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Cuba has experienced historic unrest and protests this year. Photo: Alex Graves/Flickr.
Cuba has experienced historic unrest and protests this year. Photo: Alex Graves/Flickr.

Artists Withdraw from Havana Biennial as Boycott Looms

Nearly half a dozen participants have pulled out of this year’s Havana Biennial as a gesture of support for the many artist-activists who remain jailed by the government, Hyperallergic reports. Said to have withdrawn from the state-sponsored event are French-Gabonese multidisciplinary artist Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro, Swiss video artist Ursula Biemann, Cuban painter Aimee Joaristi Argüelles, Colombian curator Maria Belén Saez de Ibarra, and French critic Nicolas Bourriaud.

At the same time, a movement to boycott the biennial is growing. To date, more than four hundred people have signed an open letter, penned by members of Cuban artist-activist group 27N and published October 15 by e-flux, calling for artists and cultural workers to refuse to participate in the exhibition. The missive’s writers cite as among the reasons for the boycott “the injustices being committed by the Cuban government against Cuban cultural workers, and against Cuban citizens who seek to exercise their constitutional rights.” They note that “Cuban artists have been in prison for months. . .dozens of cultural workers are under house arrest, and. . . 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.”

Those currently held include rapper Maykel Castillo Pérez, also known as El Osorbo; artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, a member of the activist San Isidro Movement (MSI) who was forcibly hospitalized after beginning a hunger strike while in detention; and Luis Robles Elizastigui, who was detained for holding up a homemade cardboard sign in support of freedom and pleading for the release of rapper Denis Solis, convicted in 2020 on charges of flouting Decree 349, a rule requiring artists to obtain government approval before publicly presenting their work.

Cuba has experienced historic unrest and protests this year, with thousands flooding the streets of Havana this past summer to protest the nation’s government headed by President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who took office in 2018 and in 2021 succeeded Raul Castro as head of the country’s long-ruling Communist Party. Demonstrators, decrying a fractured economy, have demanded access to food and health care; additionally, groups such as 27N and MSI have since last year been protesting the increasing restriction of speech, as embodied by the implementation of Decree 349. Further adding fuel to the fire is the government’s stipulation earlier this year that fields such as journalism and cultural programming remain under government control.

Among those who have signed the call to arms is Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, a member of 27N who was multiply detained before finally agreeing to leave the country in exchange for the government’s freeing a number of detainees. Among these was artist Hamlet Lavastida, who was freed in late September after being held for three months. Lavastida was subsequently exiled to Poland along with his girlfriend, writer Katherine Bisquet. Lavastida and Bisquet were also among the signatories, as were Cuban artists Coco Fusco and Tomas Sánchez, who, like Bruguera, have participated in previous iterations of the Havana Biennial. International figures including author Junot Díaz, curator Helen Molesworth, and artist Theaster Gates also joined in the cri de coeur.

The biennial is scheduled to launch on November 15, the same day Cuba opens to vaccinated visitors.

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