In November the Bienal de la Habana begins, the most important visual arts event in Cuba. The previous edition was in 2019, rescheduled after it was cancelled in 2018 due to Hurricane Irma. This time neither Covid-19, nor the economic crisis, nor the regime's recent repression of protestors, which has also affected artists, seem to be reason enough to suspend the 14th edition.
"The Biennial is still a joke; useless, another instrument of those in power, without any autonomy or possible objectivity. It's as if it were a Martian art festival, for the inhabitants of Mars, and this could be understandable if the theme were science fiction, or the future, but they want to pretend to talk about Cuba and society," poet Katherine Bisquet told DIARIO DE CUBA when her partner, artist Hamlet Lavastida, had not yet been released from his incarceration.
Lavastida was held for three months in Villa Marista without trial, accused of "inciting the perpetration of a crime" for an idea for an artistic project that he never carried out.
This Saturday, September 25 Lavastida was released on a condition: exile for him and Bisquet. Both traveled with "one-way tickets" to Poland, a punishment for being critical of the regime through their art and openly confronting the system. Yet another bit of proof, for those who still need it, that the Díaz-Canel government is, in fact, a dictatorship.
In that "science fiction" Cuba, an island/prison, one of the 100 most influential people of 2021 is still imprisoned, according to Time magazine: the independent artist and coordinator of the San Isidro Movement, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, who has been on a hunger strike since September 27 in Guanajay Prison, according to curator Claudio Genlui, the artist's partner.
Despite being controversial inside and outside the art circuits —for being self-taught, independent, doing political art and being involved in activism— Otero Alcántara has carved out a place on the Cuban arts scene, and, above all, in a civil society that is waking up and crying out for changes in Cuba.
With the MSI he has managed to influence that more humble social fabric and bring, through the language of art, a discourse of freedom and a struggle for civil rights in Cuba.
An 'expanded' Biennial to whitewash the regime
This edition of the Biennial will feature a special format: for the first time it will last almost six months, compared to the month it used to.
The other peculiarity is that it has been structured into three sections: Experience 1: Preamble, dedicated to theoretical discussions; Experience 2: La Havana de la Bienal, in which "Cuban art will play a leading role", and Experience 3: Return to the Future, with "the inauguration of a curatorial exhibition made up of various projects," explains the announcement released by the Wilfredo Lam Center for Contemporary Art, the official institution organizing the event.
"It is no accident that the Government is going to hold an expanded biennial," curator Yanelis Nuñez, a founding member of the MSI and one of the promoters of the 00Biennial, told DDC, an event launched by the MSI as an alternative to the regime's event, in 2018.
"It is doing this not only because it has no money, but because there is a real health crisis that (the regime) cannot hide," said the curator, who sees this structure as a way for the government to control access to cultural forums.
"It is also a way for it to whitewash everything that has happened, not only since 11-J, but also regarding the people protesting outside the Ministry of Culture, the San Isidro barracks, Decree 349, Decree-Law 35, and the imprisonment of more than 500 people." The authorities want, "somehow, to rewrite the story about what is happening in Cuba," he stated.
Núñez also sees an attempt by the regime to ingratiate itself with artists, a sector hit hard by the pandemic: "They know that the people who make art for a living in Cuba have not been making any money , so this is a way to lift their spirits a bit; that they can sell, open their studios".
This Tuesday the curator participated in a talk organized by Hypermedia Magazine in Madrid, under the title "XIV Bienal de la Habana: La fiesta de cómplices" (accomplices ) to discuss this new event in the context of the censorship and repression in Cuba today.
Cuban artists: don't be accomplices
The list of Cuban artists that will exhibit their works at this edition is a mystery. In another unusual twist, the organizers "invite artists and curators from all over the country to present projects (exhibitions, workshops, actions, etc.) that can be coherently integrated into this period," emphasizing that "special attention will be paid to imaginative works that prefigure the future based on the experience of the present and examine the paths by which we have arrived here, emphasizing discourses believed to be lost or forgotten."
Likewise, they point to "projects that explore other forms of interaction, proposing spaces for coexistence, socialization and artistic consumption, as well as the capacity of art as an instrument of healing and for the construction of new paradigms that will make us regain the possibility of a more promising and inclusive future."
It all sounds very inclusive, but will independent projects and artists who question those in power have any place at this biennial? Projects that want to promote civic literacy, such as the Hannah Arendt Institute of Artivism (INSTAR), headed by Cuban artist Tania Bruguera? Or Sandra Ceballos' Espacio Aglutinador? What type of artists and projects will meet the Organizing Committee of the biennial's criteria? The answer remains up in the air.
Last August Bisquet carried out a virtual action on the Biennial's Facebook page. The poet published the hashtag #FreeHamletLavastida about 100 times to draw attention to his case and raise awareness of the fact that the event is going to take place while the repression of artists and citizens, in general, is intensifying.
The writer was blocked by the page's administrators, but, in solidarity, several Cubans got involved, leaving comments pleading for the artist's freedom. Although many of us were barred, preventing us from commenting on the posts, there has been a wave of support for Lavastida, Otero Alcántara, Maykel Osorbo and many other political prisoners. We have emerged more united as a civil society after the events at the San Isidro Barracks, 27-N, and 11-J.
But it is also a fact that Cuba is slowly dying, mired in a health, economic, political and social crisis. This is not the time for events that further legitimize the dictatorship and burnish its image before the world. If the regime wants to hold a biennial to simulate normality in a country that is collapsing, artists should be parties to it, they should not join the farce. It is time to show solidarity with those who have had the courage to struggle for freedom inside the cage, and are now paying for it, with exile or jail.