“Fifth Havana Biennial”

Various Venues

Messages, more or less imaginatively purveyed, fanned out all over Havana during the Fifth Biennial, the most ambitious to date in terms of both space and thematic didacticism. Founded in 1984 to offer a view of the visual arts in the so-called third world (which it did admirably, sometimes showing the works of as many as 700 artists from numerous “underdeveloped” regions and continents), in later editions, it increasingly attempted to focus on issues rather than individual works. This Biennial, plagued by woeful circumstances in Cuba, was something of a miracle and something of a defeat: a miracle in that the Havana team feverishly assembled works by more than 200 artists from Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and even the U.S.; a defeat in that the Biennial has clearly joined the international circuit of huge exhibitions and has even been slated for export to Mr. Ludwig’s empire in Germany. Moreover, the thematic basis on which the works were chosen tended to elicit repetitive responses, often of dubious quality.

Aside from the ever-present issue of identity, the creators of this Biennial highlighted six areas of debate that are all too familiar to the readers of scholarly journals: physical environment in the third world; migrations and art; marginalization; media and consumerism; utopia and art; and, the folk soul in art. With such a menu, it is not hard to understand why the exhibition—which spread from the famous fortress, the Morro Castle, and its barracks known as La Cabaña, to the National Museum of Fine Arts, to various specialized galleries, to the Wifredo Lam Center—consisted largely of topical installation art.

Not surprisingly, the splendid colonial fortress overlooking the sea provided artists the most inspiring spaces—huge thick-walled chambers in which they could expand far beyond the usual museum space. The Cuban artist Ricardo Rodriguez Brey (an “older generation” artist though he is not yet 40), who is now part of Cuba’s extensive artistic diaspora, and works in Belgium, took full advantage of the deep space, installing a room full of drawings, sculptures, and wall paintings that formed an ensemble. Rodriguez Brey, whose heritage includes ancestors from Nigeria, has always drawn on the Afro-Cuban tradition of Santería in his work. He is a witty sculptor, a bricoleur who can take a dozen dark baseball caps and create a convincing totemic image, or make a fetish from horse hair and TV antennae, or equip a rusty African musical instrument with earphones and call it Walkman. Among the numerous Latin American entries that made explicit use of local kitsch, his alone achieved the imaginative largesse that attains to art. On the whole the Biennial was very short on wit and humor, although both Helen Escobedo of Mexico, and Tunga of Brazil struck notable notes.

Among those intent on conveying socially and politically trenchant messages only a few succeeded in making their works visually memorable. Two artists from Uruguay were among the most impressive: Nelbia Romero, who calls herself a “social communicator,” composed, with considerable elegance, a subtle installation devoted to the Guarani component of Uruguayan culture and language. Writing words in Guarani and Spanish on the walls, she installed an old schoolroom desk within an earthen frame to suggest a specific cultural ambiance. The younger Jorge Francisco Soto drew on the associations of ex-votos (some of which were authentic Brazilian feet, carved in wood, some of which were sculpted by the artist in terra-cotta), alluding obliquely to Christianity, slavery, and metaphysical angst.

There were 17 artists from South Africa this time, indicating the rapid changes in third world constellations. Here, the cross-fertilization characteristic of most nations, and too often neglected in the zeal to recognize cultural difference, was most evident in the photomontage and collage paintings by Sam Nhlengethwa who has probably taken a good look at the work of the African-American painter Romare Bearden. Trinidadian Christopher Cozier created a video installation on the question of mixed race—under the spell of a quotation from Octavio Paz: “I am a history, a memory inventing itself”—that provided further evidence of the flow of thought superseding cultural and national difference.

Unfortunately, there were not many exhibits that suggested that an individual “I” was at work. Rather, there was a pervasive expression of loss of confidence in individual perceptions, or the power of the singular imagination. Most of the exhibitors, perhaps because of the rhetorical nature of the organizers’ premises, seemed to see themselves as victims of “forces,” whether Wall Street, the West, “the market,” or the circumstances in their own countries. Only a few showed a fighting spirit, and they, like the American Michael Lebron, were forthright pamphleteers fighting those “forces” with homeopathic doses of their own deadly medicines.

Dore Ashton