Rojas-Sotelo, Miguel

Guest Author of May 2010

After Caroline Turner’s text on socio-political context of the Asian art scene, we turn to corresponding issues in Latin America with Miguel Rojas-Sotelo essay on the Havana Biennale and the idea of a “Global South”. Miguel Rojas-Sotelo – currently at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the Duke University – has been working on the contexts and definitions of modern, contemporary and “global” art on various platforms – as a scholar, a curator and through his own artistic practice. In “The Other Network”, he traces the history of the Havana Biennale and its connections to Cuba’s cultural policy, which has to be seen against the background of the concept of Non-Aligned states during the cold war, and the classification of countries – and their art – as belonging to the so-called Third World. These classifications have, obviously, shaped the selection of artists included in the Havana Biennale by means of political exclusion – or through a explicit inclusion of the ones excluded themselves by the “western” art world. At the end of the 20th century, these questions have become central also within the international art mainstream itself, and have pressured the Havana Biennale to rethink its own definition as an alternative to representations of the “western” art system.

The Other Network: The Havana Biennale and the global south

The Havana Biennale is one of a group of cultural mega-events that has projected Cuba’s interest in being at the center of world affairs. The event also highlights Cuba’s alternative cosmopolitan modernism in the South and answers the question of whether these debates and practices, taken place in the South, have contributed to a redefinition of the network of “global art” today1.

The Havana Biennale’s methodological approaches towards the larger picture of “global art,” its interactions with the art world, and the discussions on artistic and cultural subjectivity are what drive these lines2. However, this is not a fully comparative or comprehensive study; it does not explore how other events function or how international biennials and world art exhibitions came into being, or the state of these events today. Nonetheless, it situates Havana within a timeframe in which a number of international art biennials have emerged and takes into account the fact that many of these events have reacted to particular historical, political, cultural, and economic agendas. Most art biennials respond to the national or local questions as it relates to their specific international and global interests. They try to position local production and to promote local and regional (as well as international) cultural markets. The official, political, and economic dimensions of these events are unquestionable, and must be acknowledged3.

The Wifredo Lam Center for Contemporary Art. Policy and visual culture

Wifredo Lam died in Paris on September 11, 1982. The Cuban modernist (surrealist) is a key figure to understand the creation of a center for contemporary art and a biennial for the third world in Cuba. The Cuban Minister of Culture Armando Hart Dávalos (1976-2003) toured Europe and East Europe in late 1982. There he inaugurated an exhibition on Cuban Art and Spanish Culture at the Museo del Prado in Madrid, and a retrospective of Lam’s work, prepared in part by the artist himself early that year. It is possible that pledges, after Lam’s death, were made to Hart Dávalos by members of the international community during the trip.

The Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers of 1983, according to the Decree No. 113 of the same year (March 30th), stipulated the following:

“1. To create the Wifredo Lam Center, under the administration of the Ministry of Culture.

2. The Center will have as attributions and functions:

a. to promote the study and promotion of Lam’s work as a universal expression of contemporary art.

b. to promote internationally the art work of artists from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as well as of artists that struggle for cultural identity and that are related to those territories.

c. to endorse international activities in the field of visual arts in order to develop and establish networks of cooperation.

d. to facilitate the development of the visual arts in Cuba and to promote the contemporary manifestations of Cuban contemporary artists of most significance.

e. to offer services of specialized information about contemporary art, artists, critics, and researchers.

f. to enrich the cultural patrimony of the country through the creation of a permanent collection of visual arts and the systematic exchange of artistic and cultural documentation.

g. to present periodically national and international events related to visual arts and to give artistic recognition in form of grants and prizes.

h. to promote a broader interest in the visual arts to the society through didactic and artistic activities and the use of mass communication.

Signed March 30, 1983 by: Armando Hart Dávalos (Minister of Culture), Fidel Castro Ruz (President of the Council of Ministers), and Osmany Cienfuegos Gorriarán (Secretary of the Council of Ministers).”4

As a result of globalization, by the mid 1990s, many other cultural centers and art biennials (not counting art fairs and museums) were created around the cultural centers of the third world. Thomas McEvilley, among some, recognized the phenomenon and made references to the international art survey exhibitions that were popping up all over the third world during those years. He wrote:

“Other shows are not merely non-Western geographically but take place within more distinctly non-Western cultures. Several have begun quite recently – 1984 was a pivotal year. These exhibitions’ inaccessibility to the vast majority of Western critics, and the truly daunting difficulty of getting information about them in the West (some of the biennials I discuss here I was unable to see, and I write on them from their catalogues, themselves hard to find), are part of their story, and part of their paradox.”5

McEvilley recognizes that the institution of the international juried show may be a Western phenomenon, “but the Third World biennials are sprouting with or without Western attention; clearly they have audiences and cultural functions of their own, quite independently of their resemblance to Western art practice.”6 On the other hand, McEvilley notes that many of those exhibitions, although taking place in countries of the Non-Aligned axis, often were committed to the project of becoming “modern”, or Modernist in a classical sense. It is also relevant to add that the contemporary biennial phenomenon started at the moment in which authors such as Hans Belting and Arthur Danto were publishing their famous theories on the “end of art” (Hans Belting, Das Ende der Kunstgeschichte / The End of Art History and Arthur Danto’s article “The End of Art” both in 1984) – the year of the first Havana Biennale.

Figure 1. Biennial time line, Havana as departure point

The Cuban cultural agenda at the time included the Festival on New Latin American Cinema that started in 1979; the Latin American Theater festival that started in 1980; the Literary Fairs and Meetings organized by Casa de la Americas (the meta-cultural organization in Cuba since 1959 and the precedent for many of the cultural policies of the first decades of the revolution and clearly the antecedent for the Book Fairs of the 1990s); the Cultura and Desarrollo Symposiums (heirs of the World Congress of Culture of 1968), etc. Havana was by a time an alternative center of cultural life working in solidarity with many, against the economic blockade established by the U.S. in 1962 as a result of the missile crisis. The Cuban Revolution was greatly admired in some countries of the old world, in Latin America, Africa, and the Far East.

What is the Havana Biennale?

The Havana Biennale is a stable collective scholarly/curatorial project, about the art produced in the South, established in 1984, based at the Lam Center in Havana. It had developed a scholarly method in which researcher-curators travel to a region of his/her choice to collect materials from primary sources, interact with individuals and collectives, make interviews, visit museums, galleries, and studios, and/or to participate in symposia (as organizer or jury) about local, regional and global contemporary art7.

“We are neither preoccupied with the issues that are in fashion in Europe, Japan, or the United States, or privilege the practice of installation, post-conceptual, or minimal art in their many variations. We are interested in searching for ways to give more public accessibility and more clarity in the purpose of art and an exhibition, and to bestow an open reflection over our past and present, as ways to counteract the illness that our memory and history comprise. We want to be part of the contemporary intellectual space, to locate ourselves in the universe of artistic practice, and join the venture of others who are contributing to the understanding of what we are.”8

From March 27 to April 30, 2009 the Havana Biennale celebrated its tenth edition and also celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. On this occasion the event was called under the curatorial theme “Integration and Resistance in the Global Era,” an opportunity to return also to its core values. Up to 300 artists from 44 countries were present; the event featured several parallel events, exhibits, publications, openings, concerts, public art activities, etc. If size matters in a biennial, the 2009 edition confronts its critics that declared Havana’s funeral on several occasions during the last decade. Unfortunately it came back to the spectacular rather than the insightful.

Figure 2. The Tenth Edition of the Havana Biennale. A spectacle

With the installment of Raúl Castro as president, Cuba has returned to politics as usual (the Castro brothers more stringent than ever in which has been called the retro-revolution). Two of the most progressive officials, former Vice President Carlos Lage and ex-Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, were among a dozen officials who left their posts in early March, 2009. Later on the government called the two relevant Politians to declare and apologize before the Cuban people for their supposedly “bad behavior.” The incident reminded of the Soviet practices of silencing the critics of the inner-circle during the Stalinist era. Jorge Castañedas wrote in a piece for NewsWeek (March 14, 2009) that the two politicians were, allegedly, part of a conspiracy to overthrow Raul Castro9. In one of his reports to the Cuban people, Fidel (April 3, 2009) said that they, after many years as good revolutionaries, were corrupted by power.

These facts happened in a year in which the combined effect of higher international food prices, three hurricanes and the general worldwide economic meltdown pushed Cuba, again, into a hard spot economically and politically. Since, an already ailing Fidel Castro stepped down as president in February 2008; his brother Raul has announced some modest economic reforms, such as legalizing mobile phones and issuing licenses for private taxis and some other business. He also had to promote austerity measures, including a 50% cut in foreign travel by government officials.

Paradoxically, in 2009 after a decade of diminishing economic support and general crisis the Havana Biennale enjoyed a remarkable health and plenty of resources (in form of money and services) coming from the central government as well as from international cooperation. It is an interesting case where contemporary global art celebrates daunting, dangerous, unstable times with a party.

During the late 1980s and the 1990s the Biennale, as well as Cuba, where facing the hardships of the fall of the Soviets. Nonetheless Llilian Llanes, director of the Lam Center and the biennial for more than a decade, presented the case for its existence and defined the role the event was playing:

“As a result of the extraordinary fusion of peoples and cultures in the history of the Third World, many people currently believe that it has great cultural wealth and variety, and has a market interest in re-asserting its own traditions while striving for universality. Out of the conviction that contemporary Third World art and artists are contributing to global art, emerged the idea of creating in Havana a space which would favor the dissemination of their work and encourage discussion on the problems of contemporary art, especially those of the Third World.”10

Thirdworldism and Critical Thinking

In postmodern times, in a Cold War setting, the postcolonial would emerge in the form of anti-imperialism, and a radical Thirdworldism (embracing a decolonial strategy). In the cultural environment of Cuba of the early 1980s a powerful discourse would materialize11. For decades, Cuban magazines, such as the Tricontinental Magazine and Pensamiento Crítico, published articles by well known international intellectuals and in particular socialist thinkers which underlined the same concerns and created a larger understanding of the changing conditions of the time (the Cold War). For example, in 1970 Pensamiento Crítico republished Harry Magdoff’s “The Age of Imperialism” that had appeared initially in the Monthly Review in September, 196812.

By the mid 1980s an active group of cultural critics became relevant in identifying practices and practitioners of a socially and politically engaged cultural practice13. Clearly in the visual arts the name of Gerardo Mosquera became relevant. His first curated exhibition featuring the new generation of Cuban artists was titled Volumen Uno; the exhibit is for many the starting point of this social, cultural, and political engage artistic practice in the visual arts in contemporary Cuba. At the same time, visitors to the island such as Ana Mendieta, Lucy Lipard, and Luis Camnitzer helped the propagation of ideas and practices (case of performance and conceptual art). International and Latin American art events at the time, such as the São Paulo Biennial, the Bienal Interamericana (Mexico), the Bienal Americana (Argentina), the Medellin Biennial (Colombia) and the Bienal de Gráfica (Puerto Rico y Cali) among others were also relevant to circulate new ideas and artists (the only survivors of these are the São Paulo and the Havana biennials).

The Cuban cultural discourse and policy evolved from the creation of the Casa de la Americas (1959) to the development an elaborated net of cultural institutions part of the Ministry of Culture and Education (resulted from the new Cuban constitution of 197614). They had built a local discourse connected to the Revolution linking thinkers from a variety of geographies and times, from José Martí and Simón Bolivar (who actively pursued a regional alliance and continental unity) to the postcolonial thinkers of India, Africa, and the Caribbean (Gandhi, Fanon, Glissant, etc.), and the political debates taking place among the countries of the Non-Aligned Movement15.

Figure 3. Theoretical sources Havana Biennale (art and cultural sources)

Third World Art – Global South

A structural understanding of art informed their initial approach which was based on the Marxist aesthetic agenda with an input from studies on popular culture. Llilian Llanes commented about their understanding of Third Word and contemporary Third World art at the time:

“It is a fact that the term [Third World] was used for the first time in 1955 during the Bandung Conference, and that it emerged in specific historical circumstances. It is also true that its use now has become generalized. … [it has] emerged from the system of relations imposed by the highly industrialized countries in the aftermath of colonialism; that is, underdevelopment and the economic dependence of neo-colonialism. This is the meaning of ‘Third World’ … and despite its limitations; we shall continue to use the term for lack of a better one.”16

Nelson Herrera Ysla insists that, “Third World artists are trapped within the global system, which governs what is considered contemporary art.”17 In that respect contemporary art exists in a sphere between – on the one hand – the main current of history and its multiple subsidiary streams, which follow certain interests, and – on the other hand – a reflexive, parallel, and alternate historical dimension that aims to reach understanding of what is to live in contemporary times without distancing itself from those particular historical forces.

Havana Biennale curator Ibis Hernandez puts is in a simple way. “We were establishing a new contemporary symbolic production when distinguishing the practices from the popular … the expressions tied to living cultures. We were giving them space among the more conventional manifestations from the art world established by the West, and in which we were trained. It was an act of decolonization in our own practice.”18

However, it is Gerardo Mosquera’s input which had gone further. His condition of an internal exile (after resigning from the Biennale in 1991) allowed him the possibility to look at the problem with critical distance/proximity. Mosquera problematizes the issue of “third world” or “art of the South” not as a geographic problem but as a problem of the geography of power. He calls for a better understanding of “globalization” as a new and often negative imperative. Resistance to the emergent art, to its illegitimate origin and its peripheral condition, might restrict its capacity to join the main stream. However, the first half of the first decade of the global age brought a surprise for the non-believers in such a possibility. In addition, Third World Art as contemporary art forms part of the universalization of the western concept and practice of art as a self-sufficient activity based on “impartial” contemplation and driven by the production of very specialized aesthetic-symbolic messages. It is, therefore, as Mosquera argues “a colonial product.”19

It is a fact that the Havana Biennale has produced a series of misinterpretations of what Third World Art means and how far it can go. Manuel López Oliva puts it in this way: “From its second concretion in 1986, the Havana Biennale has been based on the theory of the Three Worlds (which in its many variants has been used by Maoist rhetoric, the UNESCO programs, and by many countries and individuals). It looks contradictory in a sense since it poses ‘First World’ perspectives on the so-called ‘Third World’.”20 The Biennale, therefore, replicates a way of seeing things in fragments, not in complex relationships.

The acknowledgment of a world that is more horizontal but at the same time pervasively unequal has transformed the world map, new coordinates mark the journey. “Poverty, ethnicity, migration, marginalization, de-integration, identity struggle, war, environmental debacle, etc., are some of the topics that lead the Havana Biennale to have such an imprecise configuration. It becomes a mosaic of inharmonic and amorphous images in the labyrinth of the world art.”21 As for Global South concerns, the debate is still open22.

Unpacking the Havana Biennale

1. A conventional survey (1984-1986).

The Havana Biennale was born by a decree and without a strict curatorial process in place. The first four editions where assembled on (semi) open calls for artists and a selection/representation process. The first two in 1984 and 1986 offered prizes based on a representational and competitive model, and used to honor artists according to artistic practice and the specificity of the medium. These two editions worked as art surveys. Panoramic, and in a sense classificatory, they presented especially art from Latin America and the Caribbean; counting in – to a lesser degree – artists from elsewhere. Thanks to the material gathered during the first two Biennales (the first organized by the Ministry of Culture, directed by Beatriz Aulet) and an active networking through Cuban embassies and emissaries around the planet, the event consolidated its connections and understanding of contemporary art at the time, helping to position the event and projecting its mission and goals. This was possible thanks, in part, to Cuba’s position in the non-aligned movement during the 1980s, its support for the African cause as well as solidarity with the freedom movements in Latin America and South East Asia, in addition to initial explorations made by Gerardo Mosquera and Nelson Herrera Ysla (who participated in the first Biennale and went to work for the Lam Center), and the vision of Llilian Llanes, the first director of the Lam Center – and the relevant artistic production and participation of the new generation of Cuban artists in international events.

2. Transitional phase (1989-1991).

By the third Biennale 1989, the presence of scholars such as Geeta Kapur, Federico Morais, Juan Acha, Aly Sinon, Roberto Segre, Sergio Magalhaes, Rashid M. Diab, Pierre Restany, among others, debating an integral view of the arts (counting with the art produced in the Third World) would corroborate the Biennial’s intentions of becoming larger in scope. This is the turning point; as a matter of fact, the 1989 edition of the Havana Biennale has been recognized recently as one of the pivotal exhibitions in the changing landscape of global art (articles and a book is in preparation on the topic). However, this second stage is transitional. It is marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Soviet subsidies to Cuba resulting in the so-called “Periodo especial”23.

In 1989, the Biennale decided to cancel the competition and became a topical event in which a conceptual problem would determine the curatorial decisions as to what would compose the exhibitions and academic events. The first topic explored was “Tradition and Contemporaneity” (1989), the second one “The Challenge to Neo-Colonialism” (1991). This shift would restructure the Lam Center and generate certain frictions between its members (ending with the departure of Mosquera and the establishment of the curatorial team). It would also determine a new practice driven by a scholarly-style of research work directed by Llanes and informed, initially, by Mosquera’s academic interests (anthropology and cultural studies), and Herrera’s attraction to architecture and popular arts.

3. Research-based biennials (1994-2000).

In 1994 the introduction of the new element for the conception and concretion of the Havana Biennale would bear fruits. The Biennale, affected by the migration of many artists and critics of the 1980s generation, turned completely to research as the basis for building the event up. This conferred authority to the group of researchers and established a horizontal decision-making process. The curator-researchers started to examine in detail and through complex ways the different regions of the world. Ever since, they are active in the selection, organization, and assemblage of the Biennale. From that moment on the Lam Center turned into an intricate yet systematic machine nurtured by a scholarly research practice, documentation, exchange, research journeys, academic events, and symposia. The Biennale itself became a diacritical way of working which became the precedent feeding forward into the next event, reinforcing the network of support. The third moment also attests on the many partnerships the Biennale started in order to expand its reach and counter balance the economic burden of the especial period. To name some, Peter Ludwig’s interest in promoting (and collecting) Cuban art; Antonio Zaya’s support through the Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno CAAM (Atlantic Center of Modern Art) in the Canary Islands, his participation and involvement in the fifth, sixth, and seventh Biennales (as editor of the 1994, 2000, and 2003 catalogs and as consultant curator during that time); UNESCO in extension to its work in Havana as world heritage, the Prince Claus Fund, AFAA (French association of artistic action), and the HIVOS Foundation, among others. Ending with the visit of MOMA officials in 2000 (with the intention of buying a good amount of Cuban contemporary art and be informed about the “Southern network” the biennale had established).

4. Global Triennial (2000-2004).

This perspective followed after the resignation of the long-term director Llilian Llanes in 1999. The socio-economic situation deteriorated and the uncertainty of producing the Biennale increased each year pushing it to be organized every three years. After the sixth edition (1997), a lack of funding and interest by part of the Cuban state made its survival difficult. One of the senior curators (Nelson Herrera Ysla) took over the direction of the institution and the Biennale kept functioning as before. However, production problems were too evident in 2000. It was Llanes who really structured and maintained the Biennale as a functioning event, even, during the most complex times of the early 1990s. Collateral issues emerged, some in relation to the financial dimension and others concerning the commercial character of Cuban art, for which some blame her resignation (Llanes sustained in 1997 that if the Biennale would become an art fair she rather would close it). Other issues such as the validity of the Biennale in a global context, the new unipolar “world order” where the discussions North-South, Center-Periphery, Dependence-Independence, and the very notion of Third Word were in question, also affected the institution at the time. In 2002, Hilda Maria Rodriguez (curator since 1989 at the Lam Center) became director (lasting to 2004). The eight installment attempted to highlight a central issue, Art within Life, which would present itself as a philosophical force for the events to come (2003). Unfortunately, it took place during the direst moments of the event. Throughout Rodriguez tenure the financial crisis deepened because of the dropping of funding by international agencies (due, in part, to US & Cuba’s reaction to 9-11 and human rights concerns). A group of artists also boycotted the Biennale sending communicates across the Internet and did not attend. Simultaneously, the impact of Documenta11 (2002) over the discourse about postcolonial art and the confirmation of a global art scene affected what Havana intended that year. Cuba’s ongoing crisis and the aftermath of 9-11 affected also the mobility and interest by part of the international art world in the event (in addition to the amount of biennials taking place elsewhere).

5. State of suspension (from 2005).

A decision made by the CNAP (National Council for Visual Arts) in early 2005 to appoint a new director for the Wifredo Lam Center, just before the opening of the ninth Biennale “Dynamics of Urban Culture” (2006), after Hilda María Rodríguez’ resignation (for health related problems), produced a series of reactions. Coming from outside the Center and the curatorial team, Rubén del Valle Lantarón, a young cultural official (trained as art historian) arrived from the upper ranks of the Ministry of Culture, where he had worked for years developing the new Cuban cultural policy. He was supposed to bring new impetus to the event. His tenure was aimed to improve the image of the Biennale among Cubans, as well as to reconnect the event with the general cultural policy of the state and its close allies (based on economic viability and popular appeal). The first objective seemed to be accomplished: the ninth Biennale placed a great effort in creating a local media strategy – through TV, radio, and newspaper – creating certain recognition for contemporary art among the population of Havana and neighboring regions. The second objective was clearly accomplished, for some time the Biennale functioned independently, because of its autonomy (thanks to Llilian Llanes connections and independence) and, in a sense, distance from the institutional apparatus. Now the event is fully immersed in the cultural system of the country (for the good and the bad). Structural changes taking place in Cuba as a result of the transfer of power from Fidel Castro to his brother Raúl Castro in July-August 2006 had impacted it also, aggravating more the general crisis of the Biennale. Now it functions as part of the cultural agenda, which warranties its permanence, as one of the official cultural events advertised by the government.

Figure 4. Unpacking the Biennale visual summary

The Ministry of Culture continues supporting events that are part of a cultural policy that is related to the creation of wealth through cultural production, architectural heritage, and tradition. The Biennial works more in an international context (in a landscape in which Cuba plays a minor role today), and cultural tourism has taken a central stage in such events, diminishing their power as critical spaces for the construction of cultural subjectivity and focusing in positioning local or global artists (in this case Cuban artists) in the international circuit. However, there are not independent statistical numbers of visitors to the exhibition venues and or reports on the impact in the local economy to measure it success. The market of Cuban art is nonetheless in good stand.

The administrators of the Biennale understand that in order to survive in the precarious Cuban economy, which is now subject to the rhythm of the international markets, it is necessary for the art shown there to address global themes, spiced with a hint of local exoticism. Cuba no longer has the same leadership role in Third World culture or the economic resources of the 1980s. In the era of Istanbul, Dakar, Johannesburg, Kwangju, and the many Middle Eastern art events that keep critics, curators, and artists hopping from plane to plane always seeking novelty, the Havana Biennial must offer something more than Third World art. The novelty it has offered thus far is a ‘critical’ Cuban art that calls the concept of a socialist utopia into question. And of course Havana itself is an attraction, softly radiating the exoticism of an old city emerging from the ruins24.

1 This article is a summary of a long research on the cultural history of the Havana Biennale titled. “Cultural Maps, Networks and Flows: The History and Impact of the Havana Biennale 1984 to the present.” Miguel Rojas-Sotelo. University of Pittsburgh 2009.

2 Magazines such as Flash Art, whose motto is “internationalism”, did not cover the Havana Biennale until 1997 (and in a very deceptive and reductive way) while actively covering (and helping to create) other Biennials in proximity to Europe and the U.S. Artforum has published only a handful of reports on Cuban art (1986 and 1991) and only after 1997 on the Biennale, while publishing massively and repeatedly on other similar surveys. Art in America has published more systematic reports with emphasis on American and Cuban artists, but has remained silent about the participation of artists from the rest of the world areas represented. A common denominator of many of the reports is the absence of the idea of alternative cosmopolitanism and Global Art from the bottom up; it seems that the discussions on Global Art only take place from the art centers and its institutions (such as the magazines).

3 As Stuart Cunningham suggests, “many people trained in cultural studies would see their primary role as being critical of the dominant political, economic and social order. When cultural theorists do turn to questions of policy, our command metaphors of resistance and opposition predispose us to view the policy making process as inevitably compromised, incomplete and inadequate.” Cunningham finishes the argument stating that “these people are then called to the bar of an abstrusely formulated critical idealism.” I hope to have a different fate. Stuart Cunningham, Framing Culture: criticisms and policy in Australia (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1992). p. 9.

4 República de Cuba, Ministerio de Cultura, Principales Leyes y disposiciones relacionadas con la cultural las artes y la enseñanza artística, Tomo II. (Havana: Gaceta Oficial de Cuba, 1984). p. 121.

5 Thomas McEvilley, “Arrivederci Venice: the Third World Biennials – reviews of Third World international art survey exhibitions.” ArtForum, No.32.3 (November, 1993). p. 114.

6 Ibid.

7 The foundational team, which has been almost the same the last twenty five years is composed of: art historian and administrator Llilian Llanes (director 1984-1999); architect Nelson Herrera Ysla (senior curator, 1984 to today); art critic and curator Gerardo Mosquera (1984-1992); art historian Juan Manuel Noceda (1984 to today); philologist Silvia Medina (1984-1994); art historian Ibis Hernandez (1984 to today); art historian Magda Elián González Mora (1984-2000); art historian Leticia Cordero (1984-1994); art historian Margarita Sanchez (1985 to today), artist and art historian Hilda Maria Rodriguez (1986-2004); art critic and historian Eugenio Valdez Figueroa (1991-1995), and more recently curator Dannys Montes de Oca (2000 to today) among others.

8 Nelson Herrera Ysla (co-founder of the Biennale and active curator at the Centro Wifredo Lam, Havana). Interview with Nelson Herrera Ysla, La Habana, April 2006.

9 Jorge Castañeda, “The Plot Against the Castros” March 14, 2009. NewsWeek Magazine. For more versions about the changes taking place in Cuba during the transition from Fidel to Raúl, see. Antoni Kapcia, “Raúl Castro and Cuba: reading the changes” April 22, 2009,

10 Llanes, Llilian, “La Bienal de la Habana” Third Text No. 20 (Autumn 1992). p. 9.

11 It was in 1966 when Cuba organized the 1st Tricontinental Conference and created OSPAAL (Organization of Solidarity for the People of Asia, Africa, and Latin America). A magazine emerged from it, the Tricontinental Magazine produced by OSPAAL, which in its multilingual edition (Spanish, English, and French, sometime in Middle Eastern Languages) became the forum for the Non Aligned movement and the Cuban voice as new leading member. The magazine had produced series of propaganda posters that were folded up and placed inside each copy, becoming a visual arts machine for anti-imperialist and de-colonial struggle.

12 Henry Samuel Magdoff (1913-2006), was for years the co-editor of the Marxist publication, Monthly Review. A prominent American socialist commentator and analyst, Magdoff held several administrative positions in government during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Later in his life he was accused of being a spy for the Soviets, but was never indicted. The Age of Imperialism would become his first book published in 1969. Pensamiento Crítico, No. 43 (June, 1970). p. 7.

13 During the decade of the 1980s, a new generation of art critics, born out the Revolution, was taking over the places of the best known. Following Fernando Ortiz’ legacy, they exercised an open and wider practice of writing from art reviews to cultural criticism, fashion and design, theory, and political commentary. Among those active in the period were Desiderio Navarro (philosophy), José Veigas (art); Roberto Segre (architecture and urbanism), Angel Rivero (film), Jaime Saruski (literature and popular culture); Alejandro Alonso (art), Manuel Lopez Oliva (art), Salvador Bueno (literature, folk, and pop culture), Adelaida de Juan (art history), Marta Arjona (patrimony, architecture, culture, and art), Gerardo Mosquera (art, literature, and popular culture); Jorge de la Fuente (philosophy, photography, and art), Rufo Caballero (art, theory), Rafael Lopez Ramos (art), and Nelson Herrera Ysla (architecture, design, and art). At first, they followed Lezama Lima, Cabrera Infante, Guillén, Fernandez Retamar, Benitéz Rojo, and Portuondo’s work, but soon departed from formulas of literary criticism by introducing popular culture and moving in the direction of cultural studies (informed by the work of people such as Nestor García Canclini and Jesús Martín Barbero), postmodern thinking, and with a clear counter-colonial (anti-imperialist) discourse (in the fashion of the new cultural anthropology).

14 Just four months after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, the Revolutionary Government, Law 299 of April 28, 1959, created the Casa de las Américas, an institution aimed at developing and expand cultural relations with the peoples of Latin America, the Caribbean and around the world. Conceived as a meeting and dialogue of different perspectives in a climate of new ideas, the Casa de las Américas promotes, researches, recognizes, and publishes the work of writers, artists, photographers, musicians, playwrights and scholars of literature, arts and social sciences on the continent, which encourages cultural integration, and promotes exchanges with institutions and individuals worldwide. An institution born out the 1976 constitution is: The Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), which was founded in 1976. This is a graduate level school which provides the highest level art degree available in Cuba and which has been instrumental in the development of almost all of the significant artists of the later generations. The curriculum is characterized by its vigorous workload, but also by a greater emphasis on experimentation and individuality, and when coupled with an artistic formation, which takes twelve years to complete, develops artists of high maturity with solid conceptual paradigms.

15 NAM lost credibility beginning in the late 1960s when it was seen by critics to have become dominated by states allied to the Soviet Union, the so-called Soviet imperialism of post WW II. Many questioned how countries in outright alliance with the Soviet Union such as Cuba could claim to be non-aligned. The movement divided over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. However, the 1979 meeting in Havana saw the movement discussing the merits of a “natural alliance” with the Soviet Union. Under the leadership of Fidel Castro, the Summit discussed the concept of an anti-imperialist alliance with the Soviets. Actually, Castro sustained in the 34th UN General Assembly, “… as the Sixth Summit meeting has stated. The socialist countries did not contribute to the plundering of the world nor are they responsible for the phenomenon of underdevelopment. However, they understand and assume the obligation of helping to overcome it because of the nature of their social system in which international solidarity is a premise … I am here to talk of peace and cooperation among nations. I am here to warn that either injustice or inequalities are solved peacefully and wisely, or the future is going to be apocalyptic … Enough of the illusion that the world’s problems can be solved with nuclear weapons … Let us say farewell to arms and concentrate in a civilized manner on the most urgent problems of our time. This is the responsibility and most sacred duty of every statesman in the world. Furthermore, this is an indispensable requirement for mankind’s survival.” The final declaration of the Sixth Conference of the NAM, also condemned the Camp David peace accords as an abandonment of the cause of the Arab peoples and an act of complicity with the continued occupation of Arab territories; the focus then was decolonization and development. Hans Köchler (ed.), The Principles of Non-Alignment. he Non-aligned Countries in the Eighties. Results and Perspectives (London: Third World Centre, 1982.)

16 Llanes, Llilian, “La Bienal de la Habana”, Third Text No. 20 (Autumn 1992). p. 9.

17 Nelson Herrera Ysla, “Comunicación en tiempos difíciles: Uno más cerca del otro” (Communication in Difficult Times: Closer to each other). In Nelson Herrera Ysla, ed., Coordenadas de arte contemporáneo /Cordinates in Contemporary Art (Havana: Arte Cubano Editions, 2003). p. 22.

18 My interview with Ibis Hernandez Abascal, Havana, April 2006.

19 For more about Mosquera’s discussion on the Art of the South, see: Gerardo Mosquera, “The World of Differences. Notes about art, globalization, and periphery”. In Neue Bildende Kunst No. 4/5, Berlin (1995). The text can be found in: (my translation).

20 Manuel López Oliva, “Una bienal de otros mundos” Arco Noticias 10 – Especial Arco ’98. January, 1998), p. 49-52.

21 Ibid. p. 50.

22 Global South is another term in debate. In academic circles, the countries of the former Third World are known as the Global South, the developing countries, and the under-developed countries, as well as the disadvantaged nations among other appellatives. Economists refer to these nations as the “Two-thirds World” and “The South” referring to the two-third not economically developed under capitalism. International agencies call them developing countries, but the term is disapproved by activists that argue that the term implies that industrialization is progressive. More on the topic is scattered presented in the edited text of the conference titled “Cultures of Globalization.” Frederic Jameson & Masao Miyoshi, eds., The Cultures of Globalization (Durham, London: University of Duke Press, 1998).

An interesting discussion can be found also in: Pramod K. Mishra, “The Fall of the Empire or the Rise of the Global South?” Rethinking Marxism, Vol. 13, No. 3 & 4 (September 2001), p. 95 – 99. See also: John Byrne, “Contemporary Art and Globalization: Biennials and the Emergence of the De-Centered Artist” International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 3 (2003), Issue 1, pp.169-172.

23 The “Special Period in Time of Peace“ signaled the economic crisis that began in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union and, by extension, the Comecon. The economic depression of the Special Period was at its most severe in the early-to-mid 1990s; it was defined primarily by the severe shortages of hydrocarbon energy resources in the form of gasoline, diesel, and other petroleum derivatives that occurred upon the implosion of economic agreements between the petroleum-rich Soviet Union and Cuba. The period radically transformed Cuban society and the economy, as it necessitated the successful introduction of other forms of economic income, such as the re-development of Tourism, or the introduction of sustainable agriculture, and the decreased use of automobiles, and overhauled industry, preventive health programs, and diet countrywide. It also signals a new wave of immigration and mass displacement. Important Cuban artists, intellectuals, athletes, etc. deserted when having the option of traveling abroad. Many used shack-boats to reach the coasts of Florida. Millions were also displaced to the cities.

24 Dermis P. León, “Havana, Biennial, Tourism: The Spectacle of Utopia“. Art Journal Vol. 60, No. 4 (winter, 2001), p. 71-72.