Cuba Abruptly Turns Away Artists as ‘Dozens of Agents’ Prowl Havana’s Alternative Biennial

The organizers of the #00Bienal de La Habana have attracted international solidarity, and the scrutiny of authorities.

Sarah Cascone, May 9, 2018

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#00Bienal de La Habana. Photo courtesy of the #00Bienal de La Habana.

An alternative biennial has run afoul of the government in Cuba, where authorities have targeted the #00Bienal de La Habana since its opening on Saturday. There are reports of artists being threatened, participants being detained, and entry to the country being denied to cultural figures.

The biennial was created by artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and curator Yanelys Núñez Leyva after the official state-funded Havana Biennial, scheduled for this fallwas postponed until 2019 in the wake of Hurricane Irma. “We consider it essential not to delay the event and start it with minimal resources,” read the announcementfor the alternative event, which held an open call for international artists.

Eventually, some 140 artists signed on, including Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera, who has often butted heads with the Cuban governmentbeing arrestedon numerous occasions. Lacking an institutional venue, exhibitions and programming are being held at artists’ homes, studios, and workshops.

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Tania Bruguera in Havana, on December 31, 2014. Courtesy Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images.

Nevertheless, the government is cracking down. Alcántara was arrested in November, ahead of a press conference about the event. As reported by artist Coco Fusco for Hyperallergic, Cuba’s Artists’ Registry, a division of the Cuban cultural ministry, has warned artists that their participation threatens their ability to work as accredited artists without a formal job.

Miami-based artist and curator Gean Moreno spent 10 hours at Cuban customs being interrogated about Bienal-related material. Fusco herself was also prevented from attending the exhibition. “I have traveled to Cuba regularly for the past 34 years. This is the first time I was denied entry,” she told artnet News in an email. “The authorities know me and waited until I arrived to send me back on the same plane that I flew to get there.”

In an email to artnet News, Fusco noted that several foreign artists have been contacted by immigration officials who claim their visas do not permit participation in cultural events. Spanish artist Diego Gil was forced to leave the country after threats of detention.

Ahead of the #00Bienal’s opening, the Cuban Artists and Writers Union issued a statement denouncing “this abomination of a biennial,” claiming that its “only goal is to discredit the institutional system, to confuse artists and create the right breeding ground to promote enemy interests here in Cuba.”

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#00Bienal de La Habana. Photo courtesy of the #00Bienal de La Habana.

According to the union, the exhibition has been “organized with funds from the counter-revolution’s mercenaries.” Without government resources, the #00Bienal turned to crowdfunding, and has raised over $6,500 on GoFundMe. (A least one artist has also contributed, with Reynier Leyva Novo donating the proceeds from a $3,800 art sale he made to the Cuban Center for the Fine Arts to the cause.)

The #00Bienal organizers deny any political or anti-government motivations, insisting that artists still support the official biennial, and just wanted an opportunity to share their work in the interim. That may have been an impossible goal. As Jorge Fernandez, head of Cuba’s Museum of Fine Arts, told Reuters, “unfortunately, everything that is done in Cuba is politicized.”

The risks involved were well known, given the Cuban government’s opposition to independent artistic activity. Indeed, organizers withheld the names of international participants from the official artist list out of fear that they might be prevented from entering the country.

So far, the government has not shut down the #00Bienal, but “there is worry about Friday’s event at the home of Lia Villares and Luis Trápaga because those artists have already had their home ransacked and their property confiscated by police in the past,” said Fusco, noting that Alcántara told her that “there are dozens of agents surrounding each locale.”

“Let me make it clear, the government has been apathetic towards us. We wanted this to be an inclusive event and they excluded us,” Alcántara told the Havana Times. “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.”

The #00Bienal de La Habana is on view in various locations in Havana, May 5–15, 2018.