This is the first of two posts that highlight work from the 2019 Havana Biennial in and around Old Havana area. Look for Part 2 next week. //
Contributed by Katarina Wong / After being postponed due to hurricane damage from 2017, the Havana Biennial, organized by the Centro de Arte Contemporanéo Wifredo Lam, launched on April 12. Taking place in more than 40 locations in Havana, the 13th iteration is curated is around the theme “La Construcción de lo Posible(The Construction of the Possible).” Historically dedicated to showcasing work from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean, this biennial is an invitation to institutions, artists, and viewers to reclaim personal and collective power to imagine and forge new realities. Those visions are sometimes bittersweet, sometimes cheeky, sometimes utopian, and in the best cases, deeply complex.
Centro de Arte Contemporanéo Wifredo Lam, Old Havana
The biennial’s organizing institution is showing a beautifully curated selection of site-specific installations, video, sculpture, painting, and fabric works that focus on creating different ways to understand the present by investigating or reclaiming the past.
Cuban artist David Beltrán uses paint to depict the deconstruction of paint. At first glance, his series “Arqueología de Color (Archeology of Color)” looks like abstract landscapes. The large paintings are based on photographs of tiny paint samples taken from the Equestrian Portrait of Felipe III by Diego Velázquez that show the different strata of the painting. (Image at top of post)
Tania Candiani, from Mexico, filmed Del sonido de la labor: Cantos de trabajo (From the Sound of Labor: Songs of Work) in the Valle de Ingenios in Cuba, the heart of the sugar industry. Candiani uses sugar cane fields and slave barracks as backdrops for the performance of traditional songs that were sung by slaves as they worked the fields. In this piece, sites of enslavement and brutality become places of fierce and defiant remembrance.
In Evidencia (Evidence), Uruguayan artist Fernando Foglino memorializes vandalized art from Grecian times through the 20th century by creating shiny replicas of the stolen parts, or in the case of the Girl with Dove, the entire piece. In an accompanying video, the artist creates a digital narrative in which he is the thief who defiles statues in order to reclaim them in the exhibition.
Abdoulaye Konaté was born in Mali and studied at the Instituto Superior del Arte in Havana. He uses traditional textile dyeing techniques from his home country to create his large fabric pieces. Through his work, Konaté addresses issues ranging from the AIDs epidemic to environmental concerns. In Papillon ak 3, a glorious butterfly (or moth) both fills and disintegrates into the background.
Gran Teatro, Old Havana
Facing the Future — 10 Artists from China
The pieces in this strong exhibition of contemporary artwork from China present various meditations on time. The artists stretch the past into the future or linger in long moments of the present.
Like the “Facing the Future” exhibition, “Contemporary Cubans” also overlays the past — whether personal time or historical time — onto the present. Pieces reflect the vivacity and contradictions of contemporary Cuban culture, where 1950s American cars rubble down the streets or gargantuan cruise ships glide by the 16th century Spanish fort. (Curiously, the only information about the work was the artist names.)
Arte Continúa, Barrio Chino
Arte Continúa is located in a former movie theatre in Chinatown. The owners of the gallery wisely kept the fundamental structure of the space so that exhibitions are in dialogue with the building’s history.
For the Biennial, Ukrainian artist Zhanna Kadyrova created two site-specific installations. In Permit for the Cocktail she uses architectural elements she found in Cuba to create elements of a tantalizing, lively tropical drink. Set against the permanent Anish Kapoor installation When I am Pregnant (behind the stage), the pieces in Cocktail are oversized, hinting at a mixture so large everyone is welcome to partake, but also suggesting that, as with construction, permission is needed.
In what used to be the balcony seats, Kadryova installed Second Hand. She uses tiles from the Hospital Antituberculoso Joaquin G. Lebredo to create sculptures resembling scrubs and patient gowns. The hospital was built in 1936 and abandoned after the Soviet Union fell causing reverberations in Cuba and her home country. Although the pieces hang from construction scaffolding, they almost look like objects from an exclusive boutique. The accompanying photographs, however, remind us of their origins.
Fototeca, Plaza Vieja, Old Havana
French artist Emmanuel Tussore draws from current events to create Study for a Soap. Using one of the oldest soap-making techniques (which happens to come from Aleppo), Tussore constructed a desolate cityscape of bombed out buildings that sits in the center of the room, flanked by photographic “portraits” of the soap sculpture buildings. In this work, history, people, life are poised to be washed away through destructive acts of war.
Detrás del Muro (Behind the Wall), Malecón
The Malecónis the famed sea wall that extends from Old Havana westward and is an ideal place to feature public artwork. Some artists also engaged with the buildings that face the Malecón, creating surprising interventions.
Elio Jesús inserted hundreds, if not thousands of rolled up scraps of paper into the pock-marked columns of a building along the Malecón. The building, like many others that face the sea, is weather-beaten by the salt water and sun. By literally plugging the holes, the artist’s gentle intervention resembles paper barnacles growing up the walls, exaggerating its uneven surface.
At the head of the Malecón, a lone unicorn stands. It’s not the powerful, white mythical depiction we see flying on rainbows, but a bedraggled, exhausted beast heading towards its end. Perhaps it’s depleted from being overused and overexposed. Perhaps it signifies the obvious end of all dreams.
19:30, the time of sunset, is an invitation to stop, sit, and share a moment with strangers. The chairs are a mismatched collection of common chairs found in Cuban households. Some rickety, some cobbled together, they still gather to offer support and respite.
The Museo de Bellas Artes’s five-part “La posibilidad infinita: pensando en la nación (The Infinite Possibility: Thinking about the nation)” at will be reviewed in the next installation about the Havana Biennial.
“La Construcción de lo Posible(The Construction of the Possible),” XIII Havana Biennial, in locations throughout Havana and across the Cuba. April 12 to May 14, 2019. Stay tuned for Part 2 next week.
About the author: Katarina Wong is an artist, curator and writer. She is also the program manager of the Arts Administration graduate programat Teachers College, Columbia University. Follow her on Instagram,Facebookand Twitter.