The B Side of the Biennial
On Thursday, April 11, while in the halls of the National Museum of Fine Arts the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozcowas preparing an exhibition, and on the terrace of the Spanish Embassy the duo Clandestina finished mounting its installations, the independent artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara was arrested in Damas Street when he carried out one of the actions he had planned for the XIII Biennial of Havana.
The most important artistic event in Cuba started with wide coverage in the official and foreign press. The media announced new features such as the multiplication of stages of the Havana-based event, which this year is also happening in Pinar del Río, Matanzas, Cienfuegos and Camagüey, and the motto of the Biennial — “The Construction of the Possible” — and the participation of more than 300 creators from 52 nations.
But none of them spoke of the flip side of the event. The arrest of Otero Alcántara came during a performance with which he was trying to pay tribute to Daniel Llorente, known as ’The Flag Man’ since he was arrested in 2017 while ’crashing’ the May Day parade waving an American flag. According to Eliezer Llorente, his son went missing more than two days ago.
The writer Abu Duyanah Tamayo, who witnessed the arrest, told this newspaper that when he arrived at the artist’s street, in the neighborhood of San Isidro, “they were putting him and two other boys in the patrol car.” According to his testimony, the boys were running toward their homes “because the police came screaming” but the officers entered the houses, took them out and took them away.
“They took the phone from Luis Manuel, and they tried to take ours from us when we arrived , but in the end we resisted and they didn’t.”
“The Biennial is a whole energy that gets into every corners and I am an artist and the Biennial is mine too,” Otero Alcántara had told 14ymedio before his arrest, when he had not yet specified a date or place for the action.
“I have three projects, and one of them is a tribute to the man of the flag, a race that will be called Daniel Llorente and in which every Cuban of and age can participate. It will be a 66 meter race, the distance Llorente ran in the Plaza of the Revolution on May 1st. Everyone who runs has to do it with an American flag and a Cuban flag, the first three will have their prize and their medal,” he explained.
The artist, who days before suffered another detention to warn him of the consequences if he went ahead with the performance, says he senses fear in the Government “This is a symbolic regime that has never been able to solve anything on a practical level, everything is hope, the illusion and the symbolism, “he said.
Otero Alcántara’s actions are part of the “Se USA” project. “The other work I’m going to do is a walkway outside my house, on the street, and with models that will be people from the neighborhood.” I will make a fashion show with 10 designs that I chose among the more than 80 that Chanel had when she did hers in the Prado, combining those Chanel designs with garments that Cubans wear a lot, in shorts, lycra, shirts, t-shirts, handkerchiefs, with the imagery of the American flag.”
As an artist, he is interested in talking about “that ultra-pathetic nationalism and patriotism” that power builds “to dominate, control and tell you that you are a traitor,” if you do not do things as they planned. “Why can’t Daniel Llorente go out with the flag if he wants. Why to you wantto make me an enemy, I feel like an enemy but I have to assume it because you impose it on me?” he protests.
This edition of the Biennial should have been celebrated in 2018, but its organizers postponed it because of the damage caused by the passage of Hurricane Irma. This decision gave rise to a group of independent artists, among whom, as a visible face, was Otero Alcántara, who took the initiative to organize the #00Bienal last year, an alternative call that was demonized and repressed by the Government and cultural authorities.
Since 1984 the Wifredo Lam Contemporary Art Center, together with the National Council of Plastic Arts and the Ministry of Culture, among other institutions, have been responsible for organizing the Havana Biennial.
The galleries of the Alicia Alonso Gran Teatro de La Habana, the Havana Collage, the Ensemble Workshop, the National Museum of Fine Arts and independent studios such as Del Castillo Art Studio or El Apartamento will remain open until May 12 as part of the exhibition.
In the last decade, with the birth of alternative spaces, activities that take place in independently managed galleries have also been added to the event and are included as part of the collateral actions. Provided they abstain from any criticisms of the Government, they will be allowed to exist.