Surprises at the Dynamic and Creative Havana Biennial

Fotorreportaje por Irina Echarry

HAVANA TIMES — Havana’s 12th Arts Biennial has been more surprising than anyone could have imagined: so much disinformation and last-minute changes have to be a performance designed to interact with the public and remain in step with the nature of the gathering.

The official opening had long ago been scheduled to take place in the town of Casablanca at 10 am, May 22. A few hours before, they announced on the news that it would actually take place at the Wifredo Lam center in Old Havana. No one offered any explanations or even mentioned the change of venue. It was announced as though the previous information hadn’t been divulged by the organizers of the Biennale themselves.

Zona Franca, a project specifically devoted to promoting Cuban art, opened its doors on May 21. Some remained there waiting for the official opening, which all of us who had gathered at La Cabaña fortress at 4 pm should have been witness to…but weren’t. A woman in the crowd alerted those present of the situation when she yelled: “So and so, they say there isn’t going to be an opening.” There was also none of the movement typical of these formal ceremonies. We then realized that we could proceed to enter the exhibition spaces. Later, on the news, we learned that the opening had actually been held at one of the exhibition rooms, in the presence of the Cuban Five, former Minister of Culture Abel Prieto and other high officials.

The most curious part of this is that, at the time the opening had been planned for, a group of soldiers (or recruits) led by their superiors started a military exercise at the fortress, at the place where the cannon-fire ceremony takes place every night. Mere coincidence?

La Cabaña fortress, where several cultural events are held in the course of the year, is a hard-to-reach place. Once you’re there, leaving and coming back is somewhat complicated. Since it’s an open space, the sun beats down and exhausts people, and one can shield oneself from it only in the fortress’ galleries. Zona Franca, that great Cuban art exhibition, is spread out across the entire expanse of the fortress, such that finding something to drink to restore one’s energies is a constant imperative.

The establishments that sell beverages, however, do not have enough employees to make the purchase a bit less agonizing than it is. The first day, one had to stand in line for more than half an hour, as there was only one clerk selling the products, taking orders, making coffee and charging people.

We also heard of another “coincidence”: a construction team started working in front of visual artist Tania Brugueras’ home the very same day she had planned to hold a reading initiative. Many of the artists taking part in the Biennale (as invitees or members of the public) don’t know about this initiative, and neither does the majority of the population. It’s curious: I’ve been witness to comments made by artists who did find out about the performance – while it was being held or later – and they reproach Tania for straying from the path of Art, towards politics. Some even believe that what she does is not political art. At any rate, if the performance served to have them fix the street some, then I think many other such reading sessions are needed around Havana.

The other distasteful “performance” Brugueras endured was organized by an institution supposed to represent and protect artists. On Saturday, May 23, the National Fine Arts Museum denied her access to the premises. Tania did not see much solidarity from art lovers this time around either.

It’s everyone for themselves: some are looking for foreigners to buy their works (which they work hard to produce), others enjoy their own exhibitions (after making many sacrifices to complete them) and most avail themselves of the opportunity to debate (even about political art), converse and get to know one another.

The public strolls about the vast gallery that Havana has become, trying to understand what they see and have a good time at the same time. They go to the Cathedral in Old Havana to listen to what Italian musician Pistoletto (who plays traditional instruments and others improvised out of kitchen utensils) brought us, have a taste of what it feels like to go “ice” skating, admire the sculptures set up on the streets and the drone filming them from above…or enjoy a good jazz performance on the Malecon ocean drive.

One person who did manage to get everyone’s attention – artists, the general public and government officials – is Miss Biennale, a “Tropicana ballerina” who visited all of the exhibition spaces, interrupting the peace and order of the event. She’s also had a few problems getting into certain places.

Another laudable initiative is a cart full of sunflowers that hands out stickers with the following phrase on them: “Flowers for Camilo [Cienfuegos] and for all Cubans who have died at sea.”

There’s much to see and do, so don’t miss out: go out and make the 12th Havana Biennale more dynamic and creative. It’s with us through June 22.

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4 thoughts on “Surprises at the Dynamic and Creative Havana Biennial

  • My point Moses is that having been caught, the five Cuban spies made themselves redundant and that they are now condemned to a life of being – as you put it “wheeled out for propaganda purposes” or as I put it, “being dragged from one political event to another like a bunch of dead cats.”
    I agree with you that their existence will in a practical sense be easier than that of most Cubans. They will get the opportunity to wine and dine with members of the regime, whether it be the Castro’s themselves or the Ministerial and Congress puppets and as you say, perhaps travel internationally – which would provide the opportunity to defect. (Not unknown with spies tired of their lives.) But even pop stars on tour tire and after a few years, the five Cuban spies will realise that they are but tools of the regime and are only required to appear as ‘attractions’. not very satisfying. They might even long to be able to eat at McDonalds, A&W or Wendy’s as they did in Miami!

  • A regular over at Lonely Planet’s Thorntree, Cuba Branch, described one of his experiences at a state restaurant: After waiting several minutes to be served, he beckoned a waitress to give him a menu. Her reply? “You’ll have to wait. I have to finish counting the forks.” Judging from the sculpture in one of the fotos, she had good reason to “count the forks!”
    Glad to see The Cuban 5 are back home enjoying themselves! For several years I travelled down to Washington in June for the “Five Days for the Cuban Five” demonstrations and related activities; glad I no longer have to do this. Not only is the trip down so dispiriting–passing through all the mini-Detroit, post-industrial, abandoned and dying towns along the Connecticut Valley and in Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, but seeing all the slimey and slithery K Street lobbyists exiting their Lexii or Mercedes in their $3,000 suits, on their way in to the ***** restaurants, where they think nothing of dropping more than a thou to wine-and-dine a Congressman or Senator, makes me want to puke, preferably on their $800 shoes! Incidentally, Graham, during the last “5 for the 5” demonstration, I ran into a fellow med. student who said he’d say hello. Did he?

  • I don’t pity the five Cuban spies in the least bit. For the rest of their lives they will be taken care of by the State. Like Elian Gonzalez before them, they were cause célebres of the regime and no matter how old and infirm they may become (see Fidel Castro), they can be wheeled out for propaganda purposes. They will never have to ‘resolve’ for food and will likely be asked to travel around the world to retell their story. In comparison to the lives most Cubans are forced to live, these guys will have it easy.

  • Pity the poor Cuban five spies. By being caught, they brought attention to themselves – which makes their continuation in their function impossible. The poor guys having returned to Cuba, can now only be used as emotional publicity tools by the regime and are in consequence being dragged from one political event to another like a bunch of dead cats.
    Although I disagree with the Castro family regime, the Communist Party of Cuba and Communism, I have respect for those who in pursuit of their beliefs pursue the profession of spying – irrespective of their political masters. That is what the five Cuban spies did and unfortunately for them they were caught. That is an inherent risk.
    So here we have a publicly announced event the 12th Arts Biennial moving the opening ceremony to a more suitable location for TV which no doubt broadcast the ‘opening’ to maximise use of the five. What a life for the unsuccessful National Heroes of Cuba.

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