Ahead of the opening of this year’s Havana Biennial, Cuban artists and activists are sounding an impassioned call for a boycott of the government-backed exhibition. Ahead of the show’s opening on November 21, several artists have pulled out of the biennial.
Over the past year, the Cuban government has clamped down on artists and writers, with several outspoken critics of the government imprisoned or deported. This July, thousands of Cubans flooded the streets in Havana, in one of the largest protests the island had experienced since 1959. Shortly afterward, state authorities passed a new decree limiting the use of social media. Internet providers were ordered to cease access to any users accused of supporting the peaceful protests.
That same month, it was announced the Havana Biennial’s 14th edition would be going ahead as planned (under the title “Future and Contemporaneity”), causing cultural leaders to demand the event’s cancellation.
“The institutions and functionaries that organize the 14th Havana Biennial are the same ones that have refused to listen to us,” reads an open letter released in October. “They have condoned and participated in the violence perpetrated against Cuban cultural workers who seek greater autonomy for Cuban culture and civil rights for our citizenry. The problems we face cannot be reduced to an isolated case of censorship. We are contending with a systemic effort by the Cuban government to silence those who think differently. The lives of people in the cultural field are at risk.”
The letter was signed by hundreds of cultural workers from around the world, including artists Teresita Fernandez, Walid Raad, Coco Fusco, and Tania Bruguera. Bruguera, who has been arrested on multiple occasion this year for protesting Cuba’s censorship laws, has been a vocal proponent of the boycott campaign that is spreading across social media under #NoALaBienalDeLaHabana.
Artists Julie Mehretu, Theaster Gates, and Marina Abramović, as well as curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, are among the high-profile figures to publicly lend their support to the campaign.
Several participants have since pulled out of the exhibition. On Instagram, Bruguera said that artists Yazmany Arboleda, Abel Azcona, and Joiri Minaya would no longer show their work at the biennial. Curators Nicolas Bourriaud and Ursula Biemann also declined to participate in related events, according to Bruguera.
“I have concluded that it is difficult, contradictory, even hypocritical, to be part of an event organized by a regime that violates the freedoms of dissident artist; that tortures, imprisons, and deports artists for doing their work or expressing their opinions,” Minaya, a Dominican American multidisciplinary artist, wrote in a statement.
A representative for the Havana Biennial did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The 2018 edition of the biennial faced similar protests. An open letter signed by Bruguera, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, and Yanelys Nuñez Leyva—the organizers of Havana’s alternative #00Bienal—was sent to all artists invited to participate in the exhibition. The signatories called for movement against Decree 349, a censorship law first passed by Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel that year that allows the country’s government to control what kinds of art can be shown and sold. The law also criminalized independent cultural activity. In a statement, Amnesty International called the legislation “dystopian,” and said, “Instead of consolidating their control over artists perceived to overstep state-sanctioned criticism, the Cuban authorities should be making progressive changes to protect human rights.”