HAVANA, Cuba — A stream of Cuban children push and jostle one another, fighting for a spot at the front of the line. A mother blows a whistle hanging from her neck, the shrieks puncturing the kids’ giddy screams as she demands order. “If you don’t wait your turn, none of you get to go down the slide!” she says in Spanish. In Havana, playgrounds are scarce and the recreation parks have an entrance fee; a public slide is a hot commodity.
What the children do not know is that the slide is an installation piece for Cuba’s 12th Biennial, an international art festival taking place in Havana until June 22 with the theme “Entre La Idea y La Experienia” (Between Ideas and Experience). The slide, part of a red structure by Cuban artist Liudmila López, is one of several pieces in the “Detrás del Muro” (Behind the Wall) collaboration that runs along Havana’s iconic Malecón, a long stone seawall and boardwalk that has served as Cubans’ go-to spot for strolling, fishing, chatting and lounging since long before the country’s 1959 revolution.
“It is very accessible,” said Yudenis Ramirez a 28-year old woman who took the afternoon off to walk down the Malecón and view all the pieces. “It is incredible that people can interact with the art.”
“Detrás del Muro” is just one set of works on display during the Biennial, which spans dozens of Havana’s galleries, schools and museums with contributions from over 200 artists representing 44 countries. Initiated in 1984, this year the festival has generated excited buzz as an influx of U.S. travelers who have taken advantage of the recent political rapprochement between the United States and Cuba have flocked to Havana to participate.
This year’s Biennial has also garnered critical attention due to the ongoing censorship and temporary Sunday detainment of Cuban artist Tania Bruguera by authorities, with some questioning the validity of an art festival in a country that still restricts freedom of expression.
But beyond political considerations, the Biennial is a celebration of art for a general Cuban public. All along the Malecón, people pose for photos snapped with cellphones, discussing which pieces are their favorites or debating whether “Occidente con Esteroides” (West with Steroids) — a large, colorful piece by a Cuban collective — is in fact supposed to be a cake. Many of the works are interactive; an actual ice-skating rink by U.S.-Irish artist Duke Riley, where individuals can lace up and skate to tunes beneath the glow of a disco ball, has proven to be a fan favorite.
“Ice skating on a 90 degree day in Havana? Now we really know that with imagination anything is possible,” said Tomy Ramirez, waiting his turn in line.
The Malecón, historically a meaningful strip in Havana, has become a site of transition in recent years, with new hotels and restoration projects standing in sharp contrast to some of the city’s most decayed buildings. With works such as Rafael San Juan’s towering sculpture of a woman’s face and Lina Leal’s stack of white wooden furniture added to the mix, Havana’s cityscape becomes part of the art itself. Fisherman stand behind the wooden crates that compose “Tzompantil”, and couples sit and chat, as they do on any other day, regardless of whether there is an art festival or not. Tourists with hulking Canons choose to photograph them as much as the pieces.
As the first Biennial since U.S. President Barack Obama announced a restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, a few pieces fittingly reference change on the island. A Facebook “like” thumb hints at the new role the internet and social media has (or has not) taken on as Wi-Fi access reaches Cuba, while in “Entropia” (Entropy) artist René Francisco, who bares a striking resemblance to Obama, dressed as the U.S. president and filmed reactions as he went on a bar crawl through Old Havana. The “Wild Noise” exhibition at the National Museum of Fine Arts is the result of an exchange with the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and is the largest artistic collaboration between the U.S. and Cuba in over 50 years.
The general Cuban public, however, is less likely to explore works beyond the Malecón. Several exclusive events, viewings and parties are available only to those who paid for — or whose travel groups provided them — with an official badge.
At sunset the full throng of Cubans out of school and off work descends upon the Malecón. Groups of friends sit on the chairs that comprise part of the faux-beach of “Resaca” (Hangover), while others line up to take selfies inside “Proyecto Reality-Cubo Azúl” (Reality Project-Blue Cube), which resembles a miniature, blue Apple store. Still in its first week, the “Detrás del Muro” installations are in good condition, new and exciting for those viewing them for the first time. The tour groups may come and go, but for the next month Cubans can take advantage of art that lies somewhere between ideas and experience.
All photos courtesy of Nicki Fleischner for Latin America News Dispatch.