The Importance of Havana’s First Alternative Biennial for the Cuban Art Scene

Opening of the 00 Biennial in Havana, Cuba (all images courtesy the 00 Biennial unless otherwise noted)

HAVANA — The Alternative 00 Havana Biennial took place in early May in the capital of Cuba and was the firste major artistic event to be independently run, detached from any state institution. The decision to create this biennial followed the cancellation of the official Havana Biennial due to the infrastructural and economic problems provoked by hurricane Irma that hit Cuba in September 2017 and caused damage to more than 100,000 Cuban households.

When Raul Castro stepped down from his position as president in April, the era of the Castro family seemed to have come to an end, and we can observe this both in cultural and political spheres. The 00 Biennial, for instance, appeared as the first real alternative to official art events. It showcased more than 60 artists (including myself) of the vibrant Havana art scene, as well as international participants from Latin America, the United States, and Europe, with a special focus on emerging to mid-career artists.

The curators of the 00 Biennial, Luis Manuel Otero and Yanelys Núñez, claim that the project does not have an explicit political orientation, but today in Havana such an event couldn’t stay outside of the scope of political expression, especially given the fact that the biennial’s curators are also the creators of the Dissidence Museum in Cuba and the Museum of Politically Uncomfortable Art. However, for safety reasons, the organizers until the last moment did not publicize the names of many participating artists and intellectuals. Still, some of the artists who crossed Cuba’s border reported on their Facebook pages an unusual attention from the side of customs — despite the fact that the biennial was approved by the Cuban government. Reportedly, the artist and art researcher Coco Fusco was prohibited from entry (and wrote about the incident on Hyperallergic).

Opening of the 00 Biennial

In order to understand the importance of an alternative biennial, one needs to look closely at the history of biennials in Cuba. The first Havana Biennial in 1984 was a prominent event that incorporated the works of artists of both the Caribbean and Latin America. The artworks that received the biennial’s awards supported revolutionary ideology and thus became a powerful mechanism of promotion. Despite its socialist bent, the first Havana Biennial was conceived as a rupture within the existing conservative artistic structure. It would, however, inevitably be institutionalized in the course of the next decades.

Studio of Walfrido Valera

The organizer of the first three Havana Biennials in 1984, 1986, and 1989, Gerardo Mosquera, sent a talk to be read aloud at the 00 Biennial, in which he suggests that the original edition of the Havana Biennial had the intention of establishing South-South relationships and to convert Cuba into a regional leader during the last decade of the Cold War. If, according to Mosquera, this task partially succeeded, everything changed after the fall of the Iron Curtain when Cuba experienced detachment from the new political circumstances of the changing world. Any attempt to decentralize and reconsider the global “center-periphery” was replaced with the Cuban government’s intention to preserve the existing order under any conditions. This led to strict institutional control over the production of culture and the particular isolation of the Cuban artistic scene from worldwide trends. To this day, artists in Cuba fight against this perception of them as existing along the global margins of artistic production, a view that seems to be particularly anachronistic and rather inadequate in the digital age, when the concept of “the Third World” is becoming increasingly outdated.

Reading of Gerardo Mosquera’s talk

The 00 Biennial hoped to shift this view, even with its minimal resources, which were limited to crowdfunding, as the biennial chose not to receive any outside support from foreign or local foundations. In fact, it was largely supported by the artists, including a $2,000 donation from Tania Bruguera.

Alexandru Raevschi, “Don’t yearn; anyway we will be together forever” (image courtesy the artist)

The organizers of the 00 Biennial attribute much of their inspiration to Bruguera. In December 2014, she was detained for her performance “The Whisper of Tatlin.” The performance that paid homage to the famous Soviet-Ukrainian constructivist artist proposed a podium where every person could express freely for the duration of one minute. She presented this performance at the Havana Biennial in 2009, but an attempt to recreate this performance in the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana led to her arrest by the authorities. This event provoked a further wave of arrests and repression targeting the independent artists of Cuba. After Bruguera’s release in 2015, she set up an “Institute of Artivism” in her Havana residence, holding workshops on civic literacy that had major influence on the organization of the 00 Biennial.

The motto of the alternative biennial, “In Every Studio, a Biennial,” is an ironic reflection on the Cuban revolutionary song that mentions “In Every Block, a Committee.” The events, such as lectures, exhibitions, and performances, took place in studios, residential properties, and found spaces. Generally, one can compare this situation to the unofficial art made in the last decade of the Soviet Union. It is partly reminiscent of the famous Soviet apartment exhibitions of the 1960s, but more of the art that appeared after the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982, when the subtle feeling of freedom started to move through artists’ apartment exhibitions and the first art squats. This also was the time when the international art dealers and curators started to trod their way to the Soviet artists’ studios. But it wasn’t until 1988, with the infamous Sotheby’s auction in Moscow, when the unofficial art gained its first market recognition.

Similar patterns will inevitably emerge in the Cuban art scene. For now, the first edition of the alternative biennial offered the chance to enjoy it in its emerging form, still relatively free from the touch of the international art market.

Jesús Hdez-Güero, “One nation in few words” (image courtesy the artist)

The highlights of the alternative biennial all shared references to the current geopolitical situation. Jesús Hdez-Güero’s “A Nation in Few Words” manipulates the latest edition of the Cuban Constitution by deleting all the words and leaving only the signs of punctuation, accents, comas, parenthesis, and so on. The artist claims to make the Constitution more universal and flexible by eliminating its text and leaving only the structure. In his project “Don’t yearn; anyway we will be together forever,” the Moldovan artist Alexandru Raevschi decorates photographs of Soviet citizens with flowers, contemplating on the identity gap between political generations. And, most poignantly, in an installation by the Colombian artist Natalia López, “The Soil under Our Feet,” she takes small cubes of pressed soil and organizes them into various geometric structures for viewers to interact with, representing the distribution of power relations and playing with the notions of center and periphery.

Natalia López, “La Tierra Bajo, Nuestros Pies”

The alternative biennial can be seen as a chance to contest the balance between centers and peripheries in the Caribbean and Latin America, as their relationship with the United States and Europe evolves. Not only that, it’s possible that Cuba’s geographic position between the United States and Latin America, in the heart of the Caribbean, might channel regional, and eventually global, cultural exchange. At its best the biennial is a step further to the cultural de-centralization in the region.

There are some questions that might emerge in relation to holding an alternative event: Does Havana need two biennials? Which biennial will form the basis for the development of the art scene in Cuba, the official one with significant resources or the alternative one with a countercultural proposal? How will the interplay of the center and periphery in Cuban art influence further development of political art? Only time will show.

The Alternative 00 Havana Biennial took place at various locations throughout Havana May 5–15.

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