Curating Memories and Shaping Minds, the Museum as a Commissar

Diluted in a repressive and demagogic context, the XIII Biennial of Havana concluded in May 2019.[1] As part of the Biennial, the National Museum of Fine Arts opened a mega-exhibition titled The Infinite Possibility. ToThink about the Nation in the Cuban Art building. It was the largest exhibition organized for the XIII Biennale of Havana, which is a major art event the island, sponsored by public institutions.  The Biennale always attracts a large foreign attendance that becomes the target of the official narrative and propaganda of the government, as is evident in this show. The Biennale is characterized by its prestige, recognized among national and international artists and the public. It has an important legitimizing power for Cuban artists (particularly young artists), because to be invited is an important recognition, and opens many doors in both Cuba and abroad. However, critics and curators have noticed and regretted the lack of vigor and low quality of more recent editions of the Biennale, as well as the manipulation of events in order to project a progressive and open image of Cuban culture — ostensibly far from reality when one takes in account the repression of independent artists[2] and art spaces.[3]

Official art institutions, limited by the cultural policies implemented by the Ministry of Culture, have lost efficacy and credibility. Instead new independent and alternative initiatives are emerging[4]. Independent exhibition and curatorial projects, spaces for intellectual debate, and private galleries have enriched and diversified the art panorama. They have challenged the restrictions of legal uncertainty and punitive measures such as fines, prohibitions, police interrogatories and arbitrary detentions. Taking advantage of the high turnout generated by the Biennale, these initiatives present the result of their work, either by joining the official program as collateral shows or while completely detached from the event.

Institutionally, the National Museum of Fine Arts[5]has the privilege and responsibility of setting the interpretative pattern of Cuban art and visual imagery. However, in the political crisis milieu, the museum’s actions have been characterized by the enactment of the sadly notorious 349 decree, introduced in 2018.[6] The decree regulates art production and consumption, triggering recrudescence censorship. Through these practices, the Museum exploits its legitimizing voice to join the unavoidable controversy concerning the nation’s values and, regretfully, it does so with manifest adherence to the regime’s ideology.

The importance of the Museum means it is central to every edition of the Havana Biennale. In every edition it opens an exhibition with relevant national artists in The Cuban Art Building. However, this year the appearance was different: besides showing revered artists in its transitory rooms, the Museum also utilized its collection and permanent rooms for the enormous curatorial project. Disregarding the qualities and characteristics of individual pieces, the curatorial narrative explicitly affirmed the social, political, and economic model implemented in Cuba since 1959. This narrative is particularly urgent in the current context, of tensions with the United States, recrudescence of censorship and repression, and the imposition of a new president by the military and political caste that has ruled the country for sixty years.

Despite the grandeur of the title The Infinite Possibility. To Think about the Nation, I state that I could not find in this vast exhibition, scattered through a whole floor of the building, a single original idea on the topic. Instead, the same superficial and stale reading, like in a school textbook, common to official “criticism” and an “ideologically correct” academic environment.

The so-called revolutionary triumph, led by Fidel Castro in 1959, signaled a tragic swerving of political and historical traditions inspired by the ideals of liberty, justice, and democracy. Few years later, the promise of making Cuba a role model of these values ended in catastrophe. This has been made evident by socio-economic conditions: the cyclical migratory crisis; economic precariousness; demographic decline; centralized single-party politics; suffocating institutional control over the most varied features of daily life and the consequent deformation of mentalities.[7]

In some intellectual circles, the recurrence of ambiguous concepts such  as “utopia,” “project,” “possibility”[8], which were explicit in the title and subtitles of this exhibition[9]—and the almost superstitious aversion to other terms like “dictatorship,” “totalitarianism,” or “censorship,” has operated, in the best scenario, as consolation and an excuse for the sixty-year long failure. At the same time, these choices protract the expectations, promises and illusions of a project—the socialist one proposed by Castro´s regime—that hasn’t achieved its definitive shape.

In an essay titled “Why Not Imagine Totalitarianism?” the intellectual and artist Henry Eric Hernández contends that


if we stop on the art´s parcel, and specifically on its most exhaustive and prudent critic narrative, we see that—unlike other areas and disciplines of Cuban studies—it still debates the artistic ambit around the term utopia, never in relation to totalitarianism.

Hernández explains that


the art critics make of utopia one of its cardinal figures. Utopia would serve to quilt the desire of answering to power and protect oneself of it, and doubtlessly, to accommodate the previously mentioned dialogue with every manager, curator, researcher, functionary, critic, prestigious collector or occasional buyers, who arrived from abroad (…) Such is the case that, the avalanche of international exhibitions that Cuban art has experienced in the last five years, its critical and curatorial correlate has recycled, in a generalized way and lack temporality, the same discussion apropos of utopia.



He gives some examples:


… in 2011 Rachel Weiss published the book To and from Utopia in the New Cuban Art, and more recently, in 2016 AICA (International Association of Art Critics) hold their Congress in Havana, where the central topic was utopia, in 2017 the Cisneros Fontanal Art Foundation organized the exhibition Good bye Utopia. Dreams and Disappointments in the Cuban Art since 1950. Likewise, every now and then, one can read texts in catalogs and in magazine articles about art, even academic ones, dealing with the notion of utopia…[10]

The work of Hernández demonstrates that this manipulation of cultural and artistic criticism, more or less intentionally, contributes to a sort of hegemonic methodology that neutralizes the subversive potential of many works of art.  It dissolves them into conformist, tendentiously romantic discourses. Art and artists portraying a proven and visible ethic — opposed to the official narrative, or just considered uncomfortable under particular circumstances — are usually regarded as vulgar, or conveniently declined or deferred by authorities and bureaucrats of state owned or controlled art institutions. In Cuba, this means practically all legally acknowledged cultural institutions—independent ones do exist, but in the ambiguity of a legal limbo.[11]

I.

The exhibition The Infinite Possibility. To Think about the Nation was divided into four large sections, each dedicated to questions of Cuban nationality, such as collective memory, racial conflicts, and the historic narratives of the nation.

The first section in the exhibition is titled Sugar Island and, according to the curator Corina Matamoros’s text, it aims to evince the central  role sugar production historically played in various spheres of the Cuban state’s existence It has the goal of reiterating  once more, that “Cuban artistic creation has explored our famous manufacture through diverse perspectives for four centuries…”. The show combines works of art — mainly paintings, drawings, and engravings — from the Museum’s permanent collection with emblematic books written on sugar in different periods, and newspapers, posters, pictures, and audiovisual materials. Some of these are on loan from other institutions.

1. Exhibition Sugar Island
Eduardo Laplante (1818-1860): Sugar Mill. The Progress, from the series Sugar Mills, 1855-1857, lithography

This section is divided into three fundamental moments: it begins with a first room dedicated to the symbolic production of the Colonial and Republican periods.[12] For example, it contains 19th century lithographs by French-born artist Eduardo Laplante (1818-1860). (Image 1) Occasionally, it has been reproached to these impeccable, ravishing and detailed engravings, the optimistic or naive foreigner’s idealized and frivolous vision and his unawareness about sugar phenomenon’s darkest interiorities and social consequences. That is, to appraise the artwork with parameters ostensibly distant from its essential motivation: the objective and exquisite recording of the contexts, procedures and technologies involved in sugar manufacturing as well as the existing major Cuban sugar estates, mixing aesthetic, scientific and historic interests. In the same room the exhibition showed how sugar cane has become a pictorial motive, that inspires relevant and dissimilar artists, for example and melancholic, fin-de-siècle Leopoldo Romañach (1862–1951) or avant-garde Wifredo Lam (1902–1982). (Image 2).

2.
Exhibition Sugar Island
Wifredo Lam (1902-1982), Sugar canes, 1955, charcoal and crayons on paper (above); Manigua, undated, crayons on paper (below)

Some works directly announce the political mood of the exhibition such as Marcelo Pogolotti’s (1902–1988) canvases and drawings at the end of this part of the exhibition route. (Image 3) Pogolotti was a painter whose formal and aesthetic preoccupations have often been improperly studied, and his work is considered as relating to one canon: social inequality caused by capitalism. Frequently, as in this show, his art has been used to reaffirm a disapproving narrative about the Republican period (between 1902 and 1958).


3. Exhibition Sugar Island
Marcelo Pogolotti (1902-1988), Cuban landscape, 1933, oil on canvas

During the Republican period, Cuba and the United States of America agreed a “sugar quota” that granted Cuban production a share in the American sugar market. The Cuban economy had relied on sugar production for nearly two hundred years. Large extensions of land dedicated to cane cultivation were owned by national and foreign (mainly American) companies, shaping the so-called latifundium[13]. It was in 1959 that the Cuban Revolutionary government approved the Agrarian Reform Act, pursuing the eradication of the latifundium and the distribution of nationalized land to peasants already attempted in the 1940 Constitution. This was one of the first radical measures implemented by Fidel Castro, and marked the escalation of tensions between the USA and Cuba, that lead to the sugar quota suspension in July 1960, and the breaking-off of diplomatic relations in January 1961. In 1963, a second Agrarian Reform Act, even more radical than the preceding one, was enacted. In relation to these events, there is a second part to the exhibition’s focus on Sugar Island, with pictures, newspaper clippings, fragments of political speeches by Castro, explanatory texts about the Agrarian Reform, and audiovisual material, which tries to impose and legitimate,  one again, the intransigent, triumphal, and demanding revolutionary rhetoric. (Image 4)


4. Exhibition Sugar Island
Newspaper clippings about the Agrarian Reform, 1959 and 1960

The second part of the exhibition’s focus on sugar, presenting the sugar industrial measures introduced after the Revolution. It insists on popular enthusiasm and exaltation about the Revolution in the initial years, but eludes many of the contradictions and complexities of the time, for example that of the second Agrarian Reform Act, which removed large private land ownership from the country, and instead of distributing it among the peasants, transferred more than 70% of arable land to the state. The emphasis of the revolutionary fervor of the masses, and the presentation of Castro as almost-divine, demonstrates the extent to which the exhibition is loaded with the state’s narrative of history, only displaying the luminous side of the Revolution. It could even be said that this section verges on propaganda: with a large photograph of Fidel Castro, signing the first Agrarian Reform Act, dominating the space. (Image 5)

5. Exhibition Sugar Island
Fidel signing the first Agrarian Reform Act (Center); Peasants receiving their property title on the land (Left); Text about the Agrarian Reform from Cuba review, No. 1, January 1969.(Right)
Courtesy: Oficina de Asuntos Históricos del Consejo de Estado (Council of State Historical Affairs Office).

In 1970, the people of Cuba were summoned for the massive sugar harvest known as “Zafra de losdiezmillones” or “Ten Millions Sugar Harvest” — the amount the government expected to produce. The large-scale harvest should have provided funds for Cuba’s industrial take off, but failed for multiple reasons and never achieved the goals projected. A good part of exhibition’s “Sugar Island” section, explores the visual production generated by these events, mainly photos and posters (Image 6).

6. Sugar Island. Exhibition view

The aestheticization of the “machetero” (cane cutter) in the photography is evident (Image 7), as well as the abundant graphic production concerning the “Zafra” (Ten Millions project), through newspapers, magazines and posters (Image 8). These pieces depict the Zafra before and after its failure, and were explicitly designed to advance the governmental agenda through propaganda encouraging efforts in the fields, or justifying the setback with slogans inviting the population to make the defeat a victory regardless.


7. Exhibition Sugar Island
Enrique de la Uz (1944-2018): Four photographs from the series There is no other way of making the Zafra, 1970, photo on paper, courtesy: Lan Hung
8. Exhibition Sugar Island. Posters allusive to the zafra by different graphic designers. 1. To conquer the ten millions with that quiet and silent brother of every day. 2. Norm of cutting complete (is) stable norm in the grinding. 3. Now that the cutting started, to optimize. 4. Ready 5. If the machete complies, the factory does not fail. 6. We will fight to the last cane. 7. 1000, my contribution to the ten millions. 8. Free way for the Factory´s sugar. Sugar for grow up. 9. To optimize the zafra of the first congress of the party. Sugar. 10. In order to win, clean an fresh sugar cane to the factory. 11. To grind high, strong, stable.
Courtesy: Biblioteca Nacional José Martí (José Martí National Library)
9. Exhibition Sugar Island. Fragment of the photographic essay “No hay otro modo de hacer la zafra” (To convert the defeat into a victory), Cuba review, October 1970
Courtesy: Estudio Figueroa-Vives (Figueroa-Vives Studio)

One example of the epic and idealistic rhetoric of the times is the photographic essay “No hay otromodo de hacer la zafra” (There´s No Other Way of Making the Zafra), published by the Cuba review in October 1970, and included in this section of the show (Image 9). The romantic and self-satisfied account of the events  veil a catastrophe that deeply impacted  Cuban history, and caused the worst economic crisis since the last Independence War (1895–1898) and, simultaneously,, the reinforcement of totalitarian mechanisms of control over cultural, artistic and public  life in general.

10. Exhibition Sugar Island
Ricardo G. Elías (1969). Above: Photos from the series Faces of Perseverance,2008. Below: Photos from the series Dry Gold, 2005-2009.
Courtesy of the artist

Finally, the third part of the exhibition’s section on Sugar Industries refers to the decline of the Cuban sugar industry. At the end of the twentieth  century, low prices of sugar in the world market, the technological obsolescence of sugar mills, practice of misguided procedures, degradation  of agricultural land, and decreasing of sugar cane’s productivity(among other issues,[14] led to a terminal crisis in Cuban sugar industry. The investment needed to refloat the industry was deemed unaffordable, and the authorities unexpectedly decided in 2002 to close and dismantle the factories, most of them located in small villages as the main, and often only, source of employment. The shock was perhaps cushioned by the government-controlled mass media, and increasing assistance received from Chaves´s Venezuela.[15] The photographic series Faces of perseverance and Dry gold, by Ricardo G. Elías (born 1969) (Image 10) are devoted to these events. The work is complementary, presenting the unemployed worker and his former workplace as in simultaneous ruins.

The documentary De Moler from the year 2002 by Alejandro Ramírez presents a similar approach. The documentary’s title is a play on words,in Spanish “demoler” means “to demolish,” and “de moler” could be translated as “of grinding.” The documentary features the demolition of sugar factories and the daily lives of now-subsidized workers. The statement next to Ramírez´s work affirms that there is “a self-confident though sorrowful scrutiny in it as corresponds to those facing a fait accompli.” The work has a melancholic, pathetic and resigned mood. Elias´s photography transforms resignation into stoicism. In both examples acceptance of irrevocable is the dominant theme.

Overall, in this section of the exhibition, the history of sugar in Cuba is presented as a cultural phenomenon, but acknowledges (if only indirectly) the serious social implications and injustices like slavery or exploitation (exemplified by the earlier mentioned Pogolotti). The coverage of , the impact of the Revolution, the Agrarian Reform, the popular effervescence and the building of utopia during “Ten Millions Zafra” are all presented, at least providing a true historical series of events .  The work of Elias and Ramirez, demonstrates the setback of utopia, a central focus of the curatorship. This is an important point, explaining the general effect of the show and reflecting the peculiar narrative of criticism mentioned above by Hernández: constantly talk about utopia, never about totalitarianism. Younger artists like Elias, Ramirez and others, may not offer a laudatory vision of the system. Regardless, their insertion into the narrative further reconfirms this contention, as while powerful political messages can be analyzed from their work, the artists avoid directly pointing to the system or their leaders as the causes of the losses shown.

The exhibition section, Sugar Island, tries to present Cuba as a social and anthropologic phenomenon, to be contemplated without evaluative or interpretative judgment (though this is perhaps a secondary reading to the explicit historical and aesthetic connotations explored above. The words of curator Corina Matamoros, quoted above, seem to point to objectivity as a condition in the representation of the sugar phenomena in Cuban society. Her curatorial position proposes an ethnographic method: of the observer recording reality, under the principle of not being involved in it. The viewers are hence offered an image of Cuba as a “fait accompli” (a decided and non-changeable fact). And, worse, we are offered a notion of art as a purely historical document, an indifferent register — and the artist too, as an unconcerned registrar. Consciously and intentionally, every moral judgment, every real historic analysis, every questioning of the status quo is therefore avoided, in the very moment where an assessment of the last sixty years is so necessary. With the monopolization of power by Cuba’s oligarchy slowly declining, the survival of the regime rests on its critical and generational renewal.[16]

It is that presumption of objectivity that makes the ideological background of this exhibition most evident. There is no real impartiality if the official State narrative sets the paradigm. For a “minimally informed attendance”[17]Sugar Island turns out to be a disturbing experience, as simple facts are suspiciously excluded from that alleged objectivity. This is not a matter of political opinions. Something looks wrong when we consider the fact that 70 percent of arable land, (given by the second Agrarian Reform Act to state owned farms) produces less than the 30% of land that is still in the hands of small private or cooperative farmers. Particularly in a country where the government has acknowledged food production as a national security issue. By celebrating or concealing Cuban conditions, the Museum at this Biennale conveniently constructs a narrative too close to political partisan behavior, acting as another tool of the propaganda machine. Similarly to the Cuban mass media and educational system, these institutions work as a sort of commissar, indoctrinating national (and particularly) foreign visitors.

II.

Beyond utopia. Rereading History, is the title of the second show inside the mega-exhibition at this year’s Biennale. Here, the curation focuses on canonical events and personalities of ‘official’ Cuban History (emphasis intended). Though  the term found in the title: “rereading”, seems to point to a revision of historiographical topics and paradigms, the outcome is, as  in Sugar Island, the reappearance of old schemas. The ‘rereading’ provided is not a new way of reading, but a presentation again of the indoctrinating elementary school textbooks. The inclusion of contemporary artists on these topics does not guarantee novel interpretations. Revision should be aimed at a questioning of established facts and interpretations.

The curatorship suffers a certain superficiality, or even naivety, in the construction of its narrative. For instance, in its first section, the show tackles the European “discovery” of Cuba an event that postcolonial theory considers as a clash or encounter of cultures (aboriginal and European) to counter  pro-western historiography. Despite perhaps resolute intentions, the curatorship fails to approach this critical issue properly.  The exhibition presents Cuban aboriginal cultures as only represented (though superbly so) by the Tobacco Idol, a masterpiece of Taíno religious art and Cuba’s most famous and striking archaeological relic (Image 11).


11. Exhibition Beyond utopia. Rereading History
Tobacco Idol (copy), aboriginal art (98 x 20 x 22 cm)
Original Courtesy: Museum Montané, University of Havana

However, beyond this, Pre-colonial Cuba is practically absent.  It should perhaps be acknowledged that the arrival of Spanish conquerors and the personalities of Christopher Columbus or Father Las Casas is inevitable in a historical account of Cuba. Though it is only after the allusions to discovery and conquest that relevant facts and personalities of the national consciousness formation process, before independence wars, are included.[18] During this period, prominant individuals witnessed the increased presence of slavery, with its terrible consequences and the permanent conferment of exceptional power to the Colonial government by the Spanish Crown. It was these events that led to impoverishment for large parts of the Cuban population, burdened by taxes and administrative corruption, facing the loss of civil and political rights.

The next section of the exhibition is devoted to the independence wars against Spain in the nineteenth century, and begins with a painting from 1986, of the Fire of Bayamo [19] in 1869, by Manuel Mendive. The exhibition further presents repeated references to the symbolic figures of the different independence wars, such as Jose Martí and Máximo Gómez in portraits made by different artists in different epochs.[20] (Image 12)


12. Exhibition Beyond utopia. Rereading History
Portraits of José Martí by different artists. From left to right: Carlos Enríquez (1900-1957): Martí´s Death, undated, oil on canvas; Pedro Pablo Oliva (born 1949): Childhood Portrait, 1989, oil on canvas; Raúl Martínez (1927-1995): Martí and the Star, 1966, oil on canvas

There are other outstanding pieces presented in the exhibition, such as representations of the so called ‘Mambí cavalry’ during the 1895 War by numerous artists, including history painter Armando García Menocal (Image 13) and the photographer José Gómez de la Carrera (birth date unknown, died 1908) (Image 14)


13. Exhibition Beyond utopia. Rereading History
Armando García Menocal (1863-1942): Mambi cavalry (sketch), undated, oil on canvas

14. Exhibition Beyond utopia. Rereading History
José Gómez de la Carrera (died 1908): Mambi forces, undated, digital print
Courtesy: Fototeca de Cuba

However, it is important to note the critical and explorational approaches taken by certain artists of younger generations, as they move towards different approaches of Cuban history. Among these: José Manuel Mesías (born 1990). Mesías´ fake-relics, for instance, examine historical data while simultaneously focusing on autonomy and the transcendence of the instant, which is usually lost in mainstream narratives of History. Demajagua Flag, 1912, a Mesías piece included in the show, is an interpretation the flag raised by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes when he freed his slaves in 1868,[21] similar to the one used by the leaders of the Coloured Independents’ Party in their 1912 uprising.[22] Mesías manipulates and mixes historical facts and myths, presenting a piece of unknown origin as authentic, permitting ambivalent interpretation, and presenting a new historical narrative. (Image 15).


15. Exhibition Beyond utopia. Rereading History
José Manuel Mesías (born 1990): Flag of Demajagua. 1912, 2019, canvas, Courtesy of the artist
Used by the forces of Pedro Ibonet during the Coloured Independents´ Party armed protest.

 The exhibition emphasizes the “evils and miseries” of the next period, the insaturation of the Cuban Republic, through examples like the canvas Happy Peasants (Image 16), by avant-garde painter Carlos Enríquez (1900-1957). This title is ironic since the painting represents a plight of the period: the extreme poverty suffered by a part of the rural population. The space reserved for the Republican period avoids the representation of positive events and personalities of the social, economic, and political life of the period that do not fit in the ideological canon of the Castro’s regime. Consequently, they are regarded as unimportant in official historiography.


16. Exhibition Beyond utopia. Rereading History
Carlos Enríquez (1900-1957): Happy Peasants, 1938, oil on canvas

Finally, one third of Beyond Utopia. Rereading of history was devoted to the celebration of revolutionary narratives through several paintings by artists of the so-called “true hope generation”. Dedicated to personalities of the guerrilla saga led by Fidel Castro and the July 26th Movement, this generation used their platform to advertise the socialist utopia proclaimed at the beginning of the Revolution. These artists studied in the first art school founded by the Revolution, the National Art Schools (ENA), in order to advance the utopian-propagandistic program.[23] Members of the “true hope generation”, in many cases, came from remote areas of the country and expressed deep gratitude for the opportunity the Revolution provided them. Throughout the 1970s, they committed themselves to the glorification of the Socialist narrative, in the midst of the crisis provoked by the Ten Millions Zafra’s fiasco and the repressive atmosphere in artistic and cultural milieu known as the “gray quinquennium” or the “black decade.”[24] An example of this is the painting The first 26th in Havana by Aldo Menéndez (born 1948) (Image 17) that celebrates the anniversary of the assault, led by Fidel Castro, on the Moncada Fortress. Some members of the “true hope generation” were promoted by official institutions, had commercial success in subsequent years and left the country to live abroad.


17. Exhibition Beyond utopia. Rereading History
Aldo Menéndez (born 1948): The first 26th in Havana, 1976, oil on canvas

Also significant, is the presentation of documentary photographs, whose high aesthetic and historical value attracts attention with canonical representations of Fidel Castro and “Che” Guevara, reflecting the idolatry and mystical adoration these figures received early in the 1960’s, corroborated by persuasive propaganda which was directed a certain sensitive social groups. The presence of these pieces in the Museum reminds viewers of how these figures became part of a visual trademark, the projection of a Cuban image, sold to the world. (Image 18)


18. Exhibition Beyond utopia. Rereading History
Photographs by Alberto Korda (1928-2001), Osvaldo Salas (1914-1992), Raúl Corrales (1925-2006) and others; Courtesy: Fototeca de Cuba

However, the most significant issue in this section of the exhibition is the weaving historic narratives: the Cuban emancipation process is seen as a determinist continuum from Hatuey’s actions,[25] to Fidel Castro and the establishment of Socialism — presented as the true blossoming of the Cuban nation. This narrative suggests that the guerrilla warfare in the 1950s, the triumph of the revolution in 1959, and the proclamation of socialism in 1961, are the only logical and fair outcomes of the nineteenth century Independence Wars. This understanding of Cuban history is the ideological key of the government’s system of indoctrination and propaganda. There are some contemporary pieces at the end of Beyond Utopia. Rereading of History that illustrate how collective imagery and everyday life have been permeated by this totalitarian paradigm.

There exists an important section of Beyond Utopia. Rereading History, which is dedicated to political caricature.  It is divided into three sections: first, vignettes published in pro-Spanish papers during the Colonial period — denigrating Cuban pro-independence cause and leaders. The second selection presents social and political caricatures from the Republican period; and the third, mordacious notes on communism’s enemies after 1959. (Images 19-21)

19. Exhibition Beyond Utopia. Rereading History.
A.S.I. Los mandamientos mambises (Mambi commandments), 1890s lithography
The text under the figures are parody scenes in rhyme of alleged Mambi commandments where they are implicitly accused of all sort of vices and treacheries.
20. Exhibition Beyond Utopia. Rereading History.
Ricardo de la Torriente (1869-1934). Reelection, 1912, ink on cardboard
President José Miguel Gómez is depicted here supporting his vice president, Alfredo Zayas for the 1912 elections in front of consternated leaders of opposite party.
21. Exhibition Beyond Utopia. Rereading History
Horacio Rodríguez Suriá (1908-?): Washbasin, 1959, ink on cardboard (Left),
The tree, undated ink on cardboard (Right)
Representations of “Imperialism”. In Washbasin: complaining about defeats in Latin America. In The Tree: showing Imprealism’s impotence against world solidarity received by Cuban Revolution.

Unintentionally, this part of the show exists as an unexpected declaration about press freedom in Cuba. The pieces suggest that satire against ruling class could only be found in the Republican epoch, not in Colonial or Communist times as darts were directed against the enemies of the government. In this curation, a remarkable parallel is denoted, between the Colonial and Communist state in this subject. The state-controlled press, the inviolability of the figures and structures of power, the scarce visibility of divergent opinions, appear to be common features in both the Colonial and Communist regime times. On the other hand, some of these illustrations would never be admitted in a similar show some decades ago. For instance, to depict independence wars heroes like Máximo Gómez or Antonio Maceo with scorning expressions, would have been considered unacceptable, degrading and polluting their images. As is mentioned above,[26] the most important heroes of the nation were absorbed into the Communist regime’s symbolic and visual capital and hence became untouchable through artistic or cultural practices. It even manifested itself in a sort of superstition, as for party rulers to acknowledge the mocking of these heroes was inconceivable.  Can we consider or read that this showing of them now is a step towards objectivity and openness? What is found, in fact, is the reduced power of that symbolic capital of the imagery of the national heroes, and a double standard in the treatment of this history. The heroes are part of the government’s ideological assets, but are not as untouchable as they used to be. Their humanization is now allowed. Nonetheless, the core of the revolutionary mythology, the facts and leaders of the revelation, stay more sacred than ever. The third part of this part of the exhibition section is a partisan defense of the Revolution, where the mockery is exclusively aimed against critics. If the viewer expected some kind of social or political criticism through caricatures from the Revolution period, this is not the place to find it. The Cuban government has a legal monopoly over press and mass media, only challenged by the recent change which allowed public internet access (from December 2018). At the end, one has to be satisfied with a confirming and affectionate representation of Fidel Castro. (Image 22)

22. Exhibition Beyond Utopia. Rereading History.
Juan Eduardo David Posada (1911-1981): Fidel Castro, undated,mixed technique on paper

III.

In my experience, there is a platitudinous approach to the issue of race in Cuba. In the eagerness to advance the African element in culture, it is common to diminish the impact of European roots, as if asserting the first necessarily meant to deny the second. This could be because of the ideological bias where emancipatory thinking dissembles old stereotypes, creating new ones. This happens in Nothing Personal, the third part of the exhibition, which intends, according to the curators, to approach the racial subject in Cuba as a form of cultural background.

The “black,” as a question of identity, is diluted in wider popular mythology of Manuel Mendive’s paintings, where the African element is mixed with Creole imagery and a poetic view of history (Image 23). This is presented in works by Santiago Rodríguez Olazábal (born 1955), rather religious or ritualistic. Olazábal aestheticizes the Afro-Cuban religious elements, codes and sensibilities, and incorporates them to contemporary art language (Image 24). On the other hand, in the documentary film Los del Baile (Those of the Dance) from 1965, by Nicolás Guillén Landrián (1938–2003), the racial theme is associated to human sensibility. The incredible ability of Landrián in screening the particular charisma and inner world of common men and women in a few frames, is masterfully achieved here. The film was censored in the 1960s because its way of showing people carelessly dancing seemed to contradict the ideal of the “new man” that the Revolution intended to create.

23. Exhibition Nothing Personal
Manuel Mendive (born 1944): The Palenque, undated, oil on wood
24. Exhibition Nothing Personal.
Santiago Rodríguez Olazábal (born 1955): Shango Hanged Himself, 1992, mixed technique on craft paper (Left); The Penitence, 1999, acryl on canvas and objects (Center); Ikolé, 1998, wood, leather (Right)

At the same time, it is unfortunate to see that race is the explicitly emphasized subject in some artists’ work. José Bedia’s (born 1959) concerns are rather anthropologic, transcending the insular limits. They could skip the racial fact. (Image 25) The same happens with From Resistance to Folklore by José Ángel Vincench (born 1973). (Image 26) Compared with the previous artists, they both express a more general or abstract interest, less historically or geographically located, or specific in cultural dynamics. To reduce them to issues of race could be misleading, and distorting of the artists’ intended meanings. There is a similar situation with Belkis Ayón (1967–1999). Her work, nourished by African abakuá religion mysteries, stems from a deeply anthropological intuition and is insufflated by countless symbolic and multicultural meanings, from Christian myths to archetypal gender issues (Image 27).

25. Exhibition Nothing Personal.
José Bedia (born 1959). Black Sun, 1988, acryl on canvas (Left),
Kindiambo cuenda munanso, 1988 acryl on canvas (Right)
26. Exhibition Nothing Personal.
José Ángel Vincench (born 1973): From resistance to folklore, 2009. installation, variable dimensions
27. Exhibition Nothing Personal.
Belkis Ayón (1967-1999). The Verdict Nr 1., 1993, collagraphy (Left),
The Verdict Nr 2 1993, collagraphy (Right)

“Creoleness” is not a racial category, something important to note as it seems to be considered this way in the section titled Nothing Personal, reserved for artists of the avant-garde period. Attempting to operate with extended definitions weakens the conceptual precision of the curatorship. That’s why some proposed implications of the racial problematic become secondary in this section of the exhibition, dispensable, or unfounded. It happens, for instance, with the portraits of intellectuals and artists by avant-garde painter Jorge Arche (1905–1956), whose reason for inclusion is perhaps unclear, justified by shrouded and paranoid interpretation (Image 29). A curatorial note, plotted in the wall next to his portraits, declares that the racial concern lies here in the fact that all personalities painted by him where white, insinuating a racist attitude in the painter. Nothing Personal insists on rigid interpretations of racial questions, becoming as biased as the paradigm it tries to overcome.  Several important standpoints: from marginalization processes to the role of politics, psychology, and interracial relations are ignored or poorly explored.

28. Exhibition Nothing Personal. Portraits by Jorge Arche (1905-1956)

IV.

There is no need to dwell about the concept of the last part of the exhibition The Infinite Possibility, titled The mirror of the enigmas. Notes on Cubanity. It would be redundant, as this section of the show itself is. Some of the works included here, support the anthropological attitude of the general exhibition and could have been integrated in any of the other sections. This final section reinforces the ideological tenets of previous parts of The infinite possibility. To think about the Nation. Even when there are relevant artworks included, it appears to be curated with redundant ideas, leftovers of the preceding endeavors. The narrative becomes repetitive and poor, its curatorial criteria unclear and the ‘notes’ are ambiguous and unspecific.


29. Exhibition The mirror of the enigmas. Notes on Cubanity
Antonio Eligio Hernández (Tonel) (born 1961):
The blockade, 1991, installation, concrete blocks, variable dimensions

There are also works of political suspicion, like The Blockade by Antonio Eligio Fernández (Tonel) (born 1961) (Image 30). It evokes ideas of, on one side, the embargo established by the United States, but on the other the popular believe in an “internal blockade,” (referring to the political and economic system, and its bureaucratic inefficiencies, incapacities and limitations). However, inserted in this curatorial context, the ambivalence results in uncritical enunciation of the problem, and accepts inevitability and an immunity of the status quo. Such a pessimistic disposition permeates the exhibition wherever the viewer perceives a glimpse of criticism towards the present regime.

However, this is not to diminish the quality of some individual works.  In addition to  Belkis Ayón’s pieces, the documentary In an old neighborhood from 1963 by Nicolás Guillén Landrián can be considered among the most enjoyable works exhibited in this final show. The film creates a subtle dialogue between popular traditions, religion, ways of everyday life and the increasingly intrusive ideological rhetoric of the new political establishment. Landrián making his second appearance in the exhibition, was a victim of censorship and institutional harassment, and which drove him close to madness and then to exile.

There are similar examples in the show: artists previously forbidden, censored, persecuted during their life and then rehabilitated once they have died. For instance, Antonia Eiriz (1929–1995), an important expressionist painter and art professor of the 1960s experienced censorship because of the critical social and political content of her paintings Eiriz lost her work in the National School of Arts and eventually abandoned the country. Another example is Severo Sarduy (1937–1993), an important writer, who was disaffected with the regime and who also left the country because he was fearful of persecution of gay people and censorship imposed on writers in Cuba, among others. Their artistic heritage is regarded as part of the Cuban art historical canon by official authorities today, but they were rejected in life, years ago, by those same authorities.

Exhibition Beyond utopia. Rereading History
Antonia Eiriz (1929-1995): Still Life, 1966, oil on canvas

The Museum’s curatorial strategy is to include them in a context of assumed permissiveness, propitiating an affirmative interpretation as long as there is no allusion to consecrated personalities or evident political content. And this strategy is obvious from the title of the exhibition. “The infinite possibility” is a phrase authored by José Lezama Lima (1910–1976), the greatest writer of Cuban twentieth century, subtly proscribed for over 20 years for his homosexuality, Catholicism, and unenthusiastic about Communist ideology.

The Infinite Possibility does not aid possible readings of the nation. It presents instead a tendentious vision that follows and serves the official state narrative. It manipulates f historical data in order to legitimate the institutionalized power, and reproduces a well-known script, wearisomely repeated. As a political commissar’s one, the curatorial narrative prioritizes ideology over objective or critical thinking. By doing so, it reveals the absence of intellectual independence for the institution, an institution in charge of national memory culture. Remarkably, it incorporates into this narrative those artists once excluded — as if nothing wrong happened, and as if the reason for their exclusion (their skepticism or criticism about the regime) had vanished. Let’s raise the question: if the nation is an infinite possibility, how can one explain the continued existence of a failed model? The title of the exhibition emphasizes the Havana Biennale’s one (Building the Possible) but, how can we understand what is possible in the current Cuban context? Conveniently ambiguous, the “infinite” here has clear cut l


All images ar taken by Isel Arango Rodríguez. All artworks if not otherwise indicated are in the collection of the National Museum of Fine Arts – Cuban Collection, Havanna.

About the Author:

Isel Arango (Camagüey, 1987). Professor, curator and art critic. Lic. Art History, University of Havana, 2011. She has worked in: Provincial Museum “Ignacio Agramonte”, “El Lugareño” publishing seal and the Fine Arts Department in Provincial Academy of Arts “Vicentina de la Torre”. As a curator, she has labored in exhibitions like Cualsea (Logia de la Perseverancia, Camagüey, 2014) in collaboration with Anamely Ramos, and La Ofrenda (República 289 gallery, Camagüey, 2015) with the artist Dashel Hernández Guirado. She has published art articles in: Noticias de ArteCubano bulletin, Senderos magazine, La Hora de Cuba magazine and
Hypermedia magazine. She takes part in the project InCuba, for social and cultural innovation in Cuba, and is a member of Ánima collective, a project for creation and research about memory and its processes in Cuba.

Notes:

[1] 12 May-12 April, 2019 http://bienaldelahabana.fcbc.cu/,The Havana Biennial was founded in 1984 and is internationally considered as an important event for artists of Latin America and the Caribbean http://www.biennialfoundation.org/biennials/havana-biennale/. The 1989 edition is highlighted in recent studies as an early example of “globalization from the South,” as it included artists besides Latin America, from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. This edition was also important platform for discussions. See, Rachel Weiss and other authors, Making Art Global (Part 1). The Third Havana Biennial 1989 (London: Afterall, 2011).

[2] The government pretends to control all art spaces through official institutions subordinated to the Ministry of Culture and all artists through their membership to official associations like AHS (Asociación Hermanos Saíz, for younger artist) and UNEAC (Unión Nacional de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba). Besides this, artists must be registered in the Creator Registry in order to commercialize their works. Those artists and art spaces not subordinated to these official mechanisms are regarded as independent.     

[3] See: Bisquet, Katherine. “Fracaso de una Bienal. Contra los florecimientos en una época”. In: https://artishockrevista.com/2019/05/20/fracaso-de-una-bienal-la-habana; Núñez Leyva, Yanelys. “La Bienal de La Habana en su cadalso”. In: https://www.arbolinvertido.com/cultura/la-bienal-de-la-habana-en-su-cadalso;; Mariño Fernández, María de Lourdes. “Bienal fatalité”. In: https://www.hypermediamagazine.com/arte/artes-visuales/bienal-fatalite/

[4] Among them we can mention Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt (INSTAR), funded by the Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera; Avecez Art Space, created by the curator Solveig Font; San Isidro Movement, emerged from the protests against the 349 decree; La maleza, a publishing seal created by the artist Lester Álvarez Meno and El estornudo, a magazine directed by journalist Abraham Jiménez. There are also independent cinema initiatives with filmmakers like Miguel Coyula and Yimit Ramírez.

[5]Founded in 1913, the Museum occupies the Fine Arts Palace since 1954. In 1959 the patronage in care of the Museum was dissolved and the Revolutionary government took control of the institution. The Museum has the most important collection of Cuban art, which has been acquired by donations and purchases and, in the first years of the Revolution, by confiscations to those who abandoned the country. See: Hilda María Alonso, El Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes en la política cultural del Estado cubano (La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 2016).

[6] Fidel Castro ruled the country since 1959, and his brother Raul substituted him in 2006. In April 2018, Raul Castro retired from the presidency and gave the post to Miguel Diaz Canel attempting to aid the regime’s generational renewal. The process was accompanied by some modernizing reforms and increasing repression over political opposition groups, human rights activists, independent journalists and artists critical with the system. The 349 decree was enacted in 2018 and immediately deemed a mechanism of control and censorship over artistic creation. It gave power to inspectors credited by the Ministry of Culture, to impose fines and ban “cultural and artistic activities” considered inadequate under moral and political terms. The decree established the concept of “professional intrusiveness”, namely, a license or an art school grade will be needed to carry out any artistic activity. The spirit of the 349 decree has been always present in Cuban law and cultural policies:  the previous decree 226  (passed in 1997)was in fact very similar. However, there are two key reasons to explain why the 349 decree has raised such opposition. Firstly, because it gathered disperse policies in a single normative body and made these policies more visible. Secondly, because the degradation of the system has been accompanied by the strengthening of independent spaces — capable of a weak but more organized resistance. 

[7] After the Cuban revolutionary process of the 1930s, the 1940 Constitution was proclaimed along with advanced legislation on social justice matters. Retired general Fulgencio Batista interrupted the constitutional regularity and took power through a coup d’état in 1952. Next year, young leader, Fidel Castro, with a group of followers attacked a military fortress —Cuartel Moncada— in order to incite a popular upraise against the dictatorship. The attempt failed but gave Castro notoriousness. Batista tried to legalize his position but most of the political parties boycotted the 1954 elections. Even inside the army several groups started conspiracies. Fidel, released from prison in 1955 after 22 months, returned to the country in 1956 and created a guerilla group in the eastern mountains. Some political parties and groups joined in alliance with Castro’s Movement July 26th, and elections were boycotted again in 1958. Batista fled and a coalition government took power in January 1959. Castro was made prime minister on February and by May the coalition broke up when he refused to celebrate elections and reestablish the 1940 Constitution. A new sort of Civil War started against the Communist twist of the Revolution. In 1961 Castro proclaimed socialism and ruled without elections until 1976 when a socialist constitution was drafted. Between 1959 and 1969, 10% of Cuban population left the country and the remnants of political opposition were imprisoned or shot. Virtually all forms of private property disappeared, and a totalitarian type of state was imposed.

[8] Even those people who disagree with the government can incorporate these terms in their narratives. Some times because of indoctrination, sometimes because they disapprove of the methods and results of the system, but agree with the ideals.

[9]The Biennale received the title: The Construction of Possible. The exhibition: The Infinite Possibility. To Think about the Nation with four sections, Sugar Island; Beyond Utopia. Rereading of History; Nothing Personal and The Mirror of the Enigmas. Notes on Cubanity.

[10]Hernández, Henry Eric. “Why not imagine totalitarianism”. In: El fin del Gran Relato. Exposición colectiva de arte cubano. (CdeCubaArt Books: Miami,2017) 88-93.

[11] Some independent institutions are tolerated but they lack legal status. Consequently, they are unprotected if the government decides to terminate their existence. This happens because of loopholes in the law.. Furthermore, in many cases these intstitution’s existences is punished by penal law: under the figure of illicit association. The government tolerates these institutions as long as the perceived public damage from closing them down is higher than the discomfort caused by their existence.

[12]Sugar production became the main economic activity during the last decades of 18th century when Cuba was a Spanish colony. The end of the Colonial period was marked by the United States occupation of the island between 1898 and 1902 after a short war with Spain, triggered by the independence war Cubans had started in 1895. According to Cuban historiography the Republican period started in 1902 and was followed by the so-called Revolutionary period from 1959 to present day.

[13] Latifundium -from latin latus (wide) + fundus (piece of landed property)- is a great landed estate with primitive agriculture and labor.

[14] The fall of Soviet Union, a decade before, left Cuban economy without a trade partner that represented 70% of total trade in 1988. The Soviet Union —in what could be seen as a sort of subside—used to buy most of Cuban sugar production paying five or six times the value it had in the world market. Nevertheless, a huge debt was accumulated for many years until 90% of it was cancelled by Russian government in 2014. 

[15]Hugo Chavez became President of Venezuela in 1999. Venezuela provided the Cuban economy with a precious source of oil, at advantageous prices, and a market for its new commodity: labourers. The Cuban and Venezuelan governments agreed to trade oil for medical and educational support, in addition to other services provided by the island too.      

[16]See footnote 6 in relation with the delicate process of generational renewal among government´s ranks.

[17] Which means a small minority, as indoctrination and the control of mass media and the educational system by the government keeps many Cubans out of this category.

[18]Among the pieces included: images and documents relating to the tobacco planter’s uprising in 1717 and 1723, the siege and seizing of Havana by British troops in 1762, and the foundation of the Royal Economic Society of Friends of the Country in Havana in 1793, accompanied by portraits of most important Cuban thinkers of the first half of the nineteenth century, such as Francisco de Arango y Parreño, Félix Varela, Jose de la Luz y Caballero and Jose Antonio Saco.

[19]The city of Bayamo was the first Cuban city captured by the independence fighters few days after the October 10th 1868 uprising (that started The Ten Years War). They decided to burn the city to the ground when, a few months later, Spanish troops were close to recovering it. The fire of Bayamo became a symbol of Cuban independence fighters’ resolution in accomplishing their demands.   

[20] There were three independence wars against Spain from 1868 to 1898. The War of the Ten Years (1868-1878) where Cubans finally surrendered but at least accelerated the end of slavery; The Little War (1879-1880) fruit of the dissatisfaction with the outcome of the previous war and the ’95 War (1895-1898) ended after American intervention against Spain (see note 7). Máximo Gómez (1836-1905), born in what is known today as Dominican Republic, fought in The War of the Ten Years and became the Generalin Chief of Cuban army in The ´95 War. José Martí (1853–1895) was the political leader and organizer of The ´95 War and was killed in action few months after the outbreak of war. These personalities, along with Carlos Manuel de Céspedes (1819–1874), Ignacio Agramonte (1841-1873) and Antonio Maceo (1845–1896) are the most important heroes of the Cuban independence wars. Since 1902 they received a quasi-religious adoration from the successive governments as well as from the people. Every city has a monument or a street named in their honor. The Communist regime, led by Castro, cherished this symbolic capital and used it with propagandistic purposes, like previous governments, but to show these heroes as precursors of Cuban socialist system. The nation and its symbols became aspects of the political ideology ruling the country. Socialism, Revolution, Nation became inseparable concepts for the propaganda machinery and, in accordance with this, national independence, dignity and values were only achievable under the guidance of the Communist Party.         

[21]This is known as The Uprising of Demajagua, October 10th 1868, and marks the beginning of the Independence Wars.

[22]The Coloured Independents’ Party was created to advance racial equality in Cuba, in accordance with the spirit of the independence wars and the 1901 Constitution. The party was outlawed after a constitutional amendment banned political organizations created on racial basis. The illegalization triggered an uprising, which was fiercely suppressed in scarcely three months by the National Army.  

[23]The ENA’s now abandoned building complex, by architects Ricardo Porro, Roberto Gottardi, and Vittorio Garatti, is a celebrated building of international modernist architecture.

[24]The “gray quinquennium” (1970-1975) or “black decade” (1970-1979):a phenomena derived from the deep crisis associated to the failure of the “Ten Millions Zafra” and its implications  on cultural life and institutions. It was characterized by exacerbated censorship, homophobic persecutions and the goal of introducing socialist realism as the only artistic paradigm.     

[25] Hatuey was a Taino chief, born in neighbor Hispaniola Island. He led the first rebellion against Spanish conquerors in sixteenth century.

[26] See footnote 22.


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