Cuban artists’ call to the international art community to boycott Cuba’s Nov. 12 Havana Biennial of Fine Art — the island’s equivalent to Miami Beach’s Art Basel — is getting unprecedented support from some of Cuba’s best-known artists and international human-rights groups.
In light of the ongoing repression of artists on the island, it’s a protest that deserves everybody’s support.
Tania Bruguera, a visual performance artist, and Sandra Ceballos, multimedia artist, among others, launched the petition to stymie participation in the government-organized art exhibit in recent weeks on their social-media pages.
Many of those who joined the #NoalaBienaldelaHabana— No to the Havanna Biennial — move have long been critical of Cuba’s dictatorship. But now, following the regime’s brutal repression of the July 1 1 street protests across the island, which resulted in about 500 arbitrary arrests, they have been joined by some internationally recognized artists who, until not long ago, participated in Cuba’s art festivals.
Perhaps the most important one is Tomás Sanchez, a hyper-realist painter whose works sell in New York and London auction houses for up to $650,000. His paintings also hang in Cuba’s National Museum of Fine Arts and — according to witnesses — at the Palace of the Revolution.
Sánchez, lives in Costa Rica, but exhibited in Havana in 2015 and last visited the island in 2017. On. Oct. 15, he announced on his Facebook page that he is joining the boycott.
Reached by phone at his home, Sanchez told me that, “I had never totally broken ties, culturally speaking, with Cuba. I had participated in collective exhibits and kept in touch with [government-run] cultural institutions such as the National Museum and the Wifredo Lam Center.”
He told me he had exhibited in Cuba in 2015 because he hoped that the island would open up after President Obama re-established diplomatic relations. But, he said, he was soon disillusioned by the regime’s failure to allow basic freedoms.
“I have now joined the #NoalaBienaldelaHabana movement because it’s not fair to have a celebration of art amid the repression of Cuban artists, amid the number of artists who are in jail, and amid the total absence of freedoms in Cuba,” Sanchez told me.
According to the Human Rights Watch advocacy group, there are five Cuban artists in jail and more than 30 others who are under “de facto house arrest.” That means that they have a policeman at their door, who tells them they cannot leave home, despite the fact that there isn’t an arrest warrant issued by any judge against them.
The five jailed artists include Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, a visual artist and leader of the San Isidro Movement of Cuban artists, and rap musicians Maykel Castillo Perez and Randy Arteaga.
Bruguera, one of the boycott’s leading voices, said in a letter signed by hundreds of artists and art critics on the hypermediamagazine.com website that “We say NO to participating, attending or supporting the 14th Havana Biennial because we have exhausted others means of continuing our efforts to free our colleagues.” She added that, “We have sent letters, issued petitions, expressed our outrage in print and online. We have made protest art and music. We have fasted in public” — to no avail.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of Human Rights Watch’s Americas department, told me that, “The Cuban regime has historically tried to clean up its image with cultural events like this one. We should not allow it to continue with this practice at a time when there are dozens of Cuban artists in jail, or who are being persecuted.”
Vivanco added that the Cuban artists’ call on their peers to boycott the Biennal is an “excellent” initiative. He added, “We ask that all foreign artists who have been invited to this event refuse to go.”
Normally, I would argue that artists in repressive regimes should take advantage of any possible space to express themselves. But in today’s Cuba, with a dictatorship that is imprisoning artists and now banning a planned peaceful demonstration slated for Nov. 15 to demand basic freedoms, participating in this event amounts to endorsing an increasingly decrepit and brutal regime.
It’s not worth attending by any self-respecting artist — or art-lover.
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