International Artists Boycott Havana Biennial in Solidarity With Imprisoned Cuban Dissidents

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Something you might not know is that the city of Havana has been hosting one of the most important international contemporary art biennials in the world since 1984. 

Despite the hermeticism of the Cuban regime regarding social development, civil liberties, and human rights, the island’s capital has been the epicenter of Latin American and international artistic discourses for decades.

Since its foundation, the Havana Biennial has hosted artists of the stature of Leon Ferrari, Tania Burguera, Teresa Margolles, and Antoni Muntadas, who have dialogued around marginality tradition, man, and memory.

While the Castro regime welcomed intellectuals and artists with open arms to reflect on the world, its prisons were (and still are) full of dissidents and human rights activists.

That is why this year, at least five participants have decided to respond to the calls of local artists and boycott the event in solidarity with those persecuted by the regime.

As reported by Hyperallergic, artists Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro, Ursula Biemann, and Aimee Joaristi Argüelles, as well as curator María Belén Sáez de Ibarra and critic Nicolas Bourriaud, have declared that they will neither exhibit their works nor contribute to the biennial’s programming.

Their withdrawal comes at the same time that an open letter calling for a boycott of the show, published last week on e-flux, has gathered more than 400 signatures and continues to grow. Signatories include prominent cultural figures based outside Cuba, such as Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, Theaster Gates, Pablo Helguera, Luis Perez-Oramas, and Laura Raicovich, as well as Cuban artists who have participated in previous editions, such as Tania Bruguera, Coco Fusco, and Tomas Sanchez.

“Some might find it surprising or even shocking that we would reject the most important art event in our country – an event that has given so many Cuban artists the opportunity to share their art with the rest of the world,” says the letter, written by a group of Cuban arts workers associated with the 27N Movement for human rights and freedom of expression on the island.

“We say NO to the 14th Havana Biennial because Cuban artists have been in prison for months, because dozens of cultural workers are under house arrest, and because over 1,000 of our fellow citizens were arrested during the mass protests that took place on July 11. Of those arrested, more than 500 Cubans are still in jail, among them several minors,” they continue.

The 14th edition of the exhibition, titled “Future and Contemporaneity,” will open on November 12 and run in three installments through April 22.

Taking as a starting point the exploration of the possible links between the concepts of future and contemporaneity, this edition will be interested in imaginaries that prefigure the future from the experience of the present and that examine the paths by which we have arrived at the present, explained the Wilfredo Lam Contemporary Art Center. The event will also pay special attention to the discourses of countries on the margins of the centers of power, whose ancestral wisdom could contribute to a better understanding of contemporary problems and the preservation of life on the planet.

However, in the face of the imprisonment of dissident artists such as Tania Burguera, the international collective has decided to say “enough.”

“This time, a boycott is the only option, Bruguera said in an interview with Hyperallergic. The artist and activist recently agreed to leave the country in exchange for the release of 25 prisoners, including Hamlet Lavastida, detained for their participation in anti-government demonstrations this summer, which were the largest on the island in decades. But Otero Alcántara and many others remain behind bars.

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Cuban-American artist Carlos Martiel stands inside his art project The Blood of Cain at the Malecon waterfront during the 13th Havana Biennial art fair in Havana, Cuba, on April 14, 2019. Photo: Sven Creutzmann/Mambo photo/Getty Images.

“I think it’s important not to participate because the Cuban people rose up on July 11 to demand their rights, and they have been thrown in prison and threatened. I don’t think it’s ethical to pretend that nothing is happening [as] we have for the last 62 years,” Bruguera said. “What we did before also no longer works: we organized parallel, independent exhibitions; we tried creating critical works and showing them at the biennial, and that didn’t work either. All that’s left is a boycott.”

“Decree 349, which basically legalized censorship in Cuba, is still in effect. Decree 370, which controls communications on social media, is also in effect, as is Decree 35. What they’re doing is muzzling the people,” she continued. “We cannot pretend we do not know anymore.”