Our woman in Havana: Exploring what it means to be Cuban / The Havana Biennial, Part 2

Contributed by Katarina Wong / One of the strongest and most ambitious exhibitions in the 13th Havana Biennial is at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (MNBA), which is on view through September in celebration of the city’s 500th anniversary.

The ground floor exhibition “Museos interiores (Interior museums)” features new acquisition from some of Cuba’s best known artists, while the permanent collection on the upper floors is completely reinstalled to tell (and re-tell) the complicated story of this nation.

Isla de azúcar (Sugar Island)

Brought over by the Spanish, sugarcane made Cuba a Caribbean powerhouse, eventually both elevating and degrading the country. Sugar is so intertwined with Cuban history that it’s impossible to consider the construction of Cuban identity without it. The exhibition explores how this crop shaped Cuban culture from the late 1700s onwards through literature, documentary photographs, historic prints, and contemporary installations.

Installation view
Raúl Cañibano Ercilla, from the series Tierra guajira (Peasant country), 2001

Más allá de utopia. Las relecturas de la historia (Beyond Utopia: Rereadings of History)

Cuba has often been considered one type of utopia or another — from cash cow to socialist dreamland. This exhibition offers “rereadings” of Cuban history to offer more complex stories about national identity.

For Spain, Cuba’s value came from sugar crops and slavery. Eventually, though, Cubans began to reject Spanish rule, and in 1896 General Valeriano Weyler was dispatched to Cuba to quash the rising insurgency. Also known as “The Butcher,” Weyler created a system of “reconcentration camps” that, within three years, imprisoned a third of the island’s population and caused the death of 200,000+. These photographs serve as reminders of the underbelly of colonial greed.

Images from the National Archive of the Republic of Cuba

José Martí, Cuban patriot, poet, and writer, founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party in New York City and died on the battlefield in Cuba fighting against the Spanish in 1895. His writings, deeds, and image are as ubiquitous in Cuban culture as Che Guevara’s is on t-shirts. He is claimed by both ex-pats and revolutionaries, begging the question, if he can mean everything to everyone, what does he actually signify?

Raúl Martínez, 15 repeticiones de Martí (15 repetitions of Martí), 1966

Guillermo A. Ramírez Malberti relates his trajectory as a child of the Revolution, from idealism to becoming a mime for the cause.

Guillermo A. Ramírez Malberti, Como te cuento mi cuento (How can I tell you my story), 1994

Duo Liudmila & Nelson’s “La Isla” features the iconic José Martí monument in Havana’s Revolution Square amidst the waters. Is this utopia rising, a stalworth island resisting the sea around it? Or is Cuba a relic about to be subsumed by the tides?

Liudmila & Nelson (Liudmilla Velasco and Nelson Ramírez de Arellano), La Isla (The Island) from the series AbsolutRevolution, 2002

Nada personal (Nothing personal)

“Nada personal (Nothing personal)” delves into the complex role of race and racism in the construction of the Cuban identity. The exhibition seeks to unearth the first evidence of interracial conflict and its subsequent evolution.

As one of the most far-reaching implications of the sugar industry, slavery contributed to Cuba’s wealth, added different spiritual expressions that competed with Catholicism, and literally changed the face of Cubans. When the worldwide demand for slaves decreased, workers from other countries like China were lured to work the cane fields or copper mines, only to become indentured servants upon arrival. Forced servitude — whether from Africa or other countries — created new Cuban identities, as well as redefined what “white” meant in Cuba.

Santiago Rodríguez Olazábal is a priest of Ifá, an Afro-Cuban religion. His “La Penitencia (The Penitence)” is portrait of submission. At first reading, the kneeling black figure, arms perhaps tied behind his back, is a depiction of a slave attempting to cry out. Closer investigation reveals a cross on his forehead and over his heart. He wears a rope from which dangles religious objects. Is he a slave, a religious penitent, or both? Does his submission empower him?

Santiago Rodríguez Olazábal, La Penitencia (The Penitence), 1999

Teodoro Ramos Blanco was sculptor of African descent. He refused to portray Afro-Cubans as one-dimensional, exotic figures but instead worked to infuse “outcry, sincerity, rebellion and pain” in his art. 

Sculptures by Teodoro Ramos Blanco, 1930s

Inevitably, Europeans intermingled with African slaves and their descendents, constructing yet another strata of Cuban identity. In the hierarchy of race, “White-Creoles” were (and arguably are still) regarded above Afro-Cubans.

Jorge Arche made his fame as the portraitist of the left-leaning White-Creole intelligentsia and artists of the 1950s, though, as Roberto Cobas Amate, one of the curators of “Nothing Personal” notes, it’s disconcerting that there aren’t any portraits of Afro Cuban leaders or artists made during this time.

Portraits by Jorge Arche, 1940s

María Magdalena Campos-Pons’ piece “Finding Balance” depicts her as a Chinese empress but also plays upon the richness of her Nigerian, Cuban, and Chinese cultural inheritances.

María Magdalena Campos Pons, Finding Balance, 2015

“El espejo de las enigmas. Apuntes sobre la cubanidad (Mirror of the Enigmas: Points on Cubanness)” is comprised of visual art, historical records, musical scores, liturgical objects, and objects of torture from across history and generations in what MNBA director Jorge Fernández Torres describes as “…a kind of geneology” of a Cuba that “needs to reinvent itself every moment.”

Manuel Mendive, Barco Negrero (Slave Ship), 1976, with wooden slave shackles in front

Wilfredo Lam was born in Cuba and lived abroad, but never lost touch with his identity as Cuban. Of African and Chinese descent, Lam often made references to Afro-Cuban religions and symbols in his paintings, of which the MNBA is exhibiting an extensive selection.

Wifredo Lam, El Tercer Mundo (The Third World), 1965-66

Ana Mendieta was brought from Cuba to the U.S. during the “Peter Pan” airlifts, which separated children from their parents in the early 1960s. Through performance, Mendieta sought reconnection with her Cuban identity and the land of her home. 

Ana Mendieta, “Ñañigo Burial,” (2019 iteration created with permission of her family)
Antonio Eligio Fernández (Tonel), El Bloqueo (The Blockade), 1991

Museos interiores (Interior Museums)

Museos interiores (Interior museums) presents a look at MNBA’s contemporary interests.

Made of found objects, “La Regata Recardada (The Regata Recharged)” was first shown in 1993 presaging the fateful 1994 mass exodus of Cubans by boat and rafts. It’s reconfigured here, and against the current mass migrations across the world, continues to be a relevant and painful reminder of the fate of displaced people.

KCHO (Alexis Leyva Machado), La Regata Recardada (The Regata, Recharged), 1993-2019

Created shortly before Los Carpinteros disbanded last year, “Irma y Andrew (Irma and Andrew)” features common Cuban kitchen cabinets. Sounds of storms wail from within them adding a layer of menace to the formal lines and spare installation.

Los Carpinteros (Marco Castillo and Dagoberto Rodríguez), Irma y Andrew (Irma and Andrew), 2018

La posibilidad infinita: pensando en la nación (The Infinite Possibility: Thinking about the nation), is on view at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Old Havana, Cuba, until September 20, 2019. The XIII Havana Biennial is on view until May 14, 2019, in locations throughout Havana and across the Cuba.

About the author: Katarina Wong is an artist, curator and writer. She is also the program manager of the Arts Administration graduate program at Teachers College Columbia University. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Related posts:
Our woman in Havana: The Construction of the Possible, The Havana Biennial, Part 1

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