Politics go hand-in-hand with art in Havana

While one exhibit displays Cubans' migration dreams others unsettle the regime

A woman walks along Havana's famous Malecón, where an artist set up two gigantic rowing paddles on the wall.
A woman walks along Havana's famous Malecón, where an artist set up two gigantic rowing paddles on the wall.ALEJANDRO ERNESTO (EFE)

At 30 stories, the FOCSA building is the tallest construction in Havana. On May 13, its swimming pool was the setting for an interactive installation by Glenda León called Sueño de verano: el horizonte de una ilusión. It was her contribution to the Bienal de la Habana, a modern art exhibition that takes place every two years in Cuba's capital.

On each side of the pool, the artist had placed enlarged maps of the coasts of Miami and Havana, enabling spontaneous swimmers to cross this symbolic Florida Strait. For greater perspective, León had asked around 20 journalists to view her work from the terraces on the 11th floor.

But the event turned into a full-blown diplomatic crisis when the press attempted to get into the elevators in the lobby. Security guards physically blocked access to the lifts and turned them off, while the few residents in the building watched the spectacle in tense silence, while worrying that their butter cakes (it was Mother's Day) might melt in the sweltering heat.

Nearly an hour later, the artist herself was able to renew the necessary permits and ensure that her work would be seen from above. But what the journalists noticed, rather than the exhibit, was the number of empty apartments with high rental prices of about 1,400 euros a month, which only foreigners can afford. "This type of apartment is not for Cubans," said one security guard discreetly.

León is one of 180 artists from 43 countries who are taking part in this event. Like so many other emerging Cuban artists, her contacts with foreign galleries and international grants allow her to live and travel in very different conditions from those of her compatriots.

For Cuban artists, the event, now in its 11th edition, is particularly interesting because of the dozens of US collectors who ignore the longstanding embargo to attend the fair, year in and year out. Although no sales are conducted here, business is guaranteed. One example of an elite client is Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, whose impressive contemporary collection is being viewed for the first time in Cuba, and includes 50 pieces by artists such as Marina Abramovic and Ai Wei Wei.

What emerges from the exhibition is that conceptual art is the rule among artists who were born in the 1970s, and that women play a major role in the creation of pieces that include painting, sculpture, photography and a variety of other media - although digital art was notably absent from this event, because Cubans cannot afford computers.

Younger generations of artists seemed to be feeling less pressure from the regime, at least from a foreign observer's viewpoint. The Castro regime seems to have become aware that it is better to leave them alone, as long as they do not express frontal opposition to the system. Yet censorship is still present.

On that particular Sunday, for instance, in the middle of the Malecón, a spontaneous artist attempted to show a sculpture depicting a peculiar Statue of Liberty sending greetings to the United States. It was a matter of minutes before a government worker showed up and stomped the piece to bits. "Just following orders, ma'am," he explained.

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