Visual Arts

At Havana Biennial, art reflects the political thaw

With art, as in life, the beach is always a big draw. Visitors to the 12th Havana Biennial have been flocking to enjoy the inspired installation of a makeshift beach by Cuban artist Arles del Rio. Located along a stretch of the famed Malecón seawall and esplanade, the beach has become a gathering point for foreigners and locals alike. On any given day, children can be seen turning cartwheels or making sand castles there while the adults relax on white lounge chairs beneath tiki huts and palm trees.

The beach, on display through June 22, serves as a perfect metaphor for both the laid-back international art exhibition and for recent improved relations between the United States and Cuba. The perceived sense of impending change has prompted many Americans to visit Cuba before the country modernizes and loses its Old World charm. Among them is Omaha attorney Howard Hahn, who opted to celebrate his 70th birthday in Cuba during the biennial because he wanted to see the country before foreign money turned it into a resort, indistinguishable from other Caribbean islands. Hahn and his wife, Carol, were among a group of nine people on an educational tour that I joined with the express intention of seeing the biennial.

The 12th Havana Biennial — titled “Between the Idea and the Experience” — is unlike any modern art show on the planet. To begin, the name is a misnomer. Most biennials, as the name implies, occur every two years. But Havana operates by its own rules, with its own sense of time. Sometimes the event occurs in two-year cycles, but most often three and sometimes even four years slip by before art again takes over the city.

What further distinguishes Havana’s from other biennials is that it features artists from countries that do not habitually show up on the international art rosters, such as Afghanistan and Aruba, Curaçao and the Congo. Although the Havana Biennial also highlights art from heavy hitters — such as Anish Kapoor, whose individual works often exceed $1 million, and Daniel Buren, whose work was featured in a retrospective at New York’s Armory Show this year — its primary focus is community-based art and work not normally exhibited in gallery or museum spaces. The exhibition goes to great lengths to remove the museum walls and make art accessible to the man on the street.

In particular, many of the monumental installations in and around the Malecón invite audience participation. Rachel Valdés Camejo’s Cubo Azul attracts lines of curious people who want to enter her giant glass cube that gives the sensation of seeing the world through blue-colored glasses. Duke Riley’s ice hockey rink across the street attracts both spectators and participants. Children, especially, do not need an invitation to climb all over Liudmila López’s Parto a la Libertad installation, which in essence is a beautifully stylized slide.

Although the official program lists more than two dozen exhibition spaces, it seems as though the whole city — whether invited or not — is participating. Citywide, art studios and schools, galleries and museums are all brushing off their best art. And those artists who weren’t invited to the party often opt to throw their own, as was the case of Damian Aquiles, an established contemporary artist who repurposes paint cans and other metal into spheres of interconnected letters, wall sculptures, and even elegant siding for the entrance to the home he shares with his wife, Pamela Ruiz, and their son in the Vedado district. The show, titled “With friends like you…” also featured work by artists Luis Gomez, Ernesto Leal, Nelson & Liudmila, Bastian Silvestre and Antonio Gomez Margolles.

The National Museum of Fine Arts also offers special exhibits in conjunction with the biennial — this year, curated exhibits of contemporary Cuban artists Tomás Sánchez and Gustavo Pérez Monzón. The latter includes a selection of works from the Ella Fontanals Cisneros collection and will be shown through Aug. 24. In one installation not to be missed, Pérez Monzón created a spider web of wire, elastic thread and stones in a work titled Vilos that he inaugurated in 1981 and reprised for the biennial.

A biennial events pass provides free access to the museum, in addition to biennial events and exhibitions. Though they are available online, ours was included with our package tour from Cuba Educational Travel that included visits to see artists at work at the National School of Fine Arts and the Taller Experimental de Gráfica, a printmaking studio in Old Havana.

Collectors can also purchase first-rate Cuban art at the Zona Franca, located in a 16th century fort overlooking Havana Harbor at the Parque Histórico Militar Morro Cabaña. But you may not be able to take it off the walls until the show concludes. That was the case with works by Harold López Muñoz, whose paintings, which range in price from $3,000 to $5,000, reference fragments of party slogans found on city walls and how they weigh on the collective psyche of everyday people.

The structure of this year’s biennial, which loosely celebrates the 30th anniversary of the show that began in 1984, lends itself to a conga line of art shows that seamlessly join the official curated exhibits. The organizers of the Havana Biennial, headed by Jorge Fernández Torres, who also serves as director of Old Havana’s Wifredo Lam Center, deliberately designed the biennial without borders so that it would engulf the whole of Havana, and perhaps the whole of Cuba.

According to the official website of the Biennial Foundation, “This year, the program of activities includes performances from the worlds of dance, theatre, music, film and literature. In the words of one of the organizers: ‘It won’t be a Biennial for collectors or gallerists, but rather to make a connection with the city.’ There will be no official opening or specific venue; art will spill out of the galleries, bursting into the streets, which will be bubbling with ideas.”

This organic evolution of Havana’s biennial ensures a chaotic and colorful experience for collectors and art enthusiasts who are used to more organized events such as the Venice Biennale, where exhibits are usually clustered in a few easily identifiable venues.

Because the art is spread throughout the city, the best way to see it is on foot. Or, be adventurous and try a pedicab. A cross between a rickshaw and a bicycle, the pedicab will enable you to see the city from the ground up, and you can easily stop to take pictures.

Although there is a map that provides precise coordinates of where the art is located, it is more of a suggestion than a precise science. If you enjoy the journey more than the destination, it can be a lot of fun looking for the art. Even if you cannot find every exhibit, you will see a lot of amazing graffiti as you embark on your hunt. That graffiti will likely disappear when the city undergoes an inevitable renovation in the coming years.

If you make it to Havana, try to squeeze in a side trip to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Trinidad, which is roughly four hours away by bus. The artists there are also presenting their best works in honor of the biennial. One such artist, Osley Ramón Ponce Yznaga created an extraordinary work using brightly colored pencils. By strategically placing the pencils on a Styrofoam base, Ponce created a pig that balanced on the tip of a carving knife while spinning around in a circle.

Ponce called his creation Jugando con el Destino, which translates to “Playing with Destiny.” That title took on more meaning when a member of our group, Dallas oilman Bradley Jeffreys, sought to bring the pig home. In a way, the pig is an object lesson in what can happen when attempting to ship art purchased abroad, where crating and packaging options are limited.

When pigs fly — at least in the case of the pencil pig — they have to go as cargo. While the Cuban baggage handlers treated the pig with kid gloves, his journey from Miami to Dallas proved problematic. When the plane landed in Dallas around midnight, the pig bumped along the baggage conveyor belt with one of his legs severed from his body.

Despite the shocking devastation, Jeffreys says he thoroughly enjoyed the biennial and remains optimistic about his pig’s recovery. His prognosis: “The pig will dance again.”


The Havana Biennial runs through June 22. An event pass provides free access to the National Museum of Fine Arts in addition to biennial events and exhibitions; it costs $50 at

Art sprawls through Havana, but for the most part, exhibitions are clustered at three sites. The Zona Franca (which translates to duty-free zone) in the Parque Morro-Cabaña houses an exhibition of about 200 Cuban artists in this former military fort near the Morro Castle. (There is also a sculpture garden with monumental works that range from a pink slide in the shape of a tongue to a collection of colorful ice cream cones.) The Wifredo Lam Center for Contemporary Art in Old Havana (Calle San Ignacio 22, 7 861-3419) which houses a significantly smaller exhibit, also has some pretty impressive art in the offices of the people who work there. The National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Calle Trocadero at the corner of Zulueta and Monserrate) features special Biennial exhibits by Cuban artists Tomás Sánchez and Gustavo Pérez Monzón.