Artists Gather in Cuba

The prestigious Havana Biennial is a showcase of Caribbean and Latin American art

‘Accused/Blowtorch': a cry of anger from American artist Pat Ward Williams. Photograph by Christopher CozierChris Cozier’s installation Blue Soap used competing video screens, actors and a dramatic graphic to make a powerful statement about the relationship between development and violence. Photograph by Christopher CozierIn Old Havana. Photograph by Christopher CozierIndonesian artist Ernst Varkevissar’s Sobre los Origenes. Photograph by Christopher CozierNew York-based Venezuelan artist Elba Damast created a house made out of national flags, containing samples of dirt labelled with countries names. Photograph by Christopher CozierOfeila Rodriguez, a London-based Colombian artist, contributed Caja Magica Paseadora con Mujer Sufrida (Mobile Magic Box with Suffering Woman). Photograph by Christopher CozierOld Havana, from the Morro castle. Photograph by Christopher CozierRas Akyemi Ramsay’s Mamon was one of the submissions from Barbados. Photograph by Christopher CozierRegata (Regatta) by the Cuban artist Alexis Leyva, made its own sad statement about migration. Photograph by Christopher CozierThe celebrated Columbian Gabriel Garcia Marquez was one of the many visitors to the Havana Biennial. He is seen here in a chance encounter with Aruba’s Auda Marquez (left) and Trinidad and Tobago’s Chris CozierThe Sisters, by American-based Jamaican artist Albert Chong. Photograph by Christopher Cozier

In the United States they have pop culture and Madonna, in the Caribbean we have Fidel and Bob Marley. Several of my friends: born in the late fifties, were named Fidel or Che, regardless of the political affiliation of their parents.

Going to Cuba is still a big adventure. As one friend told me: “Wait till you see the plane – it so old, it have curtains over the windows.” Sitting in the old Avro that did the crossing from Kingston was like being in a blender. When the food trays appeared, Ishi Butcher, a rastafarian artist from Barbados, looked at the food in dismay, pushing it aside, and said: “Dem Spanish, bare pork, man.”

But to be selected to take part in the Havana Biennial is a major opportunity for any young artist, quite apart from the excitement of visiting Cuba.

The Havana Biennial was established almost a decade ago as an alternative to the mainstream international art events such as the Venice Biennial. At many of these exhibitions, art from Latin America and the Caribbean was perceived as underdeveloped, of minor interest. The term “regional art” was disparagingly applied.

The Havana exhibition set out to show the seriousness and sophistication of Latin American and Caribbean art. It sought to establish the region as a force in its own right within the international community, not as something to be humoured but as an equal partner.

Some see it as a “third world” event, making links between people from societies who share similar challenges: it focuses on artists from Asia, Africa and the Middle East as well as from Latin America and the Caribbean, whether living at home or in exile. Holland, for example, was represented by artists from the Cameroons and Indonesia, the United States by African American, Hispanic and Asian artists, and some Latin American countries by artists living in Europe.

The Biennial points to where Caribbean art is moving. In the last few years, for example, “multiculturalism” has gained currency in official art jargon. It is a new trend for writers and curators in the United States and Europe, but it is our perpetual reality, and the Havana exhibition has helped to put it on the world may.

As the Havana Biennial has grown and become better established, and as Cuba’s economic circumstances have made it more difficult to host, attention has also begun to shift towards a new art environment driven by global market trends. There seems to be a greater inclination towards packaging. Art trends function like a real estate boom: a context, a location, some figureheads, and then come the collectors.

For example, the German art collector Peter Ludwig, one of the most influential in today’s art world, toured the exhibition with a team from the Ludwig Forum, planning to stage a smaller version of it in Germany: artists were running around nervously asking each other whether Ludwig had turned on his voice recorder during anyone’s interview, this being taken as a sign of interest. Ludwig’s exhibit, to be mounted in Aachen, is expected to be an important step forward for the Cuban organisers and the selected artists.

This year’s Biennial, which opened in May, was organised by the Wifredo Lam Centre in Havana in collaboration with an array of other organisations. In 17 venues, most of them in the historic quarter of Old Havana, more than 200 artists from about 50 countries were on display. The exhibitions focused on a wide range of issues: the human and physical environment, migration, marginalisation, media consumerism, the folk spirit, dreams and Utopia. The city hummed with workshops and round-table discussions about identity, the influence of the international art market, how collections are built, critical perspectives arising out of the diversity of artistic experience.

You could spend days moving from Castillo del Morro to Fortaleza de la Cabaña and the other sites trying to see all the work displayed in these massive buildings. There were also fringe exhibits around the city; most artists had crowded schedules trying to attend seminars while looking at the work on display and meeting other artists.

In the light of Cuba’s own economic crisis, everyone kept asking how the Cubans could afford to host this event. How could they feel so committed under the circumstances? One Colombian artist, amazed at the scale of the event compared with the harsh life surrounding it in Cuba, could only conclude that the Cubans are a nation of idealists.

She may be right. The Biennial has helped create a situation where regional art can demand serious international attention. The number of museum curators and critics present this year was evidence that this is happening.

My first day in Havana, I realised I was a long way from the 19th-century perceptions which still dominate so much of our artistic climate. What passes for art in most of today’s Caribbean states was being called into question. There was little painting or drawing that attempted to stand on its own. There was little interest in abstraction, a lot of figuration, but most traditional skills justified their presence only as part of some larger presentation. What is marketed in the galleries of most Caribbean islands could be haggled for in the streets outside the exhibition sites.

For example, Paisaje by Carlos Uribe, a 29-year-old Colombian artist, was a floor installation consisting of old wooden boxes or trays containing corn, beans, soil and oil. Instead of rendering the landscape in traditional forms, it tried to symbolise the history of our relation to it through what we extract from it. Except for Jamaica, there is little incentive to work like this in the English-speaking islands, and there are few locations that can accommodate even a modest installation of this sort.

In the same exhibition hall was Ay Patria Mia, a wall installation by Daniel Ontiveros, a 30-year-old Argentinian artist. It was an ironic patriotic statement using cheap forms of popular decoration, creating for example sun flowers whose petals bore the names of people who had disappeared. Ofelia Rodriguez of Colombia offered a piece called Caja magica paseadora con mujer sufrida, which displayed a similar interest in popular artefacts such as cheap plastic dolls to make statements about the artist’s world.

Artists working in environments like ours have a growing interest in creating work from consumer items normally excluded from “high culture”. It’s a form of vernacular. When these images are used alongside images from the mass media, a visual syntax is created that speaks about the lives and experiences of everyday people.

Some works tried to bridge the gap between these forms and the western mainstream. Annalee Davis of Barbados submitted an installation that spoke of reconciling class and race issues and how they affect communication and cooperation. Large leaf-shaped paintings were suspended from the ceiling along with components like ceramic pots and portraits painted on glass; on the reverse of each image were quotes from well known writers and critics.

It is not that “information art”, with its photo/text sermonising, has finally infected the metropolitan periphery. It is simply that the strategies of mass media are finally being exploited to present a “case”.

In the Museum of the Revolution, for example (the “clothes museum”, as some Cubans call it), garments, weapons and souvenirs of national heroes are displayed next to photo documentation of the historical moment when they were used. A speaker’s shoes and microphone from a historic rally are laid out on red cloth in a glass case: it could be a post-modern installation at a New York gallery.

Some participants lamented that the methods of presentation reflected a western European model, and wondered if the exhibition should not have its own distinctive approach. Others retorted that if something happens in New York, it is no more valid than if it happens in Havana, Caracas or Bridgetown.

These issues were not in contention for all the work in Havana. Alida Martinet from Aruba displayed a series of boxes which were containers for a range of personal reflections about spirituality and folk sayings. They became a meeting point between personal and cultural archeology. Stan Kuiperi, also from Aruba, produced highly ordered arenas of texture, colour, gesture and found objects such as bones and feathers, functioning like shamanistic reconstructions of the landscape. So it’s not that painting is totally on the wane. Kuiperi’s work and the, urban rasta iconography of Ras Aykemi and Ishi Butcher of Barbados were not lacking in impact.

Caribbean artists really need to make a stronger showing at these big art events. Aruba seems to be very aware of this: it had more artists and works on show than the much bigger islands of Trinidad and Barbados combined. Even Jamaica was not well represented.

Most people responded to my own installation Blue Soap by asking where I was from. When I said Trinidad, they assumed I must be living in London or New York. It was intended as a compliment, but it betrayed low expectations: how could someone living in the islands be doing this sort of work?

But there is obviously a change taking place in the Eastern Caribbean. New names are coming into focus, new ways of taking on the challenge and expressing oneself visually. Obviously the Cubans wanted work that engaged social and formal challenges rather than placid or decorative work.

As one Cuban critic said, there is a new sensibility taking shape in the Caribbean, and the Cubans are confident that they are getting closer to it.