File #00 of an Alternative Havana Biennial

Inauguration of the Alternative #00 Havana Biennial Photo: Waldo Fernandez /Diario de Cuba


By Leidys M. Hernandez (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES — Havana’s Alternative #00 Biennial has been taking place since Saturday May 5th in various “independent” artists’ homes/studios/workshops. It has been a controversial event ever since the first seed was planted.

Focusing on proving that it is possible to make art and bring artists together outside of the Cuban government’s cultural institutions, the #00 Havana Biennial has managed to sign up 100 artists to form part of its program, many of whom are foreign.

The trigger for the #00 Biennial was sparked when cultural institutions announced that the 13th Havana Biennial was going to be delayed for a second time (from May 2018 to November 2018 initially, then to 2019), as a result of the national crisis created after Hurricane Irma, official organizers said.

A group of artists weren’t pleased with this postponement at all and decided to launch their own project.

“Somebody had to organize it and I decided that that somebody would be me,” Luis Manuel Otero says, while he tells El Toque how his home has been the base for #00 Havana Biennial operations since the beginning.

It was here that the Police arrested Luis Manuel, charged for “receiving” some bags of sand and cement. He was released and they couldn’t charge him because of a lack of evidence, but the authorities’ willingness to find any excuse to stop the event from happening was made very clear.

Otero insists that he and the group who accompany him didn’t only feel outraged at the change of the official Biennial’s date, but that they wanted to make art, to exhibit the works they had been making in their workshops for such a long time.

“Not having created an event of this kind would have been non-compliance on our part as the Havana Biennial doesn’t belong to the State, but to us artists. It is made by us for us,” he insists.

Government institutions have responded fervently and made their opposition to this challenge known. Ever since the National Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC) and the Hermanos Saiz Association (AHS) issued their first statement calling Otero and those who stand by him “unprincipled people”, they have made it perfectly clear that there is no room for dialogue. Although they have always sought a dialogue, Luis Manuel assures me:

“(In spite of their statement) we continued to be open to state institutions, we wanted them to collaborate with us, but that was until we found out that the Culture Ministry had called for a meeting with state-run galleries and disclosed that they wouldn’t accept any of their employees or institutions liking any of the #00 Biennial’s posts on social media.

“Afterwards, they held a much broader meeting with music, dance and theater organizations, during which they presented a photo of me and my girlfriend Yanelys (Nunez Leyva) and they explicitly told them that we couldn’t exhibit our work at any state-run gallery. Let me make it clear, the Government has been apathetic towards us, we wanted this to be an inclusive event and they excluded us,” Otero says defending himself.

Everybody already knows about their mutual exclusion. A few hours before the #00 Havana Biennial’s official inauguration ceremony, another statemen from the abovementioned state-led organizations, turned up the heat:

“Very few people have joined this abomination of a Biennial, without any important works mostly, who, maliciously or confused, are after the fame that this mercenary platform and overexposure on social media can give them. They have announced that it will be held at non-important venues and is only a failed attempt to attack the government’s cultural policy, where quite a few of them are skirting with the law. They want to mislead artists so that they use their studios, which have institutional support, so as to provoke the government.”

The government’s response hasn’t surprised any of the #00 Biennial’s organizers or participants, former San Alejandro Arts Academy professor, Italo Exposito:

“I perfectly understand why they don’t want to take part. As a Ministry, as government institutions, they have to look out for other interests and therefore can’t establish levels of commitment with our alternative project. However, it’s important that they give us the space we claim in the public sphere.”

Cuban artist Italo Exposito, who is taking part in the #00 Havana Biennial, stands by his art pieces in his home in Havana, May 2nd 2018. Photo: Alexandre Meneghini /Reuters

They have this space for now, thanks maybe to the fact that they have managed to get foreign artists involved in the event or because it coincides with the next Universal Periodic Review which the Cuban government will be subject to on May 16th in front of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, in Geneva, Switzerland.

There are plenty of red flags about the limitations of freedom of speech and association here in Cuba and news of artists being persecuted would surely cause a big stir.

Removing himself from political readings yet again, Italo Exposito explains why he joined the #00 Biennial:

“The Yo soy el que soy (I am who I am) gallery/workshop happily opened its doors to this art event, because that’s all it is, a space where some artists are coming together so we don’t die, so that we don’t miss a long-awaited, called for and necessary event. Today, there are many talented artists who don’t figure in official galleries’ catalogs, who are creating art independently, and they have a found a space within the #00 Biennial.”

Amaury Pacheco also joined Exposito and other Cuban participants, offering his own apartment in the Alamar neighborhood to hold exhibitions.

“I have put my bets on this project from the very beginning, it’s something I believe in and I trust the people who are organizing it, who are doing a very good job, giving reasons for every decision they make, without leaving any room for misinterpretations because we don’t want to be confused for being unruly artists who want to take the spotlight by organizing an alternative event. It’s an alternative event because it isn’t being organized by the government, it’s as simple as that. If the official 13th Havana Biennial had been organized, we would have taken part too and we would have exhibited the same works, because we are only interested in defending art, not whatever lies behind every event.”

This isn’t what critics of the #00 Biennial believe, who think that the presence of artists such as Tania Bruguera, known for her frustrated performance piece in Revolution Square in December 2014, discredits everyone else. And they are called mercenaries for accepting money “linked to the counter-revolution.”

Even though organizers have assured us that they will make the use of the money receive public knowledge, until now, the only information available shows funds collected via their crowdfunding campaign online or given by other artists, such as Reynier Leyva Novo, who donated 3800 CUC during a public ceremony.

Leyva Novo was paid this money by the state-run National Council of Visual Arts after they bought one of his works: No me guardes si me muero, a glass urn which contained the ashes of 27 volumes of Jose Marti’s Complete Works after they were incinerated.

The Alternative #00 Havana Biennial is in keeping with a group of young Cubans’ growing conceptual relationship with what has become known as “artivism”, a movement which covers the vague line between contemporary art and more traditional political activism.

Doing this is a challenge in itself and a decision:

“I don’t regret my actions, I’m willing to do anything to defend art, which is what I trust, what I would lay my life on the line for,” Luis Manuel emphasizes.