Invent or solve, Cuban artists in the face of power

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From April 19 to September 2, 2018, and for the first time in France, a comprehensive exhibition dedicated to Cuban artists is taking place in Lille. Ola cuba ! organized as part of the lille3000 program and curated by Justine Weulersse and Laura Salas Redondo, presents works by 35 artists, including 10 site-specific pieces made specifically for Saint-Sauveur, a former train station reconverted since 2009 into a cultural center.

 

What all the artists have in common is that they belong to the generation that grew up during Fidel Castro’s “Special Period” in the 1990s, a time of economic crisis that hit the country with severe shortages, pushing people to rely on their resourcefulness to survive daily life. The political situation in Cuba appears at the heart of their concerns, perhaps it is even the exhibition’s underlying theme, with artists stuck in a paradox that brings up their anxiety surrounding the situation of Cubans in general, freedom of expression in particular, and a profound attachment to the culture and history of their country. “For them, it is absolutely imperative that they succeed in countering the official discourse and use their resources to point the island toward new horizons,” explains Justine Weulersse.

With this in mind, Humberto Diaz created an installation for the former station’s esplanade entitled Afluente, in which a Peugeot 607 seems to melt and dissolve into the gravel. The piece, which has been shown several times, each time with a different vehicle depending on the place, refers to the embargo that turned cars into luxury goods, leaving the old beat-up American cars to become one of the country’s most well-known emblems. Since the 1960s, it has effectively been impossible for Cubans to acquire new and foreign cars, so they have had to make do with what was already there.

Mabel Poblet asked inhabitants in Havana to cut out photos that interested them in the press. She then suspended them in space so that the oversaturation of images, repeating ad infinitum, begins to feel oppressive. With Escala de Valores (Seria Patria), the artist reminds us that there are only three authorized newspapers on the island and that the information they receive, which is always filtered by the State, is the same no matter which newspaper you read.

Abel Barroso’s Cuban Style Lounge reconstructs the typical space of a cybercafé, but all the technological equipment—computers, keyboards, tablets—are made out of cork. The artist offers an ironic view of our digital world and of how difficult it is for Cubans to access it: the Internet is only available in Cuba in a few defined and temporary zones.

The only frontal image of Fidel Castro, whose presence can be felt in the artist’s places and spirits, is a monumental bust by Yoan Capote measuring four meters high and entitled Immanence. Created out of used metal door hinges collected from inhabitant in Havana, it echoes a collective reconstruction that creates a “blocked” situation where the door opens neither in nor out. Reynier Leyva Novo’s work also addresses the former leader, erasing the presence of Castro in official photos, a way of processing the subject through absence by representing Castro as a ghost.

Líder Maximo has long been taboo for artists and objections to using his image still remain strong: in early 2018, when artists Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Yanelys Nunez Leyva came to propose their work Testamento de Fidel at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, partisans of the Cuban ex-leader held a protest to show their discontent, all the way to the museum. The video, presented as part of Festival Hors-Piste whose theme was “Nations and their fictions”, showed Fidel Castro ending his speech with a call for forgiveness. Clearly it is a fake, edited with the voice of actor Pedro Ruiz who recites a text by writer Enrico Del Risco. The artist, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántra, adds in the video’s introduction that the statesman came to him in a dream to transmit this heritage—a heritage that it was now his duty to transmit to others.

In Cuba it is therefore impossible to directly oppose the power or to play too literally with symbols of power. Artists risk a lot when they do so: Luis Manuel Otero Alcántra has been arrested by the police several times, whereas Yanelys Nunez Leyva was fired from an official magazine where she was a collaborator—she now writes for independent sites like Havana Times. Graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado Machado, alias El Sexto, was imprisoned for 10 months, taken into custody as he prepared a performance in which two pigs would be called Raul and Fidel. Artist Tania Bruguera had her passport confiscated following the organization of a performance in 2014 called YoTambienExigo, planned for Plaza de la Revolucíon in Havana. These are but a few examples amongst others.

Although Havana is home to an internationally-recognized Biennale since 1984, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántra and other artists like Tania Bruguera, La Zanja collective or poet Amaury Pacheco have founded an alternative biennale, #Bienal de La Habana, to defend their independence. This ‘off’ event is obviously targeted by the authorities.

After Raul Castro came to power in 2006, some exiled artists have been able to re-obtain their Cuban nationality and return to the territory, but today it still remains difficult to be an independent artist in Cuba, where one must constantly juggle between material and political restrictions. Not to mention a recent blow dealt to freedom of expression with the publication of decree 349, which enters into effect starting December 2018 and obliges artists to obtain government authorization to sell their works or appear on stage. A committee of independent artists, Artistas Cubanos en Contra de Decreto 349, is fighting to have it repealed.

 

Cover: Mabel Poblet, Escala de Valores, 2017. © RR

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