12 and December 6, respectively.

The show is not guided by a cohesive theme, but rather by a series of lofty, if somewhat cryptic, descriptions. According to conservation declaration, the exhibition aims to be a “space of decolonization … for all those interested in a dialogue of coexistence” and “a platform for reflection on the development of civilization from the territories of art as a space plural and decentralized ”.

According to Prensa Latina, the official Cuban state news agency, more than 1,000 “visual artists, gallery owners, writers, thinkers and political scientists” signed a petition in support of this year’s biennial. The media also reported that the organizing committee of the Biennale has confirmed the participation of 300 artists. And since opening last month, the show’s Facebook and Instagram pages have been regularly updated with photos from events.

Conflicting messages

Yet little information has leaked from Havana on who is actually on the show. Little to no non-local media covered “Futuro y Contemporaneidad”, and material provided by the Wifredo Lam Center for Contemporary Art, which is responsible for organizing the event, contains outdated information on the artists who attended. have since been publicly withdrawn. .

For example, the list of artists participating in the first installment listed on the website includes multimedia artist Joiri Minaya, one of the artists who has publicly dropped out. Minaya explained in a statement shared on social networks that she “corresponded for some time with [the] administration to understand what interested them and what the logistics would be, but I haven’t corresponded for over a month, and I haven’t taken any action to send my works. She continued:

I concluded that it is difficult, contradictory, even hypocritical, to be part of an event organized by a regime which violates the freedoms of dissident artists; who tortures, imprisons and deports artists for doing their work or expressing their opinion; that I consider a smokescreen to cover a crisis … In solidarity with the Cuban artists repressed, imprisoned, tortured, raped, silenced, disappeared or deported for their art or their thought, I will not participate in this event under these circumstances.

The organizers of the Havana Biennale did not respond to Artnet News’ request for information.

A continuous struggle

The name of Tania Bruguera is also among the signatories of the new international letter. In October, Bruguera agreed to leave his country of origin on condition that the Cuban authorities release 25 political prisoners, including the artist and activist Hamlet Lavastida and members of the 27N movement. (Neither Bruguera nor Lavastida responded to Artnet News’ inquiries.)

Yet dozens of artists and dissidents, including Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel Castillo and members of movements adjacent to 27N from San Isidro and Archipiélago, are still in detention. Dozens more are said to be subject to state surveillance, abuse and other punitive action.

In another letter this week, co-published by human rights groups PEN America, PEN International and Human Rights Watch, more than 300 cultural figures, Meryl Streep, Orhan Pamuk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Khaled Hosseini called on the government Cuban to “put an end to its incessant abuses against artists, free all artists arbitrarily detained and drop all charges against them”.

“Throwing artists in jail or exiling them from the country forever – in response to their art, their words and their ideas – is abusive and inhumane,” the statement said. “We are proudly in solidarity with Cuban artists. Art must be free from censorship and repression, in Cuba and everywhere.

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