Jun. 17, 1997

Art Watch Index - Jun. 17, 1997

Resistance Against Oblivion
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[Art Watch Special]
A Journal on the 6th Biennial of Havana

Art Watch Back Number Index

6th Biennial of Havana
Various sites in Havana
May 3 - Jun. 8, 1997
E-mail: univers@kulturbox.de
Director Llilian Llanes

Director Llilian Llanes of the Wifredo Lam Center, making a passionate speech at the press conference of the Biennial. At the Lam Center.

Tokihiro SATO

Tokihiro SATO in front of his exhibited work. At La Casona in Old Havana.

David Boxer

The bizarre work is an installation by the Jamaican artist, David Boxer. It is said that he even uses a sample of the human brain. At Old Havana.

Havana seen from Castillo del Morro

Havana seen from Castillo del Morro across the canal.

Romuald Hazoume

The work by Romuald Hazoume, an artist from Benin, Africa, using colorful plastic waste. At Castillo del Morro.

Roberto Huarcaya

The gigantic photograph of an eye wrapped around the spiral staircase is an installation by the Peruvian artist, Roberto Huarcaya. At Castillo del Morro.

Fortaleza de la Cabana

The Fortaleza de la Cabana. Exhibitions are done in the rooms in the buildings on both sides of the road.

Priscilla Monge

A work by Priscilla Monge, an artist from Costa Rica, where a small music box is attached to a headgear. At Fortaleza de la Cabana.

Flavio Pons

The cool-looking installation with many hung handkerchiefs, is by Flavio Pons from Brazil. At Fortaleza de la Cabana.

Pepon Osorio

The letters, "mother, forgive me", and the "barber shop" with roses and a picture of a bullet, create the installation by Pepon Osorio from Puerto Rico. At Old Havana.

Alex Flemming

The brilliantly colored sofa is an installation by Alex Flemming from Brazil. The words written on the sofa are a message relating to a current event, "Tupac Amaru attacks the Japanese Embassy in Peru demanding the release of their members". At Old Havana.


Arahmaiani, an artist from Indonesia put ashes in a circle on the floor, and placed a Coca-Cola bottle covered with a condome in the middle. The artist recently did a similar work at the Tokyo Metropolitan Contemporary Art Museum. The theme is said to be the "Invasion of American Consumer Civilization". At the Casa de Asia in Old Havana.

Jacqueline Brito Jorge

Jacqueline Brito Jorge and her work. She is a young artist who opened a solo exhibition at the Museo de la Revolucion in Havana, with the support from the Ludwig Foundation which supports Cuban contemporary artists. At the opening ceremony at this museum.

Juan Grillo

The gallery of the University of Havana. Juan Grillo, a Cuban painter, and his work at the Galeria L. At the same gallery in the Vedado district in Havana.

Photography: Satoru NAGOYA

6th Biennial of Havana. Universe in Universe

6th Biennial of Havana: Venues. Universe in Universe

Wifredo Lam Center

Lam Center

Wifredo Lam - Reference Page

Fidel Intro Page

[Art Watch Special]
A Journal on the 6th Biennial of Havana


May 1, 1997 (Thursday)
The passenger plane leaving the Mexican resort, Cancun, arrived at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, the capital of Cuba, after approximately an hour's flight. It was a little before ten o'clock in the evening. As I came down the steps, I was wrapped in warm, balmy air. The immigration office of the airport had a typical gloominess of a socialistic country. When I attempted to change my money into local currency, I realized that this country was a totally American dollar economy for foreign nationals. I checked into the four-star Chateau Miramar hotel, located in the Miramar district, a 20-minute drive from Havana's historic district or Old Havana.

May 2 (Friday)
From ten o'clock in the morning, there was a press conference for the Biennial at the Wifredo Lam Center in Old Havana, and I headed for the meeting. Wifredo Lam (1902-1982), born of a Chinese father and a mother who is of both African and Spanish descent, was a painter representing modern Cuba. After he passed away, this center was built in honor of his achievements. Here, besides the development of Cuban contemporary art, promotion of international exchange is also their objective, and this center is the sponsor of the Havana Biennial as well.

The Lam Center, established inside an architecture apparently derived from the colonial period, was alive with the art crowd. There were visitors from Japan, including the only participating Japanese artist, Tokihiro SATO, Motoi MASAKI, a curator from the Meguro Museum of Art known as a great "Cuba fan", and Kohtaro IIZAWA, a photography critic. At the press conference, the director of this center and the director of the Biennial, Llilian Llanes, passionately spoke about how difficult the realization of this Biennial was, overcoming financial problems. I asked her, "What was the budget of the Biennial?", but her answer was, "It is made possible from donations from many different areas. I do not know about the budget."

After the press conference, I looked around the exhibition together with Sato and Masaki. The theme of this Biennial, consisting of 177 artists from 44 countries, is "The Individual and His Memory". The Biennial site was divided into 3 areas; in the area around Old Havana near the Lam Center, the exhibition title was "Collective Memories", at the Castillo del Morro standing opposite Old Havana across the canal, it was "Faces of Memory", and at the Fortaleza de la Cabana next to the Castillo del Morro, it was "Internal Domains", and each exhibition was done separately. However, the works exhibited did not necessarily follow the themes.

Located immediately on the south of the tropic of Cancer and facing the ocean, in Havana, the strong sun and the salty sea breeze make the air hot and humid, and sweat pours out just standing still. SATO's work produced locally was displayed in the gallery surrounding a patio, located on the second floor of a large mansion built in the 18th century, called "La Casona". His work was titled "Photo-Respiration", and was a series consisting of 12 pieces of 180x220cm gelatin silver transparencies. They were hung facing the bright patio. In these photographs, scenes of such landmarks of Havana such as the square in Old Havana, the cathedral and a missile remaining on a hilltop, were adorned with the remnant of light created by Sato as he walked around these scenes reflecting sunlight from a hand mirror, exposing the film for a long time.

In the afternoon, we chartered an unlicensed taxi - a Chevrolet which seemed to be from the '50's - for four hours at 20 dollars, and I visited Castillo del Morro and Fortaleza de la Cabana. There were still many works in progress.

A little after four in the afternoon, hearing that President Akira ISHINO of Press Kit Co., the corporation which supported the Biennial from Japan, and related guests were to pay a visit to Director Llanes of the Lam Center, I accompanied the group. According to the director, Fidel Castro, Cuba's supreme leader, has never visited this Biennial.

May 3 (Saturday)
From four p.m., I went to attend the opening ceremony for the Biennial which was to be held at the square in front of the cathedral in Old Havana. Llanes made a speech from a platform built near the facade of the cathedral. ISHINO was also on the platform.

opening ceremony
The opening ceremony of the Biennial. At the square in front of the cathedral.
I went around to see the exhibition in Old Havana again. Later, I heard that a bag of one member of the visiting group from Japan was stolen while he was resting at a cafe. It seems that this place is no longer a "paradise". When I was walking around, looking for a taxi to go back to the hotel, a young woman holding a Coca-Cola can approached me saying , "I'm alone. Take me to a hotel." There was also a lot of touting by unauthorized taxis. Today, possession of dollars by individuals are allowed, and it seems the gap between the rich and poor is widening in Cuba. I encountered a passionate artist who said "Please come to see my studio". Of course, he said this from a friendly and kind intention too, but it was also because there probably is little chance for his works to be seen by a foreign national. The biggest problem of a socialistic system is that it prevents free exchange of people and information.

May 4 (Sunday)
A little past ten a.m., I went to the opening of the exhibitions at Castillo del Morro and Fortaleza de la Cabana. These sites are symbolic of the colonialistic period in Havana, and normally, they are famous tourist spots.

The first Biennial of Havana was held in 1984. Originally, the event centered on Central and Southern American countries, but later, they expanded the range to Africa and Asia, becoming the "third art festival of the world", worthy of honoring Wifredo Lam, born of a Latin American, African, and Asian lineage. Different from the other biennials, they do not have a system where commissioners from each country choose the participating artists. Here, the eight curators of the Lam Center directly select the artists. As a result, in this biennial, there were over 2 0 artists each from Brazil and Argentina, which was the highest record. There were very few participants from the United States or Europe. From Japan, Sato was the first artist to participate.

Looking at the past themes of the biennial, it is typical of Cuba to have themes like "migration", and "a battle against the new colonialism". The theme of "memory" for this event was said to indicate the "virtue of human beings" which should be remembered at the turn of the century, according to Director Llanes, but when we speak of "memory" in the Latin American countries, the outstanding characteristic is the tragic memory of the colonialistic periods and the military rule which continued until the end of the '80's in some countries. Maybe due to this fact, dark works which made us imagine violence or death also stood out. Ninety-five percent of the exhibition consisted of installations, which is the most suitable form for such a content. Surrounded by many works which were not familiar to us unless we knew the history and social background of Latin America, Sato's work was impressive for its clarity and beauty which could be understood by anyone who visited Havana.

May 5 (Monday)
A little past noon, I was able to receive the press pass at the international press center, which is located in Havana and is under the jurisdiction of the Cuban Foreign Ministry. There was an event space inside the center, and at that time, an exhibition of three Cuban painters was being held simultaneously with the Biennial. They were modern and purely painterly works which could not be seen at the Biennial.

May 6 (Tuesday)
At about noon, I went to one of the exhibition sites in Old Havana, Casa de Asia. Artists also known in Tokyo, such as Arahmaiani from Indonesia, and Reamillo and Juliet from the Philippines, had their works displayed. They did not look particularly refreshing.

Four o'clock in the afternoon. At the Museo de la Revolucion in the city, that introduces the history leading to the Cuban Revolution in 1959, starting from the anti-government conflict that kicked off from Santiago de Cuba in the eastern part of Cuba in 1953, there was the opening of the solo exhibition of Jacqueline Brito Jorge, who is supported by the Cuba office of the Ludwig Foundation, a cultural support organization headquartered in Aachen, Germany. Jorge is a young female artist in her early 20's, and this time, she exhibited a painting incorporating mosaic. This foundation in Cuba states that their objective is to "support Cuban contemporary art both domestically and in the overseas" (Representative Helmo Hernandez). Cuba Libre (rum and cola) was served. This is a cocktail representing Cuba together with "Mojito", which is rum flavored with mint.

May 7 (Wednesday)
This day, I took a break from interviewing, and rested at the hotel. It may have been the privilege of a foreign national to be able to freely watch CNN on American TV or satellite broadcasts from Spain. By the way, despite the fact that this was a tropical country, the fruit served for breakfast smelt sour, and the food from the restaurant was (as bad) as frozen food. However, considering that the average income of the general Cuban is approximately 1,000 yen, the same as the price of a meal for a foreigner, I did not feel like complaining. It was certainly an uncomfortable country (to be in).

May 8 (Thursday)
After one p.m., I went to the solo show of Juan Grillo, a Cuban artist of middle standing, at the Galeria L, a gallery of the University of Havana in the Vedado district, where premium hotels and offices of foreign airlines concentrate. His works were oil paintings filled with the spirit of social criticism, using US dollar bills as motif. Since his technique was solid, they were convincing. It was cynical that one rarely encounters a work like this that has true communication power, at the Biennial. We were served Cuba Libre using the precious cola, and we enjoyed a conversation with the painter and other artists who were present. We reached a consensus that "the Biennial, which neglects plasticity and is biased towards works focusing on messages, is prone to being used politically". Probably because of their opposition towards the American economic blockade, the Biennial attempts to gain support from the Third World, however, a wrong system cannot be justified. I respect the activities of the Ludwig Foundation which supports artists, but what is truly ideal for the Cuban artists is for the current system to change, and for this country to rise to a common ground with the world in terms of economy and information. Some people seem to say that "it is ten more years of endurance (until Castro passes away)"...

May 9 (Friday)
In the morning, paying the bill amounting to an average of about ten years' salary of a Cuban, I checked out of the hotel. After eleven in the morning, I departed for the Jose Marti International Airport to go to Mexico City. After a flight of approximately two hours and a half, I arrived at the Benito Juarez International Airport in Mexico City. There were an abundance of commodities, and an air filled with life. How happy I was to return to the "free world".

[Satoru NAGOYA/Art Journalist]

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Jun. 17, 1997

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