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Cuban Artists Urge Havana Biennial Participants to Act in Political Solidarity

They ask the biennial participants to feature artists affected by Decree 349, or wear T-shirts opposing the decree during their time in Cuba.

Cuban artists and activists who organized in opposition to Decree 349 (image courtesy Yanelyz Nuñez Leyva)

Over the past 8 months, independent Cuban artists across genres have campaigned in opposition to the government-ordered Decree 349, a law strictly regulating artistic production in the country. Now, many of the Cuban artists actively fighting the decree, including Tania Bruguera, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, and Yanelys Nuñez Leyva, have signed a letter sent to those invited to participate in the upcoming 13th Havana Biennial asking them to act in solidarity with the targeted artists by expressing their opposition to the decree.

Following Hurricane Irma in 2016, the government postponed the 13th Havana Biennial, and in 2018 announced the biennial would be delayed for a second time — this time indefinitely. In protest, independent Cuban artists launched a protest on social media to protest the decision. The artists — many of whom were the same involved in the campaign against 349 — then organized an alternative #00 Havana Biennial — but organizers were accused of “distorting Cuba’s cultural policies.” The Havana Times reported that the Ministry of Culture targeted Cuban participants, threatening to revoke their accreditation to operate as independent artists in the country.

Recently, Havana Biennial organizers announced plans to reinstate the biennial for spring of 2019, isolating many of the organizers of the #00Biennial, most of whom were also vocal campaigners against Decree 349.

In their letter to artists invited to the upcoming biennial, the artists wrote:

As you may know, over the past eight months, a protest movement has emerged among artists from all disciplines to address a new law that recently went into effect, known as Decree 349. This law criminalizes independent artistic activity and gives art inspectors the right to impose a fine or subject artists to asset forfeiture as a penalty for presenting work without authorization from the state. The Cuban government created the law without consulting its arts community.

The decree, signed by newly instated President Miguel Díaz-Canel in April and published in the Gaceta Oficial de la República de Cuba on July 10, essentially grants the Cuban Republic complete control over independent artistic production in the private sector. To host artistic events or sell work, artists must gain approval from the Ministry of Culture and oblige to a strict set of guidelines.

Days before the law was set to go into effect on December 7, the government promised to curtail the law following international attention — including a protest at Tate Modern and public disapproval of the decree by Amnesty International.

Vice Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas told Associated Press that the government had insufficiently explained their motivations and goals for Decree 349. “There wasn’t an advance explanation of the law and that’s one of the reasons for the controversy that it unleashed,” Rojas told AP, explaining that more exact regulations will be published in the near future, but that “artistic creation is not the target.”

However, the artists say, “We have not received any further information about those regulations as yet.” They contend, “All that we ask is that you find ways to include the artists who are going to be marginalized due to the decree in your experience of the biennial.”

“A small gesture of solidarity goes very far in Cuba, particularly in the arts […] As members of a global art community we are all interconnected,” they explain. They suggested a number of possibilities, writing:

You can invite one of the artists affected by the decree 349 to work with you during your presentation at the Havana Bienal; or you can share part of your exhibition space or stage if you are participating in a public event. You can wear “No to Decree 349” T shirts while in Cuba to show support for our cause. You can visit us in our home studios to learn more about our efforts.

In August, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara told Hyperallergic, “For government systems, it is impossible to control art, because it is capable of being born of the most unexpected places and situations. In these moments of such fragility and therefore repression, art is a very powerful weapon and the system knows it.”

Yanelys Núñez Leyva told Hyperallergic that artists have historically been leaders of change, but “with access to the internet, the change in president, the deep economic crisis, the support of independent journalism, the collaboration between artists, [and more] have converted it into an even greater threat.”

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