Cuba’s Fine Arts Museum Censors Its Own Collection

Isbel Diaz Torres

HAVANA TIMES – Censorship in Cuba’s art world has been retreating in recent years, which is why it’s sudden and merciless reappearance can sometimes take us aback, striking as something both ridiculous and senseless. I had such an experience recently at Havana’s Fine Arts Museum.

When I visited the Cuban Art building, I was pleasantly surprised to run into a piece I consider a classic: Carlos Alberto Estevez’ “La verdadera historia universal” (True Universal History), a kind of interactive puppet stage where a broad range of historical figures can be placed.

I was happy to run into the piece, which is highly suggestive for me: the spectator, the consumer of art, can approach the stage and place the individuals they consider worthy of the limelight there, removing those they feel should not be there.

Carlos Estevez "La Verdadera Historia Universal" 1995, Primer Salón.  Photo:
Carlos Estevez “La Verdadera Historia Universal” 1995, Primer Salón. Photo:

On this occasion, when I approached the piece, I saw that the following figures presided over the stage: Fidel Castro, Jose Marti, Karl Marx, Lenin and Jesus Christ.

The selection struck me as ludicrously biased, ideological, sexist and racist. Bold as brass, I decided to interact with the work: I removed Fidel Castro, Marx, Lenin and Jesus Christ and placed Gandhi, a black woman I don’t know and Chaplin (I believe) in their place, but I was unable to continue.

One of the guards there got very upset, approached me and told me I couldn’t do that – that the pieces couldn’t be touched. I explained that the piece was interactive and that the public’s participation was part of its concept.

Hearing me protest, another (apparently more experienced) guard approached me and, in a soft tone of voice, explained to me that, owing to the piece’s poor state of conservation – the piece had had to be restored as it was being torn from the wall by use) they had restricted the public’s interaction with it.

The explanation neutralized me for a moment, but the ignorant hand of censorship made itself known immediately: the first guard removed the figures I had placed on the stage and (risking damaging the piece) placed the exact same figures that were there before.

She was only missing one. She turned towards the other guard and asked her: “I’m missing one, right? That saint, what was his name?” She was referring to Jesus Christ!

Immediately, she found the figure, buried among dozens of other figures she didn’t know, rescuing it from the mass to place next to Fidel Castro, Marx, Lenin and Marti and dispel any doubts about what true, universal history is for Cubans.

Is Carlos Alberto Estevez aware of the censorship his piece is suffering in the Fine Arts Museum?

Might he be able to put together some resistant screws to secure the piece more firmly to the wall?

At any rate, I invite Havana Times readers to visit the museum and try to participate in the construction of a universal history different from that of the established powers. From experience, I can tell you that censorship, being both apolitical and immoral, does not stand the test of time.

2 thoughts on “Cuba’s Fine Arts Museum Censors Its Own Collection

  • The True Universal History of Carlos Estevez

    Hello Isbel,

    Thank you for writing this article and giving me the opportunity to include anecdotes, correct a couple of errors and support my point of view as the author. First, it is very gratifying to know what effect my work has on the public. It always makes me very happy when I hear that art students, professors, curators, and the public mention my work. This validates all my efforts and persistence these many years.

    The work “La Verdadera Historia Universal” (The True Universal History) (1995) was conceived as a game. The concept is precisely that history can be manipulated and is written by the victors. All the important figures are dead to emphasize the idea of manipulation; hence Fidel is not among the dead. The work was exhibited at the Primer Salon de Arte Contemporaneo, in the Museo Nacional at the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, in Habana. When I installed the work,
    I placed on the stage my favorite historical figures: Leonardo da Vinci, Johann
    Sebastian Bach, Galileo Galilei and Charles Chaplin. The day of the opening
    the Cultural Minister at that time (Armando Hart Davalos) changed the figures
    on the stage to Che, Lenin and Marx. I loved that; the game had been
    validated. Power determined his criteria. Not only was the work usable, but it
    documented and expressed the actions of the regimen on the island. I know
    that things will change (according to the “law of gravity”) and the work will serve as an oracle and will tell who will be making the future history of Cuba. (Ars longa, vita brevis).

    The piece won the 1st Prize of the Salon. Peter Ludwig, the German chocolatier and art collector, was interested in purchasing it, but the Fine Art Museum in Havana decided to purchase the work for its permanent collection, and since its acquisition the piece has been on display. In the year 2006, I was preparing a monograph of my work and wanted to include an image of the piece into the book. I contacted the curator of Cuban art at the museum for a high resolution image. She informed me that I needed to get my request authorized by the museum’s director, Moraima Clavijo, who never responded to any of my correspondence. Finally, thanks to the help of a friend and 50 USD I was able to obtain the image. In the year 2008, the museum’s curators could not give me a
    convincing reason why the work was excluded – despite having a full page in the
    exhibition catalogue – from the anthological exhibition of Cuban art, “Cuba
    Art and History from 1868 to Today” that took place in the Montreal Museum
    of Fine Arts. Could be the reason my recent decision to live in Miami? Unfortunately for the museum the work was documented as “present-absent” in the catalog.

    Finally, the work is made from cedar wood, with carpenters glue and screws. It is very strong and secure. I can understand for conservation reasons that the work should not be touched. This is a very common practice in museums but in this case only the spectators can select those on the stage of history.

    Thank you again for your interest in my work. I am at your disposal as well as that of the museum and the public to answer and clarify any questions regarding this matter. History is filled with stories; it is the antithesis of the absolute. Individual thought is the most outstanding probe.

  • Perhaps the heavy handed state censorship is all part of the interactive artwork?

    it certainly adds an element of absurdity to the work.

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