In December 2014 Presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama announced warming diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, having numerous consequences in the two years since. While far from comprehensive or perfect, the bilateral efforts launched after nearly six decades of strain have had real-life impacts in policy and daily life, ranging from air travel to improving internet access.
The fruits of cooperation have been felt profoundly in arts communities on both sides of the Straits, especially in Havana and New York City. A flurry of creative collaborations between these two cities quickly came together following the announcement and promised audiences access to exceptional performances and exhibits: contemporary dance, jazz, and even natural history. The visual arts were poised to enjoy particular delights, with a career retrospective for Carmen Herrera at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Harlem/Havana photography and art exhibit at Harlem Hospital (part of the larger Harlem/Havana Music & Cultural Festival), and, most ambitious, the Wild Noise/Ruido Salvaje binational program planned between the Bronx Museum of the Arts and the National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana.
Wild Noise/Ruido Salvaje was without peer in its reach. The National Museum of Fine Arts described the goal of the collaboration as “sharing parts of our respective collections, offering educational workshops for young people, co-curating our exhibits, offering an agenda of public programming, and fostering the creation of new work through in situ intervention with two young artists.” An exhibition by the same name opened in Havana in 2015 and featured more than 90 works by more than 50 artists drawn from the Bronx Museum’s permanent collection. From there, it was intended that the exhibit would arrive in the Bronx, bringing work from Cuba to the US. Then, news published earlier this week indicated that the plan had been nixed after the National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana declined to send any work for the Bronx show.
Bronx Museum representatives explained to Hyperallergic that the abrupt change was not a unilateral decision on the part of the Cuban museum. “Though the next phase had been planned as a loan show, the museums mutually decided not to pursue that at this point,” they wrote via email — this despite the fact that the Department of State approved in December 2016 the Immunity from Seizure application the Bronx Museum had filed, which it said, is “common practice . . . when requesting loans of works of art from foreign museums.” The New York Times surmised that the decision was reached because of fears that “state-owned art works from Cuba could be in danger of being seized while in the United States to satisfy legal claims by Americans whose property was confiscated in Cuba after Fidel Castro took power in 1959.”
But for Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, whose 10-minute video “Cabeza Abajo/Head Down” was slated to be part of the Bronx show, the news of the latest bump in the road for Wild Noise was really the last straw. Angered by what she already viewed as Bronx Museum Director Holly Block’s attempt to parlay her fascination with Cuba into an attempt to become an “important person” in the world of Cuban art by endearing herself to the Cuban government, Bruguera fired off an email to Block, telling the director to withdraw “Cabeza Abajo/Head Down” from Wild Noise, which the museum says it still intends to open on February 17. “In place of the loan exhibition,” the Bronx Museum said by email, it will display “an exploration of contemporary Cuban art from the 1970s to the present that looks at how Cuban artists both on the island and abroad have grappled with issues of identity, community, and the urban experience.”
“I have to say I owe Holly a lot,” Bruguera said earlier today to a handful of reporters convened for a press conference at the base of the Central Park statue of José Martí, a 19th-century Cuban nationalist patriot (who, coincidentally, was born in Havana 164 years ago tomorrow). But, she added vehemently, “I think she has neglected to tell the whole story. She tells the official story of the government. She does not acknowledge her complicity with the censorship of Cuban artists in Cuba. She has never even tried to meet with them.” Notably, on January 12, Bruguera was detained by Cuban police while trying to deliver relief supplies to survivors of the October 2016 hurricane that leveled the town of Baracoa.
Bruguera’s request to withdraw “Cabeza Abajo/Head Down,” which the museum acquired as a gift of R. Douglass Rice and Cynthia Elliott in 2000, was not indicative of a personal beef with Block, she said, but a moral one. “There is a long tradition of artists withdrawing art [from exhibits] for moral reasons,” she said in a voice that was raspy with cold. Wild Noise is little more than a “vanity project” she said. She also condemned the Bronx Museum’s initiative, concurrent with Wild Noise, to create and gift a $2.5 million replica of the very Martí statue beneath which she and the press convened, deeming it an insult to both the museum’s Bronx patrons and to Cubans. “The Bronx Museum of Arts should be taking care of its own community,” she asserted, rather than fundraising and spending money on an “immoral goodwill gesture” that’s hardly needed: “Cuba has more than enough Martí statues,” she continued. “Instead, why not take that $2.5 million and apply it toward disaster relief? People in Baracoa are suffering … The people-to-people gesture should be a $2.5 million donation to Baracoa, not another Martí statue.”
Bronx Museum representatives pointed out that the statue is an initiative separate from Wild Noise — and one, it’s worth noting, that has also been the focus of severe criticism, even provoking the resignation of multiple board members last fall. But for Bruguera, the statue and the exhibit are equivalent symbols of Block’s intransigence and her too-close-for-comfort relationship with Cuban functionaries and, indeed, her desire to shield them from international criticism. Bruguera, who has been arrested by Cuban police on more than one occasion for her “artivism,” contended during today’s press conference that Block attempts to normalize what she views as a dictatorial regime, and that Block has gone so far as to humiliate Bruguera in public, telling other artists that Bruguera was not, in fact, arrested, and grabbing Bruguera’s arms for inspection to see, two weeks after the fact, whether she still had the bruises she claimed to have sustained at the hands of Cuban police. She also claims Block did nothing to ensure her access to the Havana iteration of Wild Noise/Ruido Salvaje (in which her work did not appear), despite Bruguera’s entreaties that Block exert her influence for that end after Bruguera was barred by exhibit security from entering the premises.
Block, for her part, tells Hyperallergic that she and the museum have “long recognized and admired Tania Bruguera’s work,” exhibiting it, presenting programs with her, and recommending her for awards, as well as, obviously, adding “Cabeza Abajo/Head Down” to its permanent collection. And that admiration, Block adds, isn’t just from this side of the Straits. “The curators from El Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes with whom we are working on the Wild Noise /Ruido Salvaje exhibition selected “Cabeza Abajo” for the exhibition [though it was not shown in Cuba] because of the importance of Tania Bruguera’s work and the role she plays in the history of contemporary Cuban art. [W]e were excited at the prospect of featuring this piece in the exhibition,” Block wrote Hyperallergic via email. “[W]e’re saddened by her request to remove this work from Wild Noise/Ruido Salvaje, but out of respect have done so.”