Manuscript of a piece done for Radio Latino USA
Even though my plane ride to Havana was smooth, the journey is a treacherous one for me as a Cuban-American. For exiled extremists, we're too soft on Fidel Castro. For left-wing hardliners on the island we're traitors to the fatherland. This time I make it through the security check at the Jose Marti airport on a Friday night in May and get into town just in time to pile into a tiny taxi with four friends. I've come to check out the latest ways that artists living her have devised to maintain their creative autonomy, so we head out to an opening at El Espacio Aglutinador, the most established of the artist-run galleries.
Even though official Havana Bienal hasn't opened, the events running parallel to the bienal are already underway in people's houses and private restaurants.
The Espacio Aglutinador, which roughly translated means the melting pot, was founded in 1995 by artists Sandra Ceballos and Ezequiel Suarez, in their tiny apartment. Every young artist I know in Cuba agrees that this gallery has changed Havana's cultural landscape by exhibiting the works of artists who were ignored by state organizations. Sandra Ceballos explains that their goal was to lessen the state's hold on culture.
»...it was precisely a mix of artists. We were against dividing artists by generations, we were against the dividing art by gender, we were against all censorship, we were against artists being marginalized, and so 'agglutinator' brought all this together, and worked during this time...«
The crowd of young Cubans, foreign curators and neighbors spills out into the street. The atmosphere is festive, with rum and music flowing, and copies of Perra, a gay magazine edited by visiting Cuban American artist Eduardo Aparicio, are being passed among the visitors. The exhibit is freewheeling in style and subject matter, and includes Aparicio's photos of Miami Cuban drag queens. By exhibiting works by Cubans in the US, the Espacio Aglutinador are breaking with what was, until very recently, an official policy of denying access to visual arts venues to exiles and their children, Aparicio left Cuba in 1969. He says he shares many views with his peers who stayed. In Miami, he frequently meets with Cuban artists of the 1980's generation, who left the island in the early 1990's escaping a wave of censorship and a debilitated economy.
»...I have friends who I didn't tell that I was coming to Cuba, because they may not agree, they left only five or six years ago and they are gonna think that I am being manipulated, or that I am getting something out of it in political terms, or that I am playing some kind of political game, which has nothing to do with that. I think we need to create our own reality. It's not as if I ignore totally what happens at the macropolitical level, but I don't live obsessed with it. I think the only way to fight those imposed authoritarian structures is to create your own reality from under.«
At 4pm on the next day, the official bienal is being inaugurated in the Plaza de la Catedral with the usual anthems and speeches.
Within a few minutes, I find another visiting Cuban-American artist Ernesto Pujol, one of the first to be invited to exhibit in the Havana Bienal since 1984. Pujol explains that although he has come to Cuba in search of his roots, he thinks the significance of his piece for th bienal goes far beyond that.
»Anyone just dismissing the work, thinking that it is just about roots is not seeing that there is a political intention that has to do with beginning to confront people with the fact that we're over there, that there is over a million of us, we still have a Cuban identity in lots of ways we have maintained, there has been the maintenance of a Cuban identity, and they have to confront that, and they are still dealing here with geographical determinacy by way of cultural identity and that's not the case at all. My work has been at times manipulated but it hasn't been completely manipulated I believe.
CF: Do you think your work means something here that it can't mean anywhere else?
CF: What's that?
EP: Oh God that's a very good question. I think that my work here says something about exile, about fragmentation, about cultural fragmentation, that outside just gets washed into the whole multicultural presentation and means something totally different. Here it is very much about the revolution, it's very much about separation. It is very much about escape, and about returning. It's about a dynamic that is very specific to a specific cultural, political experience.«
La Cabaña is one of the main sites of the official bienal, which is spread out throughout many of the city's historic buildings and galleries. At the end of the compound a grassy area where Cuban artist Lázaro Saavedra has created his Sepultados por el Olvido (Cast into Oblivion). He filled the lawn with rows of white marble unengraved tombstones the lead into to a temple like chamber and continue up to a pile of rubble out which protrude various limbs.
I run into Saavedra at another exhibition of Cuban art at the El Pabellon Cubano and ask him if he chose that place in la Cabaña because it was where political prisoners faced firing squads until the late 1970's. He insists that his piece is a memorial to all those who have been erased by history.
Saavedra wants me to meet two friends of his who are also showing work at the Pabellon Cubano. The team of Eduardo Garaicoa and Bernardo Prieto have a very playful way of looking at the devastating impact that the current scramble for hard currency is having on people's everyday lives and their spirituality. These two artists are selling their home-made offerings to San Mercado (Saint Market) a saint they've just added to the pantheon of the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria.
»... the majority of the population doesn't have a good relationship with the capitalist market. Those market relations are controlled by the State. This brings serious consequences, because Cubans can only participate in an extremely limited way. Practically speaking all they can do is selling cheap junk articles, in some ways very similar to ones we have here... The same state, as a way of creating a new product for sale, uses religion in order to sell it as an exotic product. The foreigner sees the exoticism in these objects, but he doesn't realize what these objects really mean.«
Some foreign guests might not understand everything they see in Cuba, but I was pretty amazed by how well many adapted to learning about the fringe events by Radio Bemba, the Cuban term for word of mouth. Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera and I were planning to inaugurate her new home-gallery with pieces by each of us. We didn't have to make posters or invitations - people started knocking on our door hours before our opening. To be ready on time, I had to put my tape recorder away and get to work.
The two of us spent the day clearing away furniture, hanging special lights. Then a neighbor showed up to behead the lamb Tania was planning to drape over herself as a shield. As a crowd begins to form in the patio, Tania takes her place before an enormous Cuban flag that she made of human hair, and began to feed herself handfuls of dirt. The power of her act came in part from the fact that in Spanish, the phrase to be swallowed by the earth also means to be overwhelmed by it or to vanish from it.
In the back of the house I create a memorial to my grandmother, who, after spending most of her life trying to leave her birthplace in search of a better life, decided that she didn't want to die in the US and fled to Spain, since she was unable to return to Cuba. For this performance I am the corpse, on view in the style of a traditional Catholic wake, draped in a white shroud, and lit only by rows of tiny candles and a single black light. As I lay there,one little boy from the neighborhood genuflects before asking someone if I might actually be dead.
The next day, people in the street congratulate us, and the bartenders from across the way wave and thank us for bringing them extra business. Receiving such a warm response from neighbors is one of the small pleasures that offset the difficulties of working with scant resources. Once again, I'm reminded that its the infectious energy and enthusiasm of the Cuban artists and audiences that makes Havana's art scene so extraordinary.