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Cuban Police Detain Artist Planning Alternative Havana Biennial [UPDATED]

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara was arrested on Monday and accused of “illicit possession of construction materials.”

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The Cuban artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara was detained yesterday and is being held by police in Old Havana, various sources reported. Together with his partner, the art historian and curator Yanelys Nuñez Leyva, Alcántara is one of the leaders of the #00Bienal Havana Biennial, an independent event organized after the National Arts Council and the Wifredo Lam Center postponed the official 13th Havana Biennial until 2019 (the official reason given was damage sustained during Hurricane Irma). The two had planned a press conference, to be held yesterday afternoon, on the topic of the independent biennial.

Alcántara has been accused of being in “illicit possession of construction materials.” Artist and scholar Coco Fusco, in conversation with activists in Havana, told Hyperallergic that his aunt has since visited the police station where he is being held to attest that the materials belong to her. What the offending materials actually are remains unclear.

A video uploaded by the blog 14ymedio shows the moments leading up to Alcántra’s arrest:

Writing on Facebook, Nuñez Leyva (who is reported to also have been questioned, though she is not in custody at present) gave a thorough account of the day’s events, saying that the site of the press conference was searched by police around 3pm on Monday — two hours before the conference was due to start — and  that the search had continued after Alcántara had been taken, without resisting, to the police station. She also said that the police told her it was not a political matter and that Alcántara would likely be released tomorrow. However, the latest news suggests that he will be taken to the Vivac detention center tonight and a hearing will be held in the Old Havana Municipal Court on Friday, November 10.

According to Diario de Cuba, Nuñez Leyva and Alcántara were also working on a digital project called “The Museum of Dissidence in Cuba,” in which Cuban icons like the indigenous leader Hatuey and independence martyr José Martí are profiled as dissidents. (The digital institution’s list of subjects also includes Fidel Castro and Oswaldo Payá, one of the current regime’s fiercest and best-known critics, who died in a 2012 car crash that remains shrouded in controversy.)

Last month, announcing the alternative biennial, Alcántara told Diario de Cuba that “the biennial doesn’t belong to the institutions, but to artists; I think it’s the country’s most important cultural event, and that is why we decided to organize it ourselves.”

Update 1, 11/8/2017, 5pm EST: The Cuban artist Tania Bruguera has started an online petition calling for Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara’s release.

Update 2, 11/8/2017, 7pm EST: According to Cuban artist Amaury Pacheco, who has been in contact with Coco Fusco, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara began a hunger strike last night.

Update 3, 11/10/2017, 10am EST: Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara has been released on bail after paying a 1,000 Cuban pesos and following a three-day huger strike.

He told the blog 14ymedio, founded by free-press activist Yoani Sánchez, that he was held in a cell with three people and denied basic hygiene supplies like soap and toothpaste and that the search of his home leading to his arrest was illegal, as he was not permitted to be present for it and he did not consent. According to Alcántara, police told him the charges against him were unrelated to his artistic activism work, which includes most prominently organizing the #00Bienal Havana Biennial. Upon his release, Alcántra told 14ymedio that he plans to go ahead with the biennial and will get back to organizing it once he has recovered.

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