The Havana Biennial in the 1980s

Francesca Lacroce, May 2012

In 1986 the Cuban art critic Gerardo Mosquera argued that the artists of the so-called Third World were ready to take global leadership and that it was up to the artists of the South “to make Western culture”. This use of political language betrays the inextricable connection between worldwide biennials and the political agenda of the country from which they are launched. As was the case with the birth of the Havana Biennial in 1984, these events are often conceived and propelled by powerful figures whose roles lie outside cultural theory and practice. Fidel Castro himself envisioned the Havana Biennial as an opportunity to further the goals of the revolution through art.

Aside from the promotion of Cuba’s cultural richness and implicit aspirations towards a greater political role, the overarching themes of the Havana Biennial have much in common with postcolonial discourse and are emblematic of the concerns shared by many countries with similar experiences of decolonization. The main narrative of the biennial stemmed from the urge to convey artistic perspectives and practices related to ‘peripheral’ regions, which hitherto did not participate in the official (Western) art circuit. It implied a call for the widening of the traditional art network throughout the globe and the international promotion of art from Asia, Africa, and South America. This global artistic engagement revealed an attempt to disrupt the hegemony of the one-sided Western gaze and staged a perspective counter to traditional art historical discourse.

Yet rather than providing an alternative conception aimed at the development of a plane of exchange and interconnection, this reaction used the same logic by privileging one part of the world over the rest. Indeed, one must consider the exclusionary criteria to which the curators subjected the artists until 2009: European and North American artists were completely ineligible unless they had migrated to the Third World. Furthermore, some mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion were rather obscure: the third Havana Biennal (1989) invited artists of African and Asian descent from the UK, but not from the US, or France. The global nature sought by the revolution was thus unattainable.

Given the international geopolitical reassessment of 1989, which led to great political and economic consequences for Cuba, overt militant spirit had already eased during the third Havana Biennial. On this occasion, the most radical or committed art was confined in a section called The Tradition of Humor, so as to disguise its genuinely political nature. The work Bloqueo by Tonel was included in this section and referred explicitly to Cuban insularity. It consisted of a map of Cuba made out of concrete bricks, suggesting that the island was blocked, not only from outside, but also by the mentality of its inhabitants.

However, the call of Mosquera seems to have been curiously precursory, seeing as certain characteristics that first appeared in the Havana Biennial were later regularly adopted by Western institutions. For instance, the structure of the curatorship itself, disguised as a curatorial collective; the organization of a large international conference to create a discursive platform; and the thematic approach to curatorial methodology (included from the Third Havana Biennial) would become recurring features in many large exhibitions, such as Documenta. Hence, even if the Havana Biennial failed in representing, under a political perspective, the endlessly discussed relation between marginal and dominant culture, it certainly revealed itself to be truly revolutionary in terms of curatorial practices.

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