Friday, 18 May 2012

Cuban art festival brings works onto Havana's streets

Rachel Valdes' mirror has attracted attention
Article by Sarah Rainsford for the BBC

There are huge ants crawling all over the front of a theatre in the Cuban capital, a naked man tethered to the sea wall, and two women crocheting non-stop in the sweltering sunshine.

It is all part of the Havana Bienal, whose organisers have decided to bring much of the art work out of "elite" galleries this year and into the public space, allowing more people than ever access to the exhibits and performances.

So in some of the city's shabbiest backstreets, giant portraits of elderly local residents have appeared on crumbling walls. The wrinkles on their faces blend with the cracks in the brickwork.

"It's the first time in Cuba there is another face up other than Che or Fidel or Raul. Just someone from the street, who's not famous," says French artist JR, who painted 21 people for the project with Cuban Jose Parla.

"That's what has most amazed people. When we tell them it's just one of their neighbours, they're lost for words," JR says.

"People are very educated about art here, but a lot don't go to galleries," adds Parla. "So I think it's really important what we're doing, bringing art to the public."

And it is not only in the backstreets: the Bienal has transformed Havana's famous seafront into an open-air art gallery. The Malecon is where Cubans come to chat and flirt, reflect and dream perched on the long, low wall. Locals refer to it as the city's sitting room.

Critical tone?

Now they are sharing that space with installations including a deconstructed cannon, hammocks strung between goal posts, and a set of bright red doors that lead nowhere.

"The Malecon is the site of so many experiences, joyful and sad, where so many emotions have played out. This is a tribute to that past, the present and the future," explains curator Juan Delgado.

Many of the exhibits suggest a strong social commentary, very rare in Cuba, on themes including borders, free movement and emigration. Cubans still need official permission to travel off the island.

A metal frame filled with wire fencing has the silhouette of an aeroplane that's broken through and soared-off onto the horizon; there is a transparent reconstruction of one section of Malecon wall and drawings of another crafted from barbed wire.

The naked man, snared on a fishing line, is a powerful performance entitled Subject, and in a nearby subway there is a 1950s Chrysler car, transformed into a home-made submarine complete with periscope.

"In the 1990s people were crossing the sea to the US in rafts, or whatever they could find, including a car," says Delgado.

"For me, the plastic arts in Cuba have always been the strongest, the most avant-garde, always expressing the social context, or social criticism," he says.

"Of course there are limits, but artists here are very smart and love to play with subtle subjects," says Alexandre Arrechea, whose own contribution is a tall metal pillar with ear-shapes on either side, shrinking in size towards the top. It is called Nobody Listens.

"lt's playing with the idea that power is sometimes away from the people," the artist says, beside his ear-tree. "Towards the top, we can listen less."

International audience

Inti Hernandez uses his work to explore the theme of divisions between Cubans on and off the island. He has designed a curling bench which enables users to sit facing one another, in dialogue, or back to back, in silence.

"I believe this bench is talking about how to bring everything together," the artist says, arguing that those outside Cuba have an important perspective and assistance to offer.

For younger artists who have had little international exposure, the Biennial is an unparalleled opportunity to attract attention. Cuban modern art has become highly desirable, and the event is visited by hundreds of critics, curators and collectors from around the world, including the US.

"This is one of the most important Bienals and it's really important for me and my career," says Rachel Valdes, 21, who is exhibiting for the first time.

Her work, a huge mirror exploring the line between illusion and reality, has been drawing one of the biggest crowds on the seafront.

"I love to feel the energy of the people," she says. "It's good to bring the art closer to the people. I love it."

"It's something revolutionary in Havana," agrees Antonio Rosario, visiting the exhibit with his family.

"Not everyone's in the habit of going to galleries, but we do like to stroll the Malecon and sit here a bit. Now we're getting to know some art at the same time."

A few blocks back, at the new mural of a man's aged face, one resident is not quite so convinced.

"The city does need a bit more life to it," says the man, Santos, contemplating the new art work staring at him from across the street.

"But it's a shame they didn't paint something from nature, like a tree or a flower. Or the birth of a child. I'd have preferred that."

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