By Elena K. Cruz
Only one month after Cuban artist Tania Bruguera’s exhibition about community action 10,148,451 closed at Tate Modern, the artist is continuing to define what it means to act locally. She continues to protest for her local art community’s rights as Cuba’s 13th Havana Biennial opens 12 April.
Bruguera is one of the many activists publicly opposing Decree 349, Cuba’s new regulation giving the government the right to censor all art, as the biggest arts festival in Cuba goes on to 19 May.
The country’s communist regime first announced it would enforce the law by 7 December. Then said it would reassess its decision, but artist have not heard any word of change since. Artists have continued to see and protest strict restrictions on creativity over the past months instead. Only two days before the Havana Biennial began, the government denied artist Coco Fuso entry into the country. The government had already arrested Cuban artists Bruguera, Yanelys Núñez Leyva and others repeatedly for voicing their desire for a creative society.
The government had also announced the cancellation of this festival’s 13th installment in 2018 after it had delayed the festival in 2016 following destruction by Hurricane Irma. In response, artists protested the cancellation by announcing the 00 Havana Biennial, an alternative festival set up by freelance artists.
Following this controversy, the government renounced the cancellation, and the national festival was set to occur again. Yet, it won’t be a docile celebration. According to Decree 349, the following is banned:a) use of national symbols that contravene current legislation; b) pornography; c) violence; d) sexist, vulgar and obscene language; e) discrimination due to skin color, gender, sexual orientation, disability and any other harm to human dignity; f) that attempts against the development of childhood and adolescence; g) any other that violates the legal provisions that regulate the normal development of our society in cultural matters.
Artists must also gain governmental approval from the Ministry of Culture to host artistic events or sell works.
Many of the artists fighting this loss of artistic freedom are involved in the 13th Havana Biennial, and hey continue to fight by requesting community action across the arts field. Bruguera and others wrote and signed a letter inviting participants in the biennial to act in political solidarity to express their resistance to the law. They asked artists in the festival to wear T-shirts that show their opposition. They also requested that artists discuss their disapproval of the decree when making public appearances.
The Havana Biennial has occurred every two or three years since June 1984. It invites national and international artists to display their work, celebrating Cuban, Latin American and Caribbean art. The Havana Biennial is a commemoration of non-Western culture and vibrancy, and the pride it has instilled in Cuba has continued for decades. It also creates a space to further analyse the tensions between tradition and development, impacts of colonisation and native truths, art and society, and the individual and memory.
“Now there is no way Cuba has independent art.” Bruguera said in an interview with The Guardian. “If you cannot do anything unless the ministry of culture gives you a permit, where is the independent art? It’s non-existent.”
When Bruguera exhibited 10,148,451 at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, she used heat sensing technology and a tear-inducing organic compound to remind viewers about migration, community support and empathy. When people laid on the ground, together their body heat caused an image of a Syrian refugee’s face to appear. When they entered a room, the compound caused them to cry unwillingly. The title of the piece changed as the statistics regarding migration and its dangers increased. Bruguera looked at community presences both within a neighborhood and around the globe.
The 13th Havana Biennial’s theme is “Construction of the Possible” and will welcome more than 200 artists. They come from 15 to 20 countries including Portugal, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, France, Peru and Spain.
The government has already banned many artists from exhibiting at the festival because their art does not oblige with the strict content regulations. The Cuban artists protesting such censorship ask biennial participants to feature artists who were banned.