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The inauguration of the alternative Havana biennial, #00Bienal de La Habana. Photo: Armando Ibarra / @aibarra.

Cuba Detains Artists, Threatens Participants of First Alternative Havana Biennial

The #00Bienal de La Habana, an independent artist-run exhibition that opened in Havana on Saturday, May 5, is under attack by the authorities. The Cuban government has been working to disrupt the alternative biennial—which was spearheaded by several local artists after the country’s state-backed biennial was canceled because of Hurricane Irma—by threatening artists, detaining participants, and refusing entry to cultural figures trying to attend the exhibition.

Organizers José Ernesto Alonso, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, Yanelys Nuñez Leyva, Iris Ruiz, Yuri Obregon, and Amaury Pacheco knew that the crowdfunded event wouldn’t be supported by the state, which became clear after the police arrested Alcántara only hours before he was supposed to hold a press conference on the exhibition last November. They purposely left foreign participants off of the artist list when they released it last month.

According to the Havana Times, Cuba’s Ministry of Culture targeted artists by informing them that if they participated in the biennial, their accreditation—which allows them to work as independent artists in the country—would be revoked. It also held a meeting with state institutions and arts organizations to bar them from liking #00Bienal-related posts on social media and from exhibiting the work of Alcántara and Nuñez Leyva.

In the days leading up to the event, the National Union of Writers and Artists and the Hermanos Saiz Association issued a scathing statement in which the groups denounced the exhibition and called the funders of the #00Bienal “counterrevolutionary mercenaries” “whose only goal is to discredit the institutional system,” “confuse artists,” and “promote enemy interests here in Cuba.” They also claim that the organizers are trying to mislead artists who have institutional support so that “they use their studios in an attempt to provoke the government.”

In a report written by artist Coco Fusco, who was also denied entry into the country, she writes: “It is hard to believe that a well-oiled machine like the Cuban Ministry of Culture would feel so threatened by its artists that it would stomp out what essentially amounts to a 10-day art party. But that is precisely what is happening.”

Fusco told Lauren Cavalli of artforum.com that the Miami-based artist and curator Gean Moreno was detained by customs agents when he was traveling to the country and was interrogated for about ten hours. Moreno said he was stopped because he was carrying printed materials that featured the biennial’s logo. Invoking article 103 of Cuba’s penal code, the officers confiscated the documents, categorizing them as “enemy propaganda.” Other travelers visiting the country, including a professor who was detained for an extended period, reported that any printed matter they were carrying was carefully examined. 

Fusco explained that “Cuban government officials view independent artistic activity as a threat to their control over their art world.” Despite the authorities’ ongoing campaign to discredit the exhibition and intimidate artists, for Alcántara the biennial is a much-needed platform for Cuban artists. He said, “Not having created an event of this kind would have been non-compliance on our part as the Havana Biennial doesn’t belong to the state, but to us artists.”

[Update:]

On Wednesday, May 9, #00Bienal de La Habana organizer Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara reported that artists who have traveled to Cuba for the exhibition have been threatened with deportation. Spanish artist Diego Gil was already forced to leave after the Office of Immigration informed him that his visa did not permit him to take part in a cultural event. Three foreigners, whose names were not disclosed since they are still currenlty in Cuba, endured similar threats. In addition, Cuban artist Italo Esposito’s professional credentials were taken away by authorities because of his participation.

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