Cuba and the XIIIth Bienal de Arte

by Jeffrey Bishop

Few experiences are as jarring or exhilarating as a first-time visit to Cuba, a country in a sometimes cruel, sometimes beautiful time warp, where a resilient population scrapes by with steely resolve and deep pride, and an even deeper warmth of spirit. When my sister-in-law, the artist Jana Harper, was invited to participate in the 13th Havana Biennial, we paid our first visit.

Arriving from NYC (direct flights now from JFK to Havana), the contrast from the 24/7 churn in the U.S. and the depressing Trumpian news cycle is at first overwhelming. The writer Claire Bishop, (no relation), has characterized such disparity as “capitalist hyper-acceleration versus crippling stasis.”  Bishop has written a significant piece in the May 2019 issue of Artforum, on the prominent Cuban artist/activist Tania Bruguera, and her art of resistance waged in protest against the repressiveness of the Cuban government to open and free expression. The little bit of research I did prior to my trip was frustrated by scant information on the Biennial itself, and I found myself reading rather about resistance on the part of a number of Cuban artists, expats and otherwise, who have been, over the years, and indeed recently, jailed, detained or ostracized by the Ministry of Culture, a clear mouthpiece for the government which has recently issued a new law called Decree 349. The decree can criminalize artists who act independently of government-sanctioned artistic practice. PEN America has called Decree 349 a clear affront to free expression and Amnesty International has deemed it dystopian. Another prominent artist with International stature, Coco Fusco, was denied entry to the country in April. It must be noted however that to this first-time visitor, with little time to roam far afield, there was no overt evidence of protest or controversy anywhere in this XIII Biennial.

Wandering through La Habana Vieja, the historical old city, I was immediately struck by the astoundingly beautiful Colonial architecture, some in fine splendor, but much of it crumbling in decadent decay. Most everyone knows about the cars: American models mostly, (with a smattering of Soviet era Ladas), from the 50’s and 60’s, many convertibles, many in striking tropical pinks, turquoise and other hews that never rolled off an assembly line in Detroit. More significantly, I was forced to reflect on the intense and tragic history of Cuba, the residue of which is everywhere to witness, from centuries of Spanish colonial rule, to the legacy of the slave trade, a monolithic sugar economy that eventually collapsed, and the subsequent revolts and revolutions in quest of autonomy and freedom, first via the greatest Cuban hero, José Martí, and then the 1959 revolution of Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara – only to be supplanted by servitude to and dependence on the Soviet Union, until its disintegration. Perhaps most severely and continuing to this day, the hard and heavy hand of the United States on the throat of the Cuban people in the form of the embargo, termed in Cuba El Bloqueo, and sanctions that continue to cripple life on this magnificent island, a mere 90 miles from Key West. To what continuing purpose one asks?

U.S. made convertibles in Havana near Parque Central

One thing unmistakable in even casual conversation with many Cubans, brought up with scant prompting, is their deep antipathy to the 45th American president, who has shockingly, (or not!), rolled back the slow progress, but progress nonetheless, initiated by Barack Obama and Raul Castro, toward amelioration of relations between the two nations. Unfathomably sad and maddening to ponder.

Organized by a committee of seven curators, The XIII Havana Biennial was titled, The Construction of the Possible. My wife, Jill Baker and I set out to find El Centro de Arte Contemporáneo (CAC), also known as The Wilfredo Lam, which was understood to be the heart and center of the wide-ranging, indeed country wide, exhibition. There we took in strong textile hangings by Abdoulaye Konaté, from Mali, and work by the Cuban, David Beltrán, abstract looking paintings actually based on super close-up photographs of a painting by Diego Velázquez. Also intriguing was work by Fernando Foglino, from Uruguay, who showed a dazzling array of objects coated in gold, including a striking figurine of a girl, meant to replicate the stolen spoils of colonial loot. In the courtyard, Alexia Miranda, had installed elegantly woven hangings.

Abdoulaye Konaté, Les Gouttes Rouge, 2018

Taking our leave from the Wilfredo Lam we asked if there was a map of Biennial sites to take away. Sadly no, was the response; nor was there any literature to speak of, or any curatorial essay. Better help came from people themselves, with directions and suggestions.

Eventually I came to feel that the frustration of trying to take in a reasonable number of widely scattered exhibition sites in our limited time frame, was somehow an appropriate metaphor and warning to the expectations of a typically over-amped American art viewer. Impatience is futile. Those expectations were going to be humbled and the Biennial and indeed Cuba was going to reveal itself very much on its own terms, in its own time.

David Beltrán, Les Gouttes Rouge, 2018

Our first evening we took the obligatory convertible ride, in a red ’54 Ford, with the original engine, (or so claimed the driver, who proudly popped the hood to display the engine block), out to the Hotel Nacional, the grand emblem of Cuban deco/neoclassical architecture where the (eventually) corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista cemented his coup, and where Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano held the largest ever meet up of the Mafia.

Alexia Miranda, Tejido Colectivo, 2013-2019

There we began our stroll on the Malecón, Havana’s iconic seawall, to a spectacular sunset and a leisurely walk back to our hotel, eventually via the Paseo de Martí, itself reminiscent of Las Ramblas in Barcelona. There were dozens of sculptures and installations amidst the lovers and groups of friends sitting on the wall, or walking, listening to and playing music, while taking in the moonrise in the cooler evening air. Again, there was at best spotty information as to whether this or that work was part of this year’s Biennial. One of the more compelling installations seemed more of a guerilla action piece, where an artist had jammed rolled up pieces of paper into every available cavity in the pockmarked, salt scarred façade of a crumbling colonial building.  Later, I was gratified to be able to identify this artist as Elio Jesús Fonseca.

Elio Jesús Fonseca, Site specific intervention (Title not known), 2019

The next day at the Fábrica del Arte, a huge and venerable building once the site of a cooking oil factory in the Vedotto neighborhood of Havana, recently converted to a raucous multi-media art space with galleries for exhibitions and multiple stages for performances, we came across the engaging work of Enrique Rottenberg, a force on the Havana scene. One large disturbing photograph titled, The Fearless Woman, showed multiple women hanging upside down, naked and bound by their feet. In an installation called, Gone with the Wind, Rottenberg staged a humorous commentary on teacher student relations (old Soviet/ Cuban relations?), wherein a large standing fan addresses a classroom of smaller table fans which are eagerly perched on old schoolroom seats awaiting instruction before they all “fan up” in eager response.

Enrique Rottenberg, The Fearless Woman, 2019

Elsewhere in the the Fábrica a piece by Ronald Vill constituted a commentary on consumption and desire, even in a society where scarcity is truly the norm. The artist had taken a multitude of photo images from a popular internet site where people can trade or sell possessions, cut them up and fed them into a meat grinder.

Ronald Vill, Take advantage of the Ganga, 2019



A smiling young woman in a large photograph displays the results, called Ganga, for your consideration. The artist notes that Ganga is defined as a good acquired at a price well below that which normally corresponds to it, at the same time is material that accompanies the minerals, and which is separated from them as useless.


Adonis Flores, Visionary, 20

Down a staircase, in a photograph titled Visionary, Adonis Floris hints or teases at Cuban military mythology with a uniformed soldier holding a pair of toilet rolls in place of binoculars.We meandered this labyrinthine building with pleasure as the decked out and largely local crowd began to gather for multiple performances. Eventually we found our way to a simple roof garden where we had a satisfying dinner well away from the more touristy spots in Viejo Habana.  The Fábrica is seen by some as a symbol of Cuba’s accelerating opening to the world. As we left the building near midnight, the line to enter went around the block.

Two other restaurants worth mentioning were La Guarida, made famous in the Oscar nominated film Fresca y Chocolate, and El del Frente, which sported a very hip retro roof terrace.

Before leaving Havana for the elegant smaller city of Matanzas, a second Biennial location, we took in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Arte where I was gratified to see a healthy selection of work by a long-time favorite, the modernist painter Wilfredo Lam, (1902-1982). Also present was work by Ana Mendieta, (1948-1985), long shunned by official Cuban culture for her ex-pat status, but finally inscribed into Cuban art history, thanks largely to the efforts of Tania Bruguera, who restaged, Mendieta’s performative work alongside her own exhibitions until the point was sufficiently made.

In Matanzas we found a smaller but much better organized and digestible segment of the Biennial, curated by the prominent Cuban born American based artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons, who is originally from the city. Despite favoring a disproportionate number of artists from Nashville (Vanderbilt) and Boston (The School of the Museum of Fine Arts), where Campos-Pons has held faculty positions, the Matanzas portion of the Biennial proved very satisfying, spanning a number of venues around the lovely city, most notably in the newly and specially refurbished Ministry of Justice building. Compos-Pans has called her part of the exhibition, Intermittent Rivers, and in a statement of purpose called for a “space for the exchange of ideas that prioritize the need for balance between society, culture and nature.” Much of the work in the Biennial did indeed embrace ecological subjects and issues around communality.

Here were big-name inclusions by Carrie May Weems and Julie Mehretu. The latter had apparently insisted on air conditioning for her handsomely framed works, a not altogether unreasonable request given the delicate nature of paper in a hot and humid climate. But the luxury did not extend to other artists. Given the heat, the space became a popular recharging spot. Richly rewarding were encounters with artists unknown to me, such as the Cuban artist Jorge Y Soloman, who showed three very large paintings made on Ifá mats. Ifá being an Afro-Cuban religion in which this artist is a priest. He cites the pain of the whip, the disbelief of being uprooted and the slavery of black people among sources that flow into the work.

Jorge Y. Salomon, The Way of the Ancestors, 2019


Cosmo Whyte, Jamaican DJ Kart, 2019







I also enjoyed Cosmo Whyte’s, The Well-Travelled African, a Jamaican DJ cart from a “project tracking patterns of movement shaping the African diaspora.”  Especially arresting was Ramon Pacheco’s untitled installation featuring a collection of objects from Cuba’s “periodo especial.” The name refers to the hardship Cuba experienced after the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaving the country without its primary benefactor and plunging it into economic freefall, imposing ever harsher periods of extreme shortage. In the face of these dire circumstances the period nonetheless spawned a time of innovative resourcefulness some examples of which are on display in Pacheco’s installation. Note in the photograph for instance the metal food tray that served as a television antenna. The timeframe of the period changes depending on who one talks to. Some say the period lasted for 2 to 3 years, others said a decade and still others wistfully that it persists to this day.

Ramón Pacheco, Installation, (Periodo Especial), 2019





On Sunday, the 13 of May, the last official day of this year’s Habana Biennial, my aforementioned sister in law, Jana Harper, led a procession she had conceived with Danza Espiral, a Matanzas based dance group directed by Lilian Padrón, from the beautiful small square Parcque de la Ruida. The performance called, Cargas, proceeded through the streets of the city down to a newly and elegantly refashioned riverside esplanade. Each of a dozen or so dancers, dressed in all white, carried large white sacks on their shoulders. The imagery harked back to the sugar burden that so defined much of Cuba’s economic history. Re-purposed to contemporary significance the dancers had written in red powerful terms they had selected on the sacks: pais (peace), racism, hope, injustice, HIV, transport, utopias, etc. Carrying these sacks in an ingenious choreography of slow, shared movement, these new burdens signified ever-continuing issues plaguing Cuba, but also brought ever hopeful aspirations. The procession slowly snaked its way to the main town square where it deliberately and fittingly made its way inside the newly refurbished Ministry of Justice. A large and satisfied crowd of observers and well-wishers followed.  It was a fitting finale to the 13th Havana Biennale.

Jana Harper, Cargas , 2019

On our final night in Cuba, in a restaurant called Bar Bistro Atlantida, in a coastal town away from the tourist beach strip of Varadero, a band showed up to serenade us with some soulful son Cubano. The singer mesmerized me with a powerful rendition of a song I knew from the version by the iconic American jazz bassist Charlie Haden, which he had titled Song for Ché. In Cuba it is called, Hasta Siempre Commandante, and was composed by Carlos Puebla.

Check it out. You might also fall in love with Cuba.

~All Photographs by Boulevardier, Jeffrey Bishop

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