At least five participants of this year’s Havana Biennial have withdrawn from the state-sponsored show, the country’s largest visual arts event, in solidarity with the hundreds imprisoned and persecuted by the Cuban regime. Artists Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro, Ursula Biemann, and Aimee Joaristi Argüelles, as well as curator Maria Belén Saez de Ibarra and critic Nicolas Bourriaud, said they will no longer exhibit their work or contribute to biennial programming.
Their withdrawal comes as an open letter calling for a boycott of the show, published last week in e-flux, has gathered over 400 signatures and counting. Among the signatories are prominent cultural figures based outside of Cuba, such as Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, Theaster Gates, Pablo Helguera, Luis Pérez-Oramas, and Laura Raicovich; as well as Cuban artists who have participated in previous editions, including Tania Bruguera, Coco Fusco, and Tomas Sánchez.
“Some might find it surprising or even shocking that we would reject the most important art event in our country — an event that has given so many Cuban artists the opportunity to share their art with the rest of the world,” says the letter, written by a group of Cuban arts workers associated with the 27N Movement for human rights and freedom of expression on the island.
“We say NO to the 14th Havana Biennial because Cuban artists have been in prison for months, because dozens of cultural workers are under house arrest, and because over 1,000 of our fellow citizens were arrested during the mass protests that took place on July 11. Of those arrested, more than 500 Cubans are still in jail, among them several minors,” they continue.
The 14th edition of the show, titled “Futuro y Contemporaneidad” (“Future and Contemporaneity”) is slated to open November 12 and run in three separate installments through April 22. Organized by the government-supported Wifredo Lam Center of Contemporary Art since 1984, the show has been beset by controversy on previous occasions. In 2015, several artists called for a boycott as an act of protest after Bruguera was arrested for planning a performance piece about freedom of speech in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución. Two years later, when the 2017 edition was postponed because of Hurricane Irma, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Yanelys Núñez organized the first non-official “Alternative Biennial.”
This time, a boycott is the only option, Bruguera said in an interview with Hyperallergic. The artist and activist recently agreed to leave the country in exchange for the release of 25 prisoners, including Hamlet Lavastida, detained for their participation in anti-government demonstrations this summer, which were the largest on the island in decades. But Otero Alcántara and many others remain behind bars.
“I think it’s important not to participate because the Cuban people rose up on July 11 to demand their rights, and they have been thrown in prison and threatened. I don’t think it’s ethical to pretend that nothing is happening like we have for the last 62 years,” Bruguera said. “What we did before also no longer works: we organized parallel, independent exhibitions; we tried creating critical works and showing them at the biennial, and that didn’t work either. All that’s left is a boycott.”
“Decree 349, which basically legalized censorship in Cuba, is still in effect. Decree 370, which controls communications on social media, is also in effect, as is Decree 35. What they’re doing is muzzling the people,” she continued. “We cannot pretend we do not know anymore.”
The Havana Biennial’s organizers have not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment. Its media accounts include several publications in defense of the show, including a Facebook post referencing the boycott that says participating in the show is “an act of courage.”
Biemann, a Swiss video artist invited to the biennial, told Wifredo Lam Center curator and Havana Biennial director Lisset Alonso Compte that she and Saez de Ibarra “do not wish to support an institution linked to repressive cultural measures.” Compte responded understandingly but said that the boycott “asked people to take sides,” Biemann told Hyperallergic.
“With social media, artists and intellectuals have more power and influence now and this can help build a more bottom-up society,” Biemann replied to Compte. “And yes, I would side with them every time.”