In the past, the international art community largely ignored the violence and brutal repression taking place in communist Cuba. But Cuban artists are now making them take notice.
Cuban artists shine a light on state repression
Amid calls to boycott the Havana Biennial, artists and dealers are using Miami Art Week as a bullhorn
At the first VIP fair opening of the week, visitors to Untitled Art on Monday were asked to hand over cash to be stamped with messages of support for freedom of expression in Cuba. The project, El billetaje quemando la calle (Bills Burning the Street), was first conceived in June by the artist Hamlet Lavastida, who was arrested before it could be executed and held in prison for three months. Under constraints on artistic expression ushered in by a sweeping decree that went into effect in 2018, authorities deemed his idea of stamping currency with symbols of dissent to be akin to planning to commit a crime.
Now living in exile in Europe, Lavastida joined the realisation of the performance via Zoom, as fellow Cuban and Cuban American artists Coco Fusco, Janet Batet and Marco Castillo stamped visitors’ bills in Miami.
“It was important we bring this piece here since a lot of people in Florida follow the situation in Cuba very closely,” Fusco says (63% of Cuban immigrants in the US live in the greater Miami area). “Given the level of repression in the last year, there’s a growing concern that reform is not an option, and what’s needed is a change of regime and transition.”
Discontent with the Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel’s administration reached fever pitch over the summer. In July, thousands of Cubans on the island took to the streets in one of the largest protests the country has seen since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution. The demonstrations built on rallying calls for a freer Cuba led by artists such as Lavastida and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, who have been arrested numerous times for protesting against the controversial censorship law, Decree 349. These protests were followed by government crackdowns and intimidation campaigns.
For Cuban and Cuban American artists, the timing of the protests and government suppression has given greater weight to both Miami Art Week and the 14th edition of the Havana Biennial, which opened on 21 November. Hundreds of Cuban cultural workers signed an open letter calling for a boycott of the biennial, which has long been a popular destination on the global exhibitions calendar. “This is not the time to be doing cultural tourism in Cuba,” says Fusco, one of the signatories.
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