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