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Earlier this week, Amnesty International issued an urgent call for the release of Cuban graffiti and performance artist Danilo Maldonado Machado, also known as El Sexto. Timing the plea to coincide with the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly and naming Maldonado a “prisoner of conscience,” the human rights organization’s Americas Deputy Director for Research Carolina Jiménez said Maldonado’s detention “shows … that while Raúl Castro shakes hands with the world in his historic visit to the USA, things have hardly changed in Cuba, where people are still being thrown in jail solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression.”
Maldonado was detained by Cuban state police on December 25, 2014, after he was observed putting two pigs in the trunk of a taxi. Two familiar names were spray-painted on the sides of the pigs: Fidel and Raúl. Maldonado had planned to use the pigs in a performance art piece scheduled for the next day, when he would release the animals in Havana’s Parque Central, recreating a rural childhood game in which children try to catch greased pigs.
After his arrest, Maldonado spent about a week being transferred between two Havana police stations, including Vivac de Calabazar, where several other people were being held for “conspiring” to participate in another performance art piece: one scheduled by Tania Bruguera for the Plaza of the Revolution on December 30. From this police station, Maldonado was transferred to the maximum-security Valle Grande Prison just outside Havana, where, he later reported, authorities “took blood samples for the lab, shaved my head and beard. They also photographed me.” Maldonado said he also had pneumonia and did not receive treatment for the illness.
In the nine months since his arrest, Maldonado has not gained the kind of global clamor for release as Bruguera, whose repeated detentions by Cuban authorities have attracted the attention and advocacy of some of New York’s most prominent art world figures, including the city’s commissioner of cultural affairs, Tom Finkelpearl, and directors and curators of the Museum of Modern Art and Queens Museum. This despite the fact that Bruguera herself has attempted to expand awareness of Maldonado’s detention, interviewing him at Valle Grande in April 2015 and distributing a video of the interview via YouTube, as well as writing a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, pleading for his intervention.
Conner Gorry, a journalist who has been based in Havana since 2002, supposes that one of the reasons why Maldonado’s case hasn’t attracted much attention — at least on the island — is because, in spite of the much-lauded changes in US–Cuba foreign policy, the average Cuban continues to face day-to-day challenges that are more pressing and personal. “El Sexto is irrelevant to the majority of Cubans,” she says, because they are “more concerned with putting food on the table.”
But Maldonado is part of a generation of Cuban artists whose work has attracted quite a bit of attention abroad, particularly from Cuban-Americans and human rights groups that aim to leverage such artistic dissent to advance their agendas. Projects like Maldonado’s “El Avioncito,” a flyer printed with instructions for making an origami plane emblazoned with the word “libertad” (“freedom”), and his “New Cuban Flag,” a work Maldonado described as “an alternative Cuban flag in response to the misappropriation of the Cuban flag from the Castro regime,” are easily understandable to any audience. They can be be readily shared and reproduced, becoming artistic synecdoches for freedom.
Certain individuals and groups have taken notice of not only Maldonado’s work but his plight. He was awarded the 2015 International Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent by the New York–based Human Rights Foundation in absentia this past May, and US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American known for her conservative, anti-Castro politics, has been tweeting about Maldonado’s incarceration and calling for his release. Maldonado, for his part, has attempted to keep up the pressure through his own actions, including a hunger strike that started on September 8 and ended yesterday, and a “farewell letter,” translated into a somewhat awkward English version and published on September 16 by the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba. Friends, family members, and prominent bloggers have been advocating for Maldonado’s release as well, even publishing an open letter to Pope Francis, prior to his Cuba visit, asking for his intervention. (There is no evidence that the Pope met with Maldonado or advocated for his release.)
As of today, a Causes.com petition calling for Maldonado’s freedom has garnered more than 1,500 signatures, but he remains incarcerated, with no court or release date imminent. His recent letter suggests that he is accepting of a dark, potential fate: “I am proud of being the artist that I am and make art that I do with the Cuba that I represent,” he wrote. “So I am willing to give my life a hundred times if necessary. … I am with faith and conviction: Liberty or death, dying for art is living.”