Havana Biennial 2019: Constructing the Possible


Federica Bueti (Ocula) reviews the 2019 Havana Biennial. Here are excerpts:

I first visited Havana in November 2016, a few days after Fidel Castro died, and just under a year before Hurricane Irma hit Cuba in September 2017. Since then, much has changed, including the hand-painted signs that punctuate the journey from the airport to the city centre, which today do not celebrate the revolution so much as the ‘Unidad y Compromiso’, or ‘Unity and Compromise’. Walking around the historic city, that compromise is clearly economic in nature, and tourism-focused. Yet things do not seem to have improved for many people in Havana, some of whom live on a wage of 55 euros per month.

Nothing in Cuba can be taken for granted, and what seems possible one moment becomes impossible in another. Arriving at the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam to collect my press accreditation for the 13th Havana Biennial (12 April–12 May 2019), for example, I was sent to the international press office in the neighbourhood of El Vedado, where I was told accreditation should have been arranged through the Cuban embassy in Berlin. Back at C.A.C. Wifredo Lam, I was told no press information was available. A programme PDF containing only vague information was emailed to me, which I downloaded after obtaining one hour of mobile data from the closest national telecommunications store. Without clear information, navigating the Biennial across the island, from Havana’s historic centre to the provinces of Pinar del Río and Matanzas, where the artist María Magdalena Campos-Ponsput together a schedule of performances and talks called ‘Ríos Intermitentes’ (Intermittent Rivers), was a challenge. The experience gave weight to the aspirations coded into the title of this thirteenth edition: The Construction of the Possible.

Featuring 83 artists, the 13th Havana Biennial was curated by a committee of seven curators: Margarita González Lorente, Nelson Herrera Ysla, José Manuel Noceda Fernández, Ibis Hernández Abascal, Margarita Sánchez Prieto, José Héctor Fernández Portal, and Lisset Alonso Compte. The show doesn’t have a central theme, but is conceived as a series of interventions in dialogue with the city, the island, and its recent history. In his curatorial essay ‘The multiple constructions of the (im)possible’, curator Nelson Herrera Ysla, who co-founded C.A.C. Wifredo Lam as well as the Biennial, writes: ‘The Havana Biennial is being held in the midst of difficult circumstances.’ This is exactly how the Biennial feels. It was actually supposed to take place in 2017, but was delayed indefinitely by the government following the catastrophic events of Hurricane Irma, which badly hit parts of the country already strangled by economic hardship and an uncertain political future. In protest against this decision, a group of independent Cuban artists, including Tania Bruguera and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, organised an independent #00 Havana Biennial in 2018, which was accused of ‘distorting Cuba’s cultural policies’.

It is a well-known fact that in Cuba, artists and cultural producers have repeatedly been ostracised, and in some cases jailed for their critical position towards politics. Last year, the newly instated government of president Miguel Díaz-Canel approved Decree 349, which essentially grants the state full control over artistic production in the country, thus further limiting the freedom of artists and cultural producers. The artists protesting the Decree have been punished for speaking up against a government unwilling to make a compromise with its citizens. I am sure there is more to what my limited knowledge of this place can allow me to understand, but it seems that the Havana Biennial could have also been titled Despite all Odds, since it is happening amid aplethora of impossibilities, making the organisers’ effort particularly laudable, especially in the face of reduced budgets and political controversy.

Although there is no central theme, one of the emerging threads in the exhibition overall is a preoccupation with ecology and its entanglement with coloniality. At the Wifredo Lam Center of Contemporary Art, Haiti-born artist Adler Guerrier presents Untitled (We find moments in the landscape, ripe for replenishment, and in positions conducive to imagine anew), an installation composed of plants, collages, and a series of intimate photographs of plants found in the Caribbean landscape. For the artist, these plants have an emotional and affective value; they carry the traces of the Caribbean’s colonial history, marking the presence of people who have suffered and resisted against colonial forces. In the same building, a video installation by Peruvian artist Maya Watanabe, Stasis (2018), shows a magnified close-up of the squamous body of a frozen carp. The title refers to ‘biostasis’—a state in which an organism suspends metabolic activity in order to adapt to changes in the external environment, such as low temperatures in water in the case of carp, thus existing in a limbo of sorts, between life and death, resistance and survival. Watanabe’s piece is a good metaphor for the state in which Cuba seems to exist, between the weight of years of isolation and a dying economy, and the vitality and survival skills of its inhabitants whose existence is characterised by a perennial state of precarity.

In another venue of the old city, the Casa de Simón Bolívar, the video installation entre un susurro y el llanto (between a whisper and a cry) (2019) by Barbados-born, Glasgow-based artist Alberta Whittle stands out for the way it weaves together, in a poetic manner, questions of ecology, survival, colonial violence, and the collective power of healing. The installation is composed of several pieces: a series of beach towels printed either with a banknote of one hundred U.S. dollars or with a digital collage of a meteorological map with the artist performing what looks like a ritual dance in the middle of it and the sentence ‘business as usual’ repeated multiple times. The towels are leaning against a series of precarious support structures made of raw construction material; what looks like a shrine made of the same plastic blankets used in the aftermath of catastrophes. A video of found and made footages ties the different parts of the installation together, showing sequences from a collective religious ritual, images of the artist on a boat at sea, a woman dancing, the landscape, and a weather forecast. Influenced by the work on the afterlife of slavery by Christina Sharpe, and Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite’s Tidalectics, which exposes the performativity of sound as it carries the memories of a transoceanic life, Whittle’s work is a multifaceted reflection on questions of survival, resistance to zombification, and the possibilities of healing the wounds of historical traumas and the violence inflicted yesterday as today upon Africans and the people of African descents. [. . .]

[Photo above by Xiaoshi Vivian Vivian Qin: Carlos Martiel, La sangre de Caín (2019). Performance at 13th Havana Biennial, Havana (12 April–12 May 2019).]

For full review, see https://ocula.com/magazine/reports/havana-biennial-2019-constructing-the-possible


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