I have never felt I more fully embodied the role of “cultural tourist” than when I visited the 11th Havana Biennial for its opening week. This year’s theme, “Artist Practices and Social Imaginaries,” gave the biennial cause to embrace sprawl: exhibitions, installations, performances and events are scattered throughout Havana. Exhibition spaces range from the established and expected — for instance, the Wifredo Lam Contemporary Art Center, which organized the biennial — to the historic and the ephemeral.
The curatorial statement for this year’s edition focuses on “the role of art in the transformation of objects and as catalyst of social subjects.” Before I left, I explained the theme to friends as “socially based practice, more or less” and left it at that. Now that I’ve returned, however, I find myself speaking of my understanding of the biennial as very much inseparable from my experiences navigating its sites within the city. The point of the somewhat nebulous “social imaginary” seems to be how social and physical interactions, in my case defined by my status as a foreigner, ultimately color visitors’ perceptions of the artwork they see.
At least, that was what it felt like for me, this being both my first trip to Cuba and my first visit to a large-scale international biennial outside of New York. I was one of the few Americans not there as part of a larger tour group and thus free to create my own itinerary, for better or for worse. I spent much of my time in the tourist magnet Habana Vieja, the recently restored section of the city, with blue colonial architectural embellishments and cobblestone plazas. The area holds many of Havana’s top historic and civic sites — the kind of places I would likely be visiting even if many of the biennial’s exhibition spaces weren’t also situated there. The primary exposition halls — the Great Theater of Havana, which displayed international artists, and the Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña, which displayed Cuban work — boast foreboding historical presences and impressive vistas. A large number museums, galleries, collaborative artist workshops and art schools across the city also host group exhibitions for the biennial.
My fellow biennial visitors ranged from the easily spotted international tourists, wearing tote bags and name tags and speaking in languages other than Spanish, to locals laughing with their families and friends. As an African-American with some conversational Spanish skills, I occupied an ambiguous identity, sometimes confused for an Afro-Cuban, other times implored to buy a souvenir. I could be an unnoticed fly on the wall one moment and then instantly recognized as out of place, like the buzz of an indoor mosquito, the next. I felt as though my status shared the qualities of the biennial’s installations, in some instances belonging to the moment and surroundings and in others clearly functioning as a cog in Cuba’s tenaciously growing, if politically duplicitous, tourist economy.
A sense of discovery and serendipity pervaded, given the sizable number of one-off happenings and installations strewn about the city. On my way to lunch or taking in a view of the sea from the sidewalks of the Malecón, I stumbled upon street installations of sculptures or murals, usually marked by the biennial’s red “11” logo. I could get lost and miss a scheduled performance but end up exploring an unexpected exhibition of collages in a hotel café where I stopped to get a drink. Emblazoned in Spanish on biennial-sanctioned pedicabs was the motto, “If it’s not coincidence, it’s not contemporary.” When you’re a tourist, sometimes everything feels like a coincidence, even if you know better.
The Havana Biennial is on view in Havana, Cuba, through June 11.