Blurring Boundaries Between Art and Activism in Cuba
In Cuba, Artistic Freedom Remains an Open Question
By VICTORIA BURNETTJAN. 23, 2015
MEXICO CITY — Of the half-dozen pieces that form Tania Bruguera’s series
“Tatlin’s Whisper,” the one that the Cuban government silenced may have
An attempt by Ms. Bruguera, a New York-based Cuban artist, to stage an
open-mike performance in Revolution Square in Havana on Dec. 30 prompted
a burst of news coverage. Ms. Bruguera, 46, who was arrested before the
performance but has been released and is awaiting possible public
disorder charges, has become an art world cause célèbre.
As the United States and Cuba begin talks to restore diplomatic
relations, the “Bruguera affair,” as some are calling it, is a reminder
of the limits of expression in Cuba and the hope among artists and
activists that the détente will result not only in economic benefits but
also broader rights. It has also blurred the boundaries between art and
political activism, challenging the state’s control over cultural spaces.
“In a sense it was a test,” Ms. Bruguera said of her bid to stage the
work, “Tatlin’s Whisper #6,” in which Cubans would express their desires
for the country’s future.
Speaking by telephone from Havana this week, she said of Cuban
authorities, “Now I see they would never have allowed it.”
Cuba is, in some respects, like a giant schoolyard, where some citizens
try to push the envelope as much as possible without paternalistic
authorities clamping down. Visual artists, writers, filmmakers, theater
directors and musicians are constantly nudging the changeable line
between what can and cannot be said. Every few months, it seems, one
crosses the line and is chastised.
Robertico Carcassés was temporarily barred from government-run music
spaces in 2013 after he called for free elections during a nationally
televised concert. In September, a show called “Utopias y Disidencias”
by Pedro Pablo Oliva was abruptly called off. Mr. Oliva, a prominent
Cuban painter from Pinar del Río, was ostracized by provincial officials
after he criticized harassment of dissidents four years ago.
Notwithstanding the showdown over “Tatlin’s Whisper,” the space for
expression has grown significantly since the early days of the
revolution, when Fidel Castro said: “What are the rights of writers and
artists, revolutionary or not revolutionary? Within the revolution,
everything; against the revolution, no right.”
President Raúl Castro is more open to debate than his older brother,
Fidel. And even the extremely limited Internet access in Cuba has made
it hard for the government to control all areas of media and culture.
Many Cubans surreptitiously receive satellite television signals from
the United States and pass movies, music and articles around on devices.
A community of bloggers has emerged, some highly critical.
While the state still produces or vets virtually all Cuban television,
radio and print-media content, for example, there is an increasingly
audacious repertoire of theater and film. Yet the boundaries of
expression remain capricious, and the dance with the censors involves a
subtle understanding of what can be said where and by whom.
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“You never know how far you can go,” said Leonardo Padura, a well-known
Cuban novelist, whose popular detective novels are a blistering study of
the hardships and shady dealings of daily life in Cuba. He added,
“Sometimes it seems as if spaces open and then close again.”
Artists and activists are skeptical that this will change, even with the
diplomatic thaw. Just last month, “Return to Ithaca,” a film by the
French director Laurent Cantet, based on a story by Mr. Padura about a
returning Cuban exile, was pulled, without explanation, from the
International Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana. Mr.
Padura, who helped write the screenplay, would not discuss the decision,
but in an open letter, a group of filmmakers condemned what they called
a “serious, unnecessary and outdated act of censorship.”
For some who cross the limits, punishment can be harsh. Danilo Maldonado
Machado, a graffiti artist known as El Sexto, has been in police
detention since Dec. 25, when he tried to transport two pigs whose
flanks were emblazoned with the names Fidel and Raúl that he intended to
use in a performance.
Boris González Arenas, a professor at the International Film and
Television School near Havana who was detained for three days after he
went to Revolution Square for “Tatlin’s Whisper,” was fired two days
later, ostensibly for publishing articles “against the Cuban State.”
Censorship is, at times, as much about where a work is shown as the work
itself. The state-run National Council of Visual Arts suggested that Mr.
Oliva first put on his “Utopias y Disidencias” show, a series of
vignettes about a Candide-like Cuban, in Havana, perhaps because the
capital is more open-minded or because officials there bear him no
personal grudge; he refused.
Enrique Del Risco, a Cuban academic who lectures at the Spanish
department of New York University, said that what troubled authorities
most about Ms. Bruguera’s open-mike performance was probably not what
Cubans might have said there but that they would have said it on
hallowed ground, a vast square that is used for political rallies and
overlooked by murals of revolutionary heroes.
Ms. Bruguera was arrested before the performance could take place, as
were dozens of people who went to Revolution Square to take part. The
artist, who has since been detained and released two more times, has had
her passport confiscated and says that authorities offered to return it
if she promised not to return to Cuba.
In an interview published in La Jiribilla, a state-run cultural
newspaper, Rubén del Valle Lantarón, president of the National Council
of Visual Arts, said that he had offered Ms. Bruguera alternative
spaces, such as a factory, universities, a bus stop or a fruit market —
options that he said she turned down. Ms. Bruguera said she rejected
places where officials could restrict participation and suggested, as an
alternative to Revolution Square, a small square in Old Havana.
Officials refused, she said.
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Mr. del Valle described Ms. Bruguera’s performance as a “reality show”
undertaken “under a lot of external pressures” from anti-Castro exiles —
a charge Ms. Bruguera dismissed.
Artists and intellectuals, in Cuba and abroad, condemned the
government’s crackdown, and more than 2,200 have signed a petition
calling for Ms. Bruguera’s freedom. The episode led to a heated exchange
among intellectuals about whether Ms. Bruguera’s feat was a brave stand
for free expression or an ill-timed publicity stunt.
The debate exposed the complex dynamics within a sphere whose artists
preserve a delicate entente with cultural authorities. These artists
sometimes resent gestures they see as grandstanding, especially from
Cubans or others who do not live in the country.
Lázaro Saavedra, one of a few artists in Cuba who signed the petition,
wrote on a blog that the Bruguera incident was “another point on her
artistic curriculum rather than a gain in terms of civil rights.” Mr.
Saavedra, whose works, in different media, poke fun at Cubans’ paranoia,
ideological hypocrisy and the artistic process, wrote that those
struggling for Cubans’ rights “would have loved Tania had she been close
during moments of repression.”
Ms. Bruguera defended the timing of the piece and her right to protest,
as a Cuban.
The piece was “political timing specific,” she added, in that it worked
in a particular political moment.
“Everything that happened — from the day that we formed the platform, is
a performance,” she said. “And it turned out different from what I
The performance includes Cuban authorities and their supporters, who,
Ms. Bruguera said, have produced their own piece of “theater,”
suggesting she is sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency, a charge
she also denied.
Mr. Del Risco, the Cuban academic, said Ms. Bruguera’s participatory
work, which plays with the barriers between art and reality, challenged
the Cuban government’s predilection for well-defined space.
“What Tania did is to break a hole between two spaces that are supposed
to be kept separate — art and reality, art and the people, art and
politics,” Mr. Del Risco said.
He hopes American officials will continue to press for freedoms as they
negotiate new diplomatic and economic relations.
“The United States has too much faith in the power of the economy and of
tourism to bring political change,” he said. “Just because the two
countries have contact, I don’t think there will be some magical opening.”
Source: In Cuba, Artistic Freedom Remains an Open Question – NYTimes.com