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From Official to Unscrupulous: The Havana Biennial and #00Bienal de La Habana

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In their introduction to The Biennial Reader, the editors pose the question, “Can one even speak of a singular origin or history of ‘the biennial’ when the various examples that would seem to fit the category are spread all over the world and when the cultural, financial, and ideological differences between them are so vast?”[1] A larger history of biennials risks establishing an edition in relation to a narrative of historical progress that could negate a particular institutional and local biennial history. The concern of this paper is the consideration of how contemporary biennial editions impact institutional biennial historiographies, given that biennials are an exhibition format that are continually negotiating with the present.

In this paper, I will situate the Havana Biennial as a case study because of its historical significance in biennial historiography. The Havana Biennial is art historically notable for its ideological reconsiderations and curatorial innovations in opposition to the Venice Biennale. Havana’s biennial makes a particularly interesting case study because of the recent grassroots biennial edition, #00Bienal de La Habana, which I will now refer to as #00BH. Through a critical comparison between a work in the “unofficial” #00BH, with another included in the official 13th edition of the Havana Biennial, this paper considers how #00BH alters a present context for the Havana Biennial’s historiography, by mobilizing on-the-ground discussions about tensions between local and global narratives. My paper examines the curatorial intentions of each of these recent editions, reflecting on their differing ideologies and visions of the global that produce local and global perceptions for rethinking historiographies of biennials. What I would like to put forward is that a biennial historiography should reflect the biennial format as an “unstable institution,” as proposed by curator Carlos Basualdo – that is, a history of biennials that engages with the challenges, negotiations and re-adaptations biennials propose to the logic of modernity by way of their engagement with the present.

To briefly summarize the context of the official Havana Biennial, I will say that the biennial “expedited culture.” As art historian and former Havana Biennial curator Gerardo Mosquera argues, the biennial’s cultural utopianism aligned with but was not exclusive to promoting socialism, a positive image of Cuba, and confronting Cuban-US isolation by co-opting Cuban and Third World intellectuals.[2] Although Cuba had an expansive world vision after the Cuban Revolution, the inclination to be a Third World leader was also supported by the Soviet Bloc, which heavily subsidized the Cuban economy at the time. Confronting exclusion and a lack of communication, artists, curators and scholars from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, the Middle East and accompanying diasporic communities were able to circulate their local contexts in Havana, outside of dominating global networks.[3] “Thus,” Mosquera declares, “the Havana Biennial created a new, truly international “other” space while acting at the same time as a gigantic ‘Salon des Refusées’ that involved most of the world.”[4]

The latest edition of the official Havana Biennial was premised on the title and theme The Construction of the Possible. Broadly the curatorial theme addressed artistic confrontations with violence, injustice, social inequality and environmental precarity. The curatorial statement by Nelson Herrera Ysla speaks directly to the Biennial’s own precarity and its survival in the face of economic, “climatic reasons and arguments which threatened [the biennial’s] continuity and permanence.”[5] Ysla laments the Havana Biennial as an insurmountable task with its unique disadvantages such as its geographic distance, unclear budgeting, and bureaucracy, yet achieved this and in the “lush jungle of aesthetic productions existing” in Cuba.[6] For Ysla, it would be naïve for the Biennial to quote, “hang to transcendent changing ideas and processes that bring about new realities and complex social and political scenarios in our cultures and countries.”[7]

Ysla’s reserved curatorial tone set the stage for the expansive biennial, which took place at 44 locations in four cities with parallel programming. The Centro de Arte Contemporaneo Wifredo Lam exhibited part of a series by Cuban artist David Beltrán from The Archeology of Color (2019). Beltrán is one of the most widely commissioned Cuban artists[8] and in the series he accentuates microscopic elements in other paintings to become reminiscent of abstract expressionist paintings. The works are aesthetically appealing, where the anatomy of the paint is expanded to expose details overlooked when surveying a whole painting. In dialogue with art history, the source materials were taken from Cuban artists, Sandú Darie (1908-1991) and José Mijares (1921-2004), as well as El Greco, Van Gogh and Veláquez, for the remaining three.

Beltrán’s art historical references are significant to Spanish-speaking art histories and more specifically to Cuban art history. He demonstrates an art historical linage that is familiar to and theoretically advocated by and for the Havana Biennial. The postcolonial critique and prioritization of “art production from outside the Western core” has not been disbanded since the early editions of the Havana Biennial. However, due to the current Cuban artistic system there are local institutional concerns and therefore historiographic limitations newly imposed on the biennial that are not addressed in this official state-sanctioned forum.

One major issue is the artist registration system in Cuba, which excludes artists deemed unfavourable by the state. Daniela Fernandez, a Cuban art historian, understands the system of regulation imposed on artists working in Cuba as such: “artists belong to the Registry of the Creator. Once you are registered there, artists are granted a card with which they can participate in exhibitions within state spaces…the vast majority of galleries and art centers belong to the State.”[9] Fernandez outlines that for artists who are formally trained, “it is a natural process of inertia to obtain a card and you are registered by the Ministry of Culture upon graduation.” Furthermore, only artists that have “totally counterrevolutionary or activist work in a crude sense” are denied licensing. She cites Cuban artist Reynier Leyva Novo (el Chino), who is notoriously critical of the Cuban state, its politics and history, as an example.[10] Notably, Novo, made news headlines when he donated the full amount of the sale of his work Do Not Keep Me if I Die, the Transaction to #00BH.[11] The licensing system leaves little room for working artists who are not validated within the system, such as the artists who organized and participated in #00BH.[12]

In response to the cancellation and postponement of the Havana Biennial after the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma, a group of artists and curators decided to host an alternative event. Believing the biennial to be national heritage, the organizers felt excluded from the state-operated institution. The curatorial theme of #00BH was to create “an inclusive and free civic space” for “plurality of thought.”[13] Their ambition was to look beyond, and counter the structural and social limitations imposed by the official Havana Biennial and to do so with an exhibition format that critically instrumentalizes art into a global interpretive discourse. The biennial highlighted artists by exhibition location and experience that I would suggest was in a way to accentuate their political and artistic message. In particular, #00BH as a group, travelled approximately 12 km away from central Havana to the poorer neighbourhood of Marianao, where artists exhibited at the home of one of the participating artists, Nonando Perea. This is where Mexican artist Armando Cuspinera exhibited his work, A Common Archive, Territories of Nobody.

Cuspinera’s installation included text and information that was compiled by the artist from a network of friends, colleagues and other individuals interested in contributing, who were asked to share books, texts, and other digital information they believed to be the most important literary knowledge. They were asked to accompany their contribution with a reflection on why they felt the information or books were important to share. According to the artist, “The project tries to bare the social difficulties of economical limitations and political restrictions and challenge them by reproducing more than two hundred digital texts, from cooks books to poststructuralist and decolonial discussions, shared by the collaborators and contained in one physical space to translate to another, constrained by its own logics.[14] Cuspinera’s intellectual aim for this artistic project was and is, since the project is ongoing, to extrapolate information across borders digitally to communities where knowledge is less accessible.

The works by Beltrán and Cuspinera, in each of these biennials, suggest the differing artistic and biennial stakes. Since the Havana Biennial is mandated and operated by the state, it is principally concerned about its legitimation within an art historical, and thus canonical framework. The aesthetic excellence of Beltrán’s work appeals to a timeless and international artistic standard. #00BH’s lack of legitimacy as an unsanctioned, unstable, and alternative platform, opened the biennial format to any artist – licensed or unlicensed – wanting to participate. Cuspinera’s work embodies that shared and communal ambition of #00BH and their wider goal to access the global art world from which they are institutionally prohibited. Undoubtably, I would like to stress that by no means do I intend to undermine the Havana Biennial or Beltrán’s artistic practice, rather I want to highlight how the organizers and participating artists of each event were understood in relation to their particular ideological positions.

To return to my central concern, that is, what is the significance of #00BH to the historiography of the Havana Biennial and biennial history writ large, I am arguing that both biennials should be read in conjunction with, and alongside one another. The project of writing a biennial history is still cautiously ongoing, where historical surveys begin with late nineteenth century roots in salons, world fairs and international expositions to a growth in the twentieth century with the so-called “second wave” of biennials, namely Sao Paulo and Havana, to the widespread proliferation of biennials in the 1990s.

Considerations for contemporary biennials in larger institutional biennial histories should not position historical context in a stable position in the past, but rather account for the structural differences reinforced by biennials’ repetitive format. If biennials are understood as exhibitions within their contemporary condition – as is considered by art historians Terry Smith, Anthony Gardner, Charles Green and philosopher Peter Osborne – where biennials are committed to displaying recent art or art relevant to the present, and contemporary art itself is an art of becoming and of occasions, then arguably a historiography of biennials should be relational to contemporaneity.

My position of taking the present into consideration for biennial historiography is not unlike how Walter Benjamin conceived of the relationship of the past as a connection between “then” and “now,” where the “now” renders legible “then.” If each biennial edition as critical events are taken as a mirror of their contemporaneity, that is as a critical moment of the contemporary, then, as Benjamin asserts, the present is specifically connected and contingent.[15] This kind of dialectical approach to framing biennial history and histories pursues to complicate the continuum of static biennial histories so they can continue to be “unstable institutions.” The task of writing this kind of biennial history, one that is perpetually revisited as biennials themselves revisit contemporary art, perhaps is unachievable for art historians. Yet when events such as #00BH take place, in dialogue with the Havana Biennial, a historiography is imbued by the present.

In an article reviewing the 13th Havana Biennial, co-organizer of #00BH and curator Yanelys Nuñez Leyva questions the need for a biennial in Cuba, asking if the social and political systems would be better off with distance from the “outdated and cynical biennial model.”[16] She asserts instead that the influence of Havana is not in its institutions but in alternative platforms. Perhaps an alternative model, one that can reflect on the past and present like that of the biennial form should also be considered for biennial historiography.

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  1. Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Ovstebo, “Biennialogy,” in The Biennial Reader: An Anthology on Large-Scale Perennial Exhibitions of Contemporary Art. ed. Elena Filipovic, et al (Bergen, Norway: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2010), 18.

  2. Gerardo Mosquera, “The Havana Biennial: A Concrete Utopia,” in The Biennial Reader: An Anthology on Large-Scale Perennial Exhibitions of Contemporary Art, ed. Elena Filipovic, et al (Bergen, Norway: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2010), 200.

  3. The government set a precedent of valuing and promoting art and culture as a revolutionary tool, establishing institutions, education programing and patronizing the arts. In the 1980s, artists who were children of the revolution explored themes sometimes at odds with the utopian ideas of the state. The new works formed in new media were viewed in contention with the state, which reacted by increasing control over artistic production. Many artists were forced to leave because of censorship and a lack of supplies during the special period. According to Cuban art historian Luis Camnitzer, artists during the special period began to look towards the global market instead of the revolutionary past. Also see Luis Camnitzer, New Art of Cuba (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003), 322.

  4. Mosquera, “The Havana Biennial,” 203.

  5. Nelson Herrera Ysla, “The Multiple constructions of the (im)possible,” in La Construcción de lo posible: Bienal de La Habana 2019, curated by Margarita González Lorente, et. al, Centro de Arte Contemporaneo Wifredo Lam y ArteCubano Ediciones, 12 de abril – 12 de mayo 2019, dir. Jorge Alfonso Garcia (La Habana, Cuba: Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam; ArteCubano Ediciones, 2019), 29.

  6. Ysla, 31.

  7. Ysla, 33.

  8. Ginger Danto, “‘All Art in Cuba is Political’: A Havana Biennial Complicated by Local Politics Aims to Rethink the Future by Looking to the Past,” ArtNews, June 7, 2019, https://www.artnews.com/art-news/reviews/havana-biennial-review-12717/.

  9. Daniela Fernández, email correspondence, May 6, 2019.

  10. Fernández.

  11. The state-run National Council of Visual Arts purchased the work for 3800 CUC (=USD), and with the transfer, the state symbolically funded the unsanctioned event.

  12. The state’s control over artistic production has increased even more since #00BH. As of April 2018, and in effect as of the following December, Decree 349 legislated new censorship on artistic freedom in the Republic. The decree grants the Cuban government complete control over any independent artistic production, banning the “use of national symbols that contravene current legislation; pornography; violence; sexist, vulgar and obscene language; discrimination due to skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, disability and any other harm to human dignity; that attempts against the development of childhood and adolescence; any other that violates the legal provisions that regulate the normal development of our [Cuban] society in cultural matters.”

  13. Yanelys Nuñez Leyva and Luis Manuel Otero Alacantra, “Fragments of an Open Letter,” in La Habana: Political Architecture: Critical Sustainability, ed by Thomas Lodge, et al (Denmark: Political Architecture Critical Sustainability, 2018), 106-109.

  14. Armando Cuspinera, email correspondence, January 29, 2020.

  15. Beatrice Hassen, Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, (London: Continuum, 2006), 110.

  16. Yanelys Nuñez Leyva, “XIII Bienal de La Habana,” Contemporary Art in the Americas, June 1, 2019, accessed January 24, 2020, https://terremoto.mx/xiii-bienal-de-la-habana/.

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