Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 June 2019

Artists descend on Havana as biennial kicks off

The art event is the most important on Cuba's cultural calendar

Cones of white paper sprout from the seasalt-eroded pillars of one colonial building along Havana's seafront, elaborately painted curtains cascade from another while out front children play with an installation of multicoloured hoses.

Havana's 13th Biennial kicked off this weekend with works by more than 300 contemporary artists from 52 countries taking over the city's museums, galleries and open-air spaces, and many more collateral exhibits.

Look through the gallery above to see more of the works.

"They turned my home into an artwork," said Silvia Perez, smiling at the paper sprouting from the colonnade of her home, a piece by Cuban artist Elio Jesús Fonseca. "The artist said it meant peace."

The transformation of the Malecon seafront boulevard into an open-air, interactive gallery, has become one of the most popular venues of Cuba's most important arts event.

Along the sidewalk this year are smooth boulders encased in volcanic slabs by Mexican artist Jose Davila, while a swirling light installation by Peruvian artist Grimanesa Amoros protrudes from a building.

Public attends the inauguration of the XIII Biennial of Havana, the largest event in the visual arts in the country. EPA
Public attends the inauguration of the XIII Biennial of Havana, the largest event in the visual arts in the country. EPA

Cuba's Communist government, which has heavily promoted the arts since the country's 1959 leftist revolution, created the Havana Biennial in 1984 to give a platform to artists from the developing world, especially Cuban ones.

This year, 80 Cubans will exhibit their work, including a performance today by Manuel Mendive, considered the Caribbean island's top living artist. Still, it also includes a large contingent of European and US artists including Cuban-Americans like Enrique Martinez Celaya and Emilio Perez.

'The construction of the possible'

Biennial Director Jorge Alfonso said it had been a challenge to stage the biennial given Cuba's difficult economic situation – authorities postponed it half a year – but that it had succeeded in underscoring the importance Cuba placed on culture.

"Not even in the most difficult moments have we ever given up on staging one of these kind of events," he told Reuters.

"The slogan of this year's edition, 'the construction of the possible', is related to our ideal that a better world is possible."

The event transforms the city into the largest gallery in the world with streets, facades, parks and buildings 'intervened' for more than 300 artists from 52 countries. EPA
The event transforms the city into the largest gallery in the world with streets, facades, parks and buildings 'intervened' for more than 300 artists from 52 countries. EPA

Some artists who are critical of the government however have subverted that slogan.

In one piece on the Malecon called "Potemkin Village", Cuban-born artist Juan Andres Milanes Benito, who lives in Norway, has propped what appears to be the perfect facade of a building on another that is falling into disrepair.

"It fits a lot with the Cuban government these days and how the system is working – there is a lot of facade," he said. "Inside it is not so perfect."

Originally he had wanted to replicate the facade of a renovated government building but authorities would not allow him, he said.

Some Cuban artists feel the Havana Biennial itself is a facade papering over simmering tensions between them and authorities.

Artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, who led a campaign against a controversial new decree on the cultural sector last year, was arrested last Friday after staging a small yet politically charged performance in his neighbourhood.

His whereabouts remain unknown, his friends say. Asked by Reuters about the arrest in a news conference, the head of Cuba's National Council of Visual Arts, Norma Rodriguez, said "as far as I know he is an activist not an artist".

Cuba considers dissidents to be mercenaries in the pay of the United States trying to subvert the government.

The Havana Biennial runs until May 12.

Updated: April 15, 2019 10:26 AM

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