Art and Dissidence

During my last days in Havana, I visited curator and researcher Yanelys Nuñez Leyva, one of the main organizers of #00Bienal de la Habana. Her mother made a strong, sweet coffee that is typical in Cuba. Shortly thereafter, artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, the other central figure of the biennial, joined us. Together they established the Museo de la Disidencia en Cuba (The Cuban Museum of Dissidence), which recontextualizes the concept of »dissidence.« We ate fruits, salami, and bread and drank cold water (not rum) while we chatted about the event that had just ended. Nuñez Leyva should have been one of the artists of the 2020 edition of Homefest. This was not possible, not only because of the pandemic, but because right now she is in Spain, where she applied for political asylum.

Jean-Lorin Sterian: What does El Museo de la Disidencia en Cuba (MDC) produce, and what is the context of its establishment?

Yanelys Nuñez Leyva: Confronted with the necessity of political plurality within the country, aiming at generating a space for debate, creation, and inclusion, MDC organized actions, events, and campaigns connecting activism and art, including #00Bienal de la Havana or Artistas Cubanas en contra del Decreto 349. The entire Cuban art scene on the island is mostly subject to the government. This has created an environment dominated by apathy and fear, a continuously reproducing pattern. However, outside of this circuit there are also emancipatory projects such as Espacio Aglutinador (Collection Space), el Movimiento Omni Zona Franca (The Movement Omni Zona Franca), El Festival de Rap de Alamar (Alamar Rap Festival), La Pena de Jucaro Martiano, among others. These movements seek to motivate, reunite, and organize aesthetic interests as well as political concerns.

J-L S: How did you select the spaces where the biennial took place?:

YNL: We launched an open call on social media, by email, and also through direct conversations with friends; artists who already owned event spaces. Some of these spaces were much more experienced, such as Espacio Aglutinador and Riera Estudio. On the occasion of the biennial, some new spaces were also inaugurated, such as the project En La Cama con Nonardo (In Bed with Nonardo) in Marianao, or Bloque del Este (The Easter Bloc), curated by Iris Ruiz and Amaury Pacheco.

»The entire Cuban art scene on the island is mostly subject to the government. This has created an environment dominated by apathy and fear, a continuously reproducing pattern.«

Alongside the social networks, the biennial spread on several platforms, artists’ studios, and domestic and public spaces. Some of the physical spaces (studios or homes) that participated included Yobatard Studio, Samuel Riera Estudio, Walfrido Valera Estudio, MUD Fundations (Miami, SUA) Galeria El Circulo, El Bloque del Este Project (Alamar), Instituto de Artivisma Hanna Arendt (INSTAR in Havana Vieja), El Museo del Arte Politicalmente Incomodo (The Museum of Politically Uncomfortable Art), projects La Zanja (The Beach), and En la cama con Nonardo (In Bed with Nonardo) Marianao.

J-L S: What motivated local artists to participate in the #00Bienal? Also, what made them bitch out, to mention the favorite expression of Yania Suarez, a former Solitude fellow who told me about the biennale?

YNL: The Havana Biennial, the official event, has a major impact on the art scene; it is the moment when Havana takes center stage, when curators, artists, collectors are visiting. But when the organizing institutions announced the cancellation of the 13th edition, the entire artistic community rebelled against it and there were reactions of public dissent on social media. We can say that #00Bienal took advantage of this collective and individual discomfort in order to attract local artists. However, this was just the beginning, since the immediate reaction of the government was against the event and some of the people who agreed to participate started to change their minds, because they were afraid. The first step was to record several video interviews to motivate participants by offering them visibility. Then we received support from important figures such as Tania Bruguera, Coco Fusco, Gerardo Mosquera, Ernesto Oroza, among others, which led to other artists joining in.

J-L S: Did any of the artists make money from their work exhibited at the biennial?

YNL: Few artists managed to sell some of their works, but we didn’t record this data, since we were organizers. If an artist sold something, it happened without any intermediary.

J-L S: What has the experience of organizing events in houses, apartments, and studios, and not in formal exhibition spaces, meant to you?

YNL: When we started organizing the 00Bienal project, we had already had four years of experience in the field, in a government gallery called Espacio Abierto (Open Space). This provided me with several tools before starting any project. Within institutions there are no resources, and everything needs to be managed between friends and colleagues. When I became an independent artist, some changes occurred: First of all, I had absolute freedom, but at the same time, just for the fact of being an independent artist, the censorship apparatus was getting much closer. However, the issue of self-management was repeated and reinforced. For me, #00Bienal was an intense experience. Working with such a large number of artists, with a minimum number of staff and also with minimal means, was a challenge. Such a project develops a lot of potential besides the possibility to meet people who conceive art in the same way as you do.

J-L S: Do you think the the domestic space influenced the biennial’s performances or the shows? How?

YNL: Undoubtedly, the exhibitions held in domestic spaces had particular characteristics, and in some cases the space did influence the selection of the works or performances. For example, the collective project curated by Katherine Bisquet took over not only the interior space of a private home, but also intervened in the surrounding spaces, where there were many bushes and trees, or where neighbors normally walk. In this specific case it was a project designed for space. In other cases, we did small curatorships with works that foreign artists had sent us.

J-L S: What can you tell about the biennial’s audience? Were your venues open to a larger audience than galleries, museums, or other official spaces would have attracted?

»Within institutions there are no resources, and everything needs to be managed between friends and colleagues.«

YNL: We are happy with the audience of #00Bienal, but of course, if we had had the full support of the government, more people would have come. Not only because the government has a monopoly on the media, but because people would not have been afraid to attend. There was a lot of intimidation from the Cuban government, and official institutions were forced to show public rejection. They weren’t even allowed to like any of our posts on Facebook.

J-L S: It seems to me that in the shows and exbitions of #00Bineal held in homes were also joined by the neighbors, who they enjoyed it. How do you feel about this?

YNL: The interaction with neighbors was stronger in some spaces than in others, because as I said, the political police threatened the neighbors of each community in which we managed shows. However, I believe that in those places where the community was stronger and people knew those who participated, greater empathy, collaboration and exchange was achieved.

J-L S: Are cultural events held in private homes popular in Havana? Are they a symptom/sign of resilience?

YNL: There are several examples in the history of Cuban art after the triumph of the revolution, because everyone who has been marginalized by the government has had to resort to the resources available to him (his house or the house of a friend). And I’m not just talking about houses converted into galleries, such as Espacio Aglutinador, or Cristo Salvador Galería; but rather an art designed for the community from the domestic point of view, such as the Omni Zona Franca.

J-L S: How does alternative culture, which you are an active part of in Cuba, manifest? Where is it going?

YNL: I am not sure how to answer this question. I believe that the main path that alternative projects are taking, right now, is that of resistance. They’re defending the right to exist. That’s unfortunate, because although development does not slow you down, it slows you down.

J-L S: How did you manage to finance the biennial?

YNL: First of all, none of the #00Bienal organizers got paid. Then we can mention that we created an online fundraising campaign on gofundme. We also received a donation of 3800 cuc from Cuban artist Reyner Levya Novo, and, of course, we added our own funds so that the entire production was successful.

J-L S: What possibilities does an artist who is not a member of the official creative union have to make a living from their art in Cuba?

YNL: I’d say that possibilities are tightly connected to the artist’s ambition. There are some artists who are not part of the official circuit for political reasons. Sometimes it is a personal, aesthetic decision; other times they are simply marginalized. This question is also conditioned by another aspect: what does it mean to live off one’s art? To travel? To exhibit in high-level museums? Tania Bruguera is an international artist, but she cannot exhibit in Cuba. She is not even allowed to visit an exhibition as a spectator. The case of Luis Manuel Otero, an artist and main coordinator of #00Bienal, is different: he is banned from leaving the country, he’s arrested all the time for no reason, and his house is in very bad condition. Does he live off his art? Yes! The way he wants it? No. His creative process manifests through resistance and this is his way of living since the government imposes it on him through all the censorship and means of repression.

J-L S: How important was the presence of the foreign artists at the #00Bienal?

YNL: Working with foreign artists allowed us meet people who live art just like we do. This provided us with great motivation and gave us hope. On the other hand, we need to say it, the Cuban is in awe for everything foreign and believes that there is a little bit of »truth« abroad. Who knows, maybe because we’re an island or maybe because we’re isolated. This is how we managed to reunite and to get more Cubans involved. The presence of a foreign audience and foreign artists has also helped us get more protection. The Cuban government thinks twice before generating an arbitrary situation against a foreigner. Not for complying with human rights but rather to save face, to not ruin their international image.

»What does it mean to live off one’s art? To travel? To exhibit in high-level museums? Tania Bruguera is an international artist, but she cannot exhibit in Cuba. She is not even allowed to visit an exhibition as a spectator.«

J-L S: To what extent did the #00Bienal change or influence the local art scene?

YNL: First of all, it became a satisfying reference point of the independent initiative in Cuba. To some extent, we helped eliminate fear, which motivates us every day in other projects and we managed to create diverse aesthetic and political experiences, and that is something many cultural institutions cannot afford because of censorship.

J-L S: How did #00Bienal impact your life, as well as Luis Manuel’s, and how did it impact the other organizers and collaborators?

YNL: For me, personally, the impact was huge. As we speak, I am seeking political asylum in Spain together with Nonardo Perea. Luis Manuel Otero, Amaury Pacheco and Iris Ruiz are forbidden to leave the country. Italo Exposito and Luis Trapaga were excluded from the Creative Registry, the only legal existing manner of selling your works, as artists. Coco Fusco was banned from coming back to Cuba. Jenifer Acuna and Alejandro Barreras received threats during the event to stop participating and right now they are also seeking political asylum.

J-L S: After #00Bienal, many things happened. The government imposed a decree, Decree 349, that forbids any independent cultural production under the sanction of seizing the means as well as fines for crime cases.

YNL: #00Bienal gave us wings because it pushed us to show our talent. But it also gave wings to the Cuban government, worsening the oppression of artists.

J-L S: What is home to you in this moment of your life?

YNL: I am looking for my home right now, but it is a place within me. I am discovering an economic and political system, the capitalist one, which I don’t understand and in which I see numerous flaws. So it’s a search, and I don’t know if or when it ends. For now, I am trying to find feminist ways to inhabit this world.

J-L S: What’s the next step in managing another great art event after Decree 349?

YNL: We’re preparing the second edition of #00Bienal. We had to change our strategy. We reduced the number of participants and came up with a quick-response plan in case one of the organizers is arrested. We have to continue, otherwise #00Bienal will only be another chapter in the history of Cuban art with no major impact.

J-L S: Most leftists believe that in Cuba, people live in a utopian society. How do you approach this belief?

YNL: Whoever believes such a thing is irresponsible. One cannot attach their utopian hopes to foreign contexts that one has no idea about. This feeding of idols and fantasies should stop once and for all. These beliefs upset me, they make me very sad because these are the mentalities that keep the Cuban government in power.

Yanelys Nuñez Leyva is an art history graduate of the Arts and Letters Faculty, Havana University. She completed her studies in 2012 and started her curatorial career in Galeria Espacio Abierto, Havana, Cuba. Together with artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, she set up the Museo de la Disidencia (The Dissidence Museum) in Cuba (MDC), a cultural space of transit, a blog, an archive etc. MDC premiered within the Residencies Programme El Ranchita -AECID – Artista X Artista (1st of March – 15th of April 2016) Madrid. Museo de la Disidencia en Cuba was awarded, in 2018, the annual award Index on Censorship for freedom of speech, together with an artistic research residency in London. Nuñez Leyva was part of the curators team of #00Bienal de la Habana, an event organized as a reaction to the erroneous decision of the Ministry of Culture to cancel the 13th edition of the official Biennial. This independent event took place through social networks, public spaces and artists’ studios, turning them into exhibition spaces. It took place May 5-15, 2018, and relied on the participation of more than 170 artists from countries such as Spain, Romania, Columbia, Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Ukraine, the United States, and Cuba.