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Havana Biennial opens as relations with US thaw

Local artists show alongside established international names, as collectors and exhibitors circumvent trade restrictions

The Havana Biennial opened its 10th edition on 27 March (until 30 April), as international collectors, curators and artists descended on Cuba. Travel restrictions put in place by former President Bush in 2004 have greatly complicated visits for US citizens, deterring many from making the short trip to the biennial. US groups arriving for the exhibition, including El Museo del Barrio, the Bronx Museum, Fundación Amistad and the Cuban Artists Fund, were required to enter Cuba with costly humanitarian licences, and to dispense medicine and other materials to charitable organisations in order to visit legally.

In April, President Obama lifted restrictions on family travel and remittances for Cuban-Americas, and members in both houses of Congress have drafted legislation to lift a 47-year ban on travel for US nationals to the island. The thaw in foreign relations was furthered by Cuban president Raúl Castro in mid-April when he stated that his government is prepared to have open discussions with the US on issues like human rights, freedom of the press and the release of political prisoners. These developments can only benefit Cuban artists who have been unable to travel to the US since 2004. In 2005 artist Carlos Garaicoa was denied a visa to enter the US to attend his museum survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and Yoan Capote was similarly denied a visa to accept his 2006 Guggenheim fellowship.

Those arriving in Havana from the US and other parts of the world found art installed in colonial forts, museums, galleries and churches throughout the architecturally crumbling capital. Organised by the Wifredo Lam Contemporary Art Center, the biennial’s main venue was the San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress overlooking Havana Bay. The Spanish colonial fort­ress, completed in 1774, served as a garrison and a prison throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and later became the temporary headquarters of Ché Guevara following the 1959 revolution.

Over 140 single-artist installations were on display in the Cabaña Fortress. Addressing this year’s theme of “Integration and Resistance in the Global Age”, several artists took the opportunity to focus on the worldwide economic crisis, corporate greed, the stockmarket, and the importance of oil in the international market. Cubans Reinerio Tamayo and Eulises Niebla created a 23-foot-long snake-like installation of a giant oil tanker, while Alexandre Arrechea, also a local artist, presented a metal sculpture that contracted and expanded (though not in real time) with the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Other works dealt with the resistance of entering global networks, such as Alex Burke’s installation looking at the tradition of oral history on the island of Martinique, and Guy Woette’s video about children forcibly abducted into the army in Cameroon. Chinese artist Liu Xiaodong showed oil paintings depicting contemporary Cuban families, while Cuban Glenda León looked at the commonalities of world religions with her installation of Braille-powered music boxes.

A notable addition to this year’s schedule was the exhibition “Chelsea Visits Havana”, where 28 US art galleries were invited to present work at the National Fine Art Museum for the first time since 1986. New York gallerists Alberto Magnan and Dara Metz organised the show, which included international artists Marina Abramovic, Will Cotton, Loretta Lux, Matthew Barney and Guy Ben-Ner, among others (The Art Newspaper, March 2009, p45). Several biennial artists were also given solo exhibitions at venues throughout Havana, including Leon Ferrari (Argentina) at the Casa de las Américas; Carlos Garaicoa (Cuba) at the National Fine Art Museum; and Sue Williamson (South Africa), Hervé Fischer (Canada) and Luis Camnitzer (US) at the Wifredo Lam Center.

One of the most talked about pieces at the biennial was Tania Bruguera’s performance at the Wifredo Lam Center, where she set up a microphone at a podium and invited members of the audience to speak freely for one minute. As part of the work, two actors in military fatigues placed a white dove on the shoulder of each speaker, in reference to Fidel Castro’s victory speech in Havana in 1959. At the podium, Cubans openly challenged authorities by protesting about their lack of freedom of expression and demanding internet access for all. An official statement from the 10th Havana Biennial’s organising committee declared the outburst a “provocation against the Cuban Revolution”, asserting that protestors had opportunistically taken advantage of Bruguera’s performance. The spontaneous speeches were recorded and later posted on YouTube by Generación Y Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez, one of a growing network of underground bloggers looking to outman­oeuvre government censors.

In past years, the biennial has acted as a platform for the careers of young Cuban artists, and as a buying trip for foreign art collectors looking for interesting work, and this year proved no exception. Six Cuban galleries launched the inaugural Contemporary Cuban Art Fair at the Havana convention centre, Pabexpo (28 March-12 April). The galleries brought together over 30 paintings, sculptures, videos and installations with prices ranging from E10,000-E45,000 for works by Roberto Favelo, Los Carpinteros, Kcho, René Francisco, Yoan Capote and Manuel Mendive, among others. Rather than presenting art according to gallery affiliation, the work was shown as an exhibition, and viewers could request pricing and gallery information from attendants at the entrance to the fair.

According to Luis Miret, director of the participating state-owned Galería Habana: “European collectors and museums purchased the majority of works at the art fair, with a few pieces put on hold by American museums.” Patrons of Tate Modern were seen making several purchases, with museum director Vicente Todoli at their side, from both the Pabexpo art fair and directly from Cuban artists in their studios. Capote told The Art Newspaper that members of the Tate group acquired nearly 30 pieces from him during their studio visit, and major collectors such as Ron Pizzutti, Howard Farber and Lilly Scarpetta also bought works from artists while in Havana.

Mr Farber told The Art Newspaper that Americans face several challenges when purchasing art in Cuba: “It’s a Catch-22; you are legally able to buy art, but you can’t ship it directly to the US, so people use various means to get the works to their homes. My art has travelled to Spain, Germany [and] Canada, just to get back to Florida.” Mr Farber, who sold much of his famed Chinese art collection at auction in 2007, began collecting Cuban art in 2003. An exhibition of his Cuban art holdings is currently on tour throughout the US.

Payment is another hurdle that US collectors must deal with because US banks are prohibited from conducting business with Cuban institutions. “Until last year, Americans had to pay for art by wire transfers through Canada,” said Mr Miret. He added: “It took me eight years to solve this problem, but I finally set up a credit-card payment system through a company in Canada, and the collector is charged an additional 5%.”

In the 25 years since it was founded, the Havana Biennial has helped to successfully promote the careers of young artists, while elevating their status in Cuban society. In a country where doctors and lawyers earn approximately $20 a month, a handful of artists, many who are represented abroad by foreign galleries, are able to live quite comfortably in Cuba, becoming internationally recognised for their work, while earning well both at home and abroad.