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Cuban Artists Plan to Stage Alternative Havana Biennial

Cuban artist Italo Esposito, a participant of the "00Biennial", walks in his home next to his work in Havana, Cuba, May 2, 2018.
Cuban artist Italo Esposito, a participant of the "00Biennial", walks in his home next to his work in Havana, Cuba, May 2, 2018.

A group of Cuban artists plans on Saturday to launch a biennial independent of state institutions on the Communist-run island, despite fierce opposition from the government, which has called it a "provocative maneuver."

Organizer Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara said he came up with the idea of the "00Biennial" when the government postponed the official one by a year to 2019, saying it had to prioritize funds on rebuilding after Hurricane Irma.

His project is controversial in a country where the state dominates all aspects of society, including culture, which it has promoted heavily since Cuba's leftist 1959 revolution. Many Cuban artists told Otero Alcantara they fear their careers could be affected if they participate, he said.

Still, more than 100 artists, including several foreign ones, have agreed to participate and will display their work in the independent studios that have flourished in Havana in recent years, said Otero Alcantara.

That so many Cuban artists are backing the 00Biennial reflects both the eagerness of those already working outside institutions for an alternative platform and the increasing independence of others.

The growth in tourism, the private sector and internet access has made it easier for them to gain visibility and make money.

"I would like... to break with the myth built over 60 years that to do something independent, separate from the state, is the devil, or counterrevolution," said Otero Alcantara.

Cuba's National Union of Writers and Artists issued a statement on Thursday saying the 00Biennial aimed to "create a climate propitious to promoting the interests of the enemies of the nation" using "funds of the mercenary counter-revolution.

"We will not allow the name and significance of the Biennale of Havana to be tarnished," it said.

Cuba's longtime foe, the United States, has in the past provided funds to promote its alternative arts scene like rap as part of efforts to foster democracy on the island.

Otero Alcantara said he aimed for the 00Biennial to be inclusive and non-political.

But Jorge Fernandez, head of Cuba's Museum of Fine Arts and director of the last official biennial, said that was either naive or disingenuous.

"Unfortunately, everything that is done in Cuba is politicized," he said, standing in front of a vibrant work by Cuban surrealist Wifredo Lam inside the museum. "Even if they are not trying to, it can be done from abroad."

The most famous participant is set to be Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera, who works in both Havana and New York and won the Tate Modern's coveted commission for the Turbine Hall this year.

She has had several run-ins with Cuban authorities over works testing the boundaries of freedom of expression, although she still has pieces exhibited on the island. In 2015, she set up an "Institute of Artivism" in her Havana home, holding workshops to "foster civic literacy and policy change."

Foreign artists said they had not been aware of the controversy surrounding the 00Biennial when they applied to participate.

"I just thought - this is a way to show my work," said Diego Gil Moreno de Mora, who plans to hang rows of skinned pig heads representing the people society chooses as scapegoats.

Given the 00Biennial's meager funds, raised mainly through crowdfunding, according to organizers, participants were told they would have to finance their own flights and accommodations, and should present a work they could easily create on site.

One reason for this, they later learned, was that their work risked being confiscated by customs officials at the airport.

Colombian artist Natalia Lopez arrived early to create thousands of cubes of dirt in Havana's parks for an installation in which visitors would walk on them, turning them once more into part of the earth.

The underlying concept was the importance of the earth as a whole rather than divided into territories, she said.

Some artists operating outside Cuban state institutions, like Osvaldo Navarro, part of the rap group La Alianza, said there was a need for alternative platforms.

He chose to leave the state-run Cuban Rap Agency a few years ago to be more free with his lyrics, but struggled to reach his public due to the state monopoly on the media and spaces.

"I hope they understand what we want to do," said Navarro, after filming a video for a rap song about the 00Biennial on a Havana rooftop, "which is to showcase artists who don't have a space elsewhere but who do good, pro-social art."

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