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A Certain Place and a Certain Time: The Third Bienal de La Habana and the Origins of the Global Exhibition

Part of a printmaking workshop in the streets of Old Havana, October 1989

Since its inception in 1984, the Bienal de La Habana has followed a trajectory that culminated culturally and curatorially in the third edition in 1989, and which peaked in other terms (institutional solidity, organisational professionalism, international recognition) somewhat later. The case for 1989 as the most important of its editions stands on the extent and adventurousness of the research that went into it, the freshness of its curatorial propositions, the extraordinary energy of the event, the richness of the dialogues that it established and its timing, opening a few months after the Paris exhibition ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ (‘Magicians of the Earth’), which claimed to be ‘the first world-wide exhibition of contemporary art’. 01

The third Bienal is a groundbreaking, if relatively unknown, moment in the history of recent exhibition-making. Opening on 1 November 1989, it put into practice some ideas about curating large international exhibitions that have since been recognised as key innovations. Firstly, it dispensed with the idea of an exhibition segmented into national presentations, thus breaking the mould established by the Venice Biennale in 1895. It also introduced a broadly thematic approach and rejected the established practice of awarding prizes for individual or national displays. Moreover, the integration of a major international conference into the Bienal’s structure represents a decisive step towards conceiving of biennials as discursive environments, in which the actual display of artworks is part of a much broader project of research and knowledge production.

The third Bienal was one of the first exhibitions of contemporary art to aspire to a global reach, both in terms of content and impact, and it was the first to do so from outside of the European and North American art system, which had, until then, undertaken to decide what art had global significance.

It was a wide-ranging, heterodox and rambunctious affair, comprised of shows, discussions, social spaces and both planned and fortuitous encounters. Its large central exhibition was offset by dozens of smaller displays and events organised under the rubric of what the curators called núcleos (nuclei), thematic organising principles that tackled discrete aspects of contemporaneous cultural production in the Bienal’s focal regions of Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The Bienal’s shows presented a varied array, setting conceptually-based works exploring art and its contexts alongside polemical and, in some cases, latter-day modernist assertions of local identities, for instance. The works were made by a range of producers that included not only some very young artists and some legendary in stature, but also doll-makers, admirers of Simón Bolívar and children inventing their own toys. The conference organised as part of the Bienal included contributions from highly influential cultural theoreticians and yielded a debate, both formal and impromptu, that was remarkable for its richness and energy. All of this was held together under the loose thematic umbrella of ‘Tradición y Contemporaneidad’ (‘Tradition and Contemporaneity’), 02 and all of it was put together with a budget and infrastructure that were, at most, miniscule. Unlike a more traditional biennial, in the Havana event the main exhibition was not positioned as the showcase around which the other activities revolved: instead of that kind of radial model, it consisted of a field of activity in which the discursive and ancillary events figured prominently. This more dispersed structure, along with a high degree of public access and participation, were signature features of the Bienal in 1989.

The third Bienal was also a key moment in terms of Cuban cultural history, opening at the end of a decade that had seen the rise of an extraordinary movement of young artists in Havana, and amidst an escalating confrontation between them and Cuban cultural authorities. Moreover, the week that the Bienal opened was the week that the Berlin Wall fell, placing the event at the fulcrum between the political landscape that had given rise to it and the ominous, unknown territory that lay ahead.

The Origins

When the great Cuban painter Wifredo Lam died in 1982, Fidel Castro convened a meeting with his top cultural officials. The subject was the creation of a centre in Lam’s name. 03 Cuba’s most famous artist, Lam had been accepted into Surrealist circles in Paris in the late 1930s. While Western art history had mostly defined him as a follower of that school, his work had a different meaning in Cuba, where it was regarded as having turned the tables by taking a Western artistic language as raw material and putting it at the service of something profoundly Cuban. ‘I refused’, Lam once said, ‘to paint the chá-chá-chá.’ 04 Lam had lived in Europe for nearly all his adult life but had maintained friendly relations with the revolutionary government in his homeland, and so the Revolution could still, plausibly, claim him as its own. His ancestry was a distillation of Cuba’s ethno-cultural history (his mother was born to a Cuban mulatto man and a Congolese former slave, his father was a Chinese immigrant and his godmother was a santería priest) – an ‘exemplary synthesis’, as Llilian Llanes Godoy, the director of the Centro Wifredo Lam in 1989 was to put it, ‘of our drive for a universality based on a profound reinvigoration of our roots and traditions’. 05

At the time, Cuba was emerging from the ‘grey’ 1970s, a repressive period of extreme conformity to the Soviet model that, among other things, had yielded political and cultural confrontations between orthodox and more liberal cadres of the Revolution’s leadership. 06 These were at times quite intense, and, even before the spasms of censorship in the 1970s, intellectuals had found themselves marginalised, as ideological aspersions and denunciations had been sprinkled across the revolutionary period. Sabá Cabrera Infante and Orlando Jiménez Leal’s short documentary film P.M., which portrayed Havana’s nightlife, was not allowed to be screened publicly when it was made in 1961, and in 1965 the UMAP re-education camps (Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción, or Military Units to Aid Production) were established to rehabilitate dissidents and ‘social deviants’, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists and homosexuals. Independent cultural venues were closed, most notably the newspaper supplement Lunes de Revolución, which from 1959 to 1961 had grouped together a dynamic and rebellious mix of young writers, artists and musicians who considered themselves the Revolution’s cultural arbiters, but whose vanguardist internationalism and tendency to see the writer as critical social conscience came into increasing conflict with the Revolution’s evolving ideas of culture as a popular and collective activity. A complicated web of discourses anathematising critical interventions into ‘extra-artistic’ matters, such as social ills and political errors, eventually resulted in a landscape in which criticism by artists and intellectuals was discouraged, suppressed, repressed and punished, occasionally with severity. 07

All of this, together with the Mariel exodus in 1980 (during which in six months around 125,000 Cubans left for the US with the permission of Castro’s government), had been an international embarrassment for the regime. The Centro Wifredo Lam was to be the banner under which Cuba would broadcast the diversity of its cultural landscape to the world and, in that, its reconquest of its own identity. The Bienal de La Habana, which the Centro would organise as its primary task, was a key initiative in a new political strategy for the Ministry of Culture; more broadly, it would reposition the country in the international arena.

The Bienal was intended, in conjunction with already-prestigious Cuban festivals of cinema, dance, jazz and books, to place Havana at the centre of the Third World map. Although there had been earlier projects organised to showcase art from the Third World (including pan-Arab and pan-African events, along with many biennials and salons throughout Latin America), 08 the Havana project was unprecedented for the extent of its global ambition, whilst notable as a resolutely local effort. It aimed at nothing less than creating, for the art and artists of the entire Third World, a space of respect and stature equal to that granted artists in the developed West. It would replace the historical cultural dependency of the Third World with a ‘new international cultural order’ by creating transversal circuits of communication. 09 As Llanes Godoy, Director of the Centro from 1985 to 1997, put it, ‘I was convinced that the really serious problem in the Third World was that we concentrated too much on the vertical relation, and that instead we had to concern ourselves with each other.’ 10 The Bienal also played a key role in the development of visual arts in Havana, raising the blinkers of Cuba’s isolated cultural environment. ‘Thanks to it,’ the Cuban art historian Magaly Espinosa has explained, ‘we have had the opportunity to encounter, first, the work and thought of the most advanced Latin American artists, art critics, curators and visual theoreticians, and, second, to contrast it with our Eastern Marxist-Leninist formation.’ 11

Although the idea of a Third World arose as a mutual political project among newly-independent nations defining themselves as ‘non-aligned’, over time the concept had become problematic. 12 One difficulty was the term’s migration, especially in Western usage, from a political definition to a racial (racist) designation. In any case, the vastly different histories of conquest, exploitation, subjugation and socioeconomic fallout that distinguished each of the nations within this grouping meant that they could only be united as a single, undifferentiated, ‘underdeveloped’ terrain from a great distance. Even among the member states, the rubric of ‘Third World’ had always remained largely abstract and of limited political utility, blurring as much as it signified and masking conflict under the alibi of solidarity. Worse still, the homogeneity that the term implied sublated the asymmetry of the First World versus Third World opposition into a deceptively balanced configuration. By the 1980s, the project’s failure in economic, political and social terms meant that the words ‘Third World’ were often wrapped in quotation marks.

Clearly, the whole idea of making a Third World exhibition had to answer to these issues, and that created a paradox. How could the Bienal proceed, as an aggregate formation, without falling into the trap of a single, flattened conception of its subject? What might be the relative uses of the summoning of similarities, or of the elaboration of differences? How could it formulate a Third Worldist cultural proposition not based in the fictions of solidarity? How could it – following the protagonist role that it envisioned for itself – create a space that was more than just a counterproposal that reproduced the logic and form of the original in reverse? The Bienal de La Habana, then, raised important questions not only about the nature of art made outside the Western market system, but also about its relationship with that system – these are, inevitably, questions about culture and power. I will try to get at some of the implications of these issues by looking at the Bienal itself, and at its evolution.

The History

Like many of the Revolution’s projects and programmes, the Bienal de La Habana began as sheer improvisation. Its first director was provided by temporarily assigning Beatriz Aulet, an official at the Dirección de Artes Plásticas, to the post. The Centro existed in name only, without a plan, infrastructure or facilities: in fact, one of Aulet’s first tasks was to drive around the city looking for possible exhibition venues. There was no curatorial strategy. Logistical challenges of every sort were nearly overwhelming, and so although the Centro’s mission was to deal with the art of the Third World, for the first edition of the Bienal in 1984 it concluded that the selection would have to be limited to the regions of what José Martí had called, nearly a century before, ‘Nuestra América’ (‘Our America’). 13

Although it was contemporaneous with an explosive rejuvenation of contemporary art in Cuba, the Bienal’s initial ideology and rhetoric emanated from a somewhat older generational perspective, in both political and aesthetic terms, defined by an old-fashioned identity politics mixed with the strident cadences of early revolutionary rhetoric. Eliseo Diego thus appraised the global situation in the introduction to the first Bienal’s catalogue as follows:

The incommunication between the peoples of the Third World has been a catastrophe encouraged by the vicious intentions of decrepit imperialisms, already in a critical moment of corrupt decomposition. The Cuban Revolution has proposed, with unyielding resolve, to break every barrier between brothers, to reintegrate the dispersed. Because of this, the first Bienal will be not only an important artistic event, but also a fact of historical significance that will have incalculable, and comforting, consequences for the future of all. 14

The simple act of bringing works together from across Latin America and the Caribbean had a resonance that may be difficult to grasp from afar: the Bienal de La Habana was providing a forum taken for granted in Europe and North America, but practically nonexistent in its own precincts. That first show included – astonishingly – around 2,200 works by 835 artists from 21 Latin American and Caribbean countries. These artists had been identified through a mix of official and institutional contacts in countries that Cuba was politically close to, and personal contacts with artists – both in-country and in exile. This process, which relied heavily on a database of contacts provided by the Casa de las Américas, 15 had yielded a patchwork of state-sanctioned (which generally meant aesthetically conservative and/or politically doctrinaire) works, alongside the productions of some of the region’s most innovative creators, such as Artur Barrio, Paulo Bruscky, Leda Catunda, Mario Cravo Neto, Felipe Ehrenberg, León Ferrari, Beatriz González, Antonio Martorell, Ana Mendieta, Liliana Porter, Regina Silveira and Gerardo Suter. The show was, therefore, as uneven as it was unruly, with works of every conceivable sort jumbled together in the improvised space of the Pabellón Cuba and spilling over into the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. The massive quantity of works had taken organisers completely by surprise. The Pabellón had been converted for the occasion from an open-air pavilion to one with a hastily improvised system of temporary walls that created, as artist and writer Luis Camnitzer, noted, ‘a multi-level maze with pleasant wooden bridges that allowed for different viewing distances from works in different formats’. 16 The display was organised loosely according to formal criteria rather than by country, and the staging was described as elegant, economical and unobtrusive. 17 The Museo Nacional, a more formal and conservative institution, hosted a more conventional display arranged according to medium (drawing, painting and so forth). Within each grouping, works were hung according to the nationality of the artist, rather than according to any visual or conceptual logic. Thus, as Camnitzer observed, ‘the arrangement… ultimately kept the viewer in a very traditional relationship to the work of art’. 18 The organisers were nonetheless generally pleased with the results, especially in terms of the enormous convocation of artists, which signalled what could become one of the project’s most important contributions. As Federico Morais put it, ‘there is an ability to create affects [afectividad] in the air here; a very direct and simple way of speaking and discussing’. 19

Following the 1984 event, Llilian Llanes Godoy, an architectural historian and professor at the Instituto Superior de Arte, 20 was appointed Director of the Centro Wifredo Lam. Although she had not previously worked with contemporary art (her specialisation was early twentieth-century Cuban architecture), Llanes came from the cultural sector, and she brought other key attributes – among them a genius for organisational work and, especially, for navigating the extremely tricky Cuban political landscape and protecting the space of the Bienal. 21 Her vision for the Bienal was more innovative in social than artistic terms. While the exhibition was to be, basically, a cognate of other biennials, except with different artists, she envisioned the Bienal overall as a meeting place, both between the artists and the life of the city and among the artists themselves. From the start, she undertook an energetic campaign to link the Bienal to the CDRs (Comités de Defensa de la Revolución, key institutions mediating between the highest and lowest levels of power), and to build ties with various governmental agencies. Her efforts yielded widespread cooperation and support from the Ministries of Culture, Tourism, Exterior Relations and Armed Forces, and even the Central Committee of the Communist Party got involved in the Bienal in one way or another. There had been a massive audience of 200,000 visitors, mostly habaneros, at the first Bienal, and Llanes’s strategy produced 300,000 for the second, with 5,000 people on the opening night alone. During the opening week in November 1986, the city’s municipalities threw parties every night in honour of the exhibiting artists, and a huge crowd gathered at a gala open-air salsa concert organised by the Bienal and free to the public, starring Chico Buarque, Pablo Milanés and Mercedes Sosa. Conceiving of the Bienal as a social as well as a project space yielded political benefits, and it produced an arena that was as much about cultural exchange as it was about the display of art.

Llanes had quickly assembled the small group that comprised the centre’s staff, inviting Gerardo Mosquera, already the most prominent and influential art critic on the island, to lead the Research Department.22She also brought in a group of recent graduates in art history and related disciplines from the university, including José Manuel Noceda and Silvia Medina de Miranda, to work with him and the other department heads. 23 The Centro was structured simply, with the Research Department made responsible for the curatorial work, and the more logistical and design- oriented tasks divided into departments for Promotion (headed by Nelson Herrera Ysla), Information and Documentation, and International Relations. 24 Llanes pursued an admirably risky personnel strategy, taking chances on unproven young scholars and heading her curatorial department with a figure who was able to challenge her in intellectual and artistic terms, and who was, moreover, known for being uncompromising.

The second Bienal was again massive, with more than 2,400 works by 690 artists from 57 countries. The geographic reach of the project now extended across the Third World, including areas of Africa, Asia and the Middle East (more accurately, parts of the Islamic world). In addition to those regions it included artists of European origin and residence (both from Eastern and Western Europe), and even a few who were based in the US. It was thus, arguably, ‘the first world-wide exhibition of contemporary art’, ahead of this claim being made for other projects. 25 The show was again panoramic rather than thematic, and accompanied on this occasion by a special exhibition of more than 200 works by ‘Latin American masters’, which presented a kind of primer on visual art in the region, featuring works by Luis Camnitzer, Carlos Cruz Díez, Fernell Franco, Antonio Frasconi, Julio Girona, Pedro Meyer, Alejandro Otero and Antonio Seguí, among others. A rich relation of intergenerational dialogue and transfer coursed between the two exhibitions. The catalogue, with short texts about the art and art history of each country included in the show, comprised a primer of another sort, making plain the enormous didactic ambition of the project. As Minister of Culture Armando Hart wrote in the introduction,

We often know more about what is exhibited in the great metropolitan museums than about what is created in the countries which are geographically and culturally close to us. And nonetheless, the peoples of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean find themselves intimately united [hermanado] by strong historical, social and cultural ties and, above all, by their unity in the face of their aggressors. […] The Bienal de La Habana is an action to struggle for the necessary coming together of our peoples. 26

In addition to the ‘main’ and the ‘masters’ exhibitions, there were 44 smaller ones, signalling the dispersed structural model that was further developed in the next instalment. These smaller exhibitions included, for example, solo shows by the Mozambican painter and poet Malangatana Ngwenya (at the time closely associated with the revolutionary FRELIMO movement), the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer (of whom Fidel Castro once said, ‘Niemeyer and I are the last Communists of this planet’) 27 and the Haitian painter Hervé Télémaque (whose work was identified not only with Parisian Surrealism but also with the Black Pride and Négritude movements).

In addition to the solo shows, there were also works in papier maché made by neighbourhood aficionado clubs (‘Popularte’) and a special exhibition of paintings from the Solentiname Islands, where the priest, poet and Sandinista Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal had established a communal society for artists in the early 1970s. The naïve painting movement that developed there had become known for its mixture of peasant popular culture and Latin American revolutionary politics, thereby bringing a very particular political-cultural pedigree to Havana. Despite this somewhat homogeneous ideological affiliation, though, the Bienal generated extraordinary energy and excitement among its attendees. The sense of being in the midst of something momentous was palpable in the exhibition halls, in the exchanges between individuals and in the excited debates at the conference, which, after focussing on Lam’s work for the first edition, gradually grew in reach and importance from one Bienal to the next. 28

Unlike other biennials, which have permanent administrative structures but continually changing artistic leadership, the Havana project has always been organised within the Centro Wifredo Lam, by its staff. This continuity has had interesting consequences. As a team, the curators could advance and deepen their ongoing discussions and debates over the course of several years, and a parallel evolution and maturation could take hold at the level of the Bienal’s discourse; with each iteration, the theoretical work of the Bienal could be evaluated and advanced. 29 This sustained process of reflection allowed for its rapid development from the relatively conventional exhibition of the first edition to the adventurous and dynamic project that was already being shaped in the second.

The Bienal enjoyed a degree of autonomy that was unusual for a Cuban institution. One explanation for this, though somewhat romantic, is also plausible: there was a kind of euphoria about the Bienal effort in those early years, based on the sense of its being something truly momentous. It was ‘a very open space’, in the words of Leticia Cordero, one of its young curators at the time, ‘it was never contaminated, in that moment, with extra-artistic aspects; there was a respect for what was happening there on the part of the Ministry and everyone else, a respect and a force which you could feel’. 30 In revolutionary Cuba, however, exuberant idealism, while often quite real, had generally been mixed with an ample dose of realpolitik. The Bienal offered an important source of soft power in the regime’s international efforts, and was therefore a space that would always be especially sensitive to scandal. Although the Centro functioned according to an unusually horizontal process, there was no question that Llanes was the one in charge, and the one responsible for reporting to the authorities; in this role, she was the guarantor of state interests. But her role was more complex than just that, more deeply committed to the Third Worldism of the Bienal. She buffered the work of the group, protecting the Bienal as an open space, relatively free from political pressures. 31

While Llanes’s leadership of the Centro Wifredo Lam was indisputable, Mosquera was undeniably the leader of the curatorial work. He reformulated the premise and devised the methodology of the Bienal between 1985 and 1989, and its growth during the years of his tenure is clearly identifiable with his unorthodox and restless spirit. Moreover, Mosquera’s own aesthetic and intellectual interests became deeply embedded in – even definitive of – the Bienal’s fabric. A clear example of this was his sustained research into Afro-Cuban spiritual practices on the island, spurred in part by artists such as José Bedia, Ricardo Brey and Juan Francisco Elso. Mosquera’s interest stemmed from the fact that those traditions were alive and ubiquitous in the daily life of the country, an integral part of the way people lived their lives despite the officially atheistic precepts of the socialist state. All of this meant that, rather than the usual separation between contemporary artists and popular culture, in Cuba, during the 1980s, there was a very dynamic linkage. For Mosquera this imbued the work with a vitality and immediacy that drew sharp contrast with the dutifully and rhetorically patriotic culture espoused in Cuba in the previous decade. His research on behalf of the Bienal proceeded from certain convictions about the relation of traditions to contemporary experience – the subject that was to define the Bienal in 1989 as it moved for the first time to a curatorial and thematic format.

From the start, though, Llanes had insisted on the use of the term ‘researcher’ to refer to the members of her team, reflecting a quasi-socialist egalitarianism that tended to emphasise not an authorial identity for the Bienal staff but something more administrative, if inquisitive. Equally, Llanes sustained the romantic notion of an exhibition as an unmediated field in which works of art should be experienced free of curatorial interference.32 There was therefore a significant discrepancy between how the director and her lead researcher conceived of their curatorial project.

Mosquera’s interest in and association with the emerging movement of young Cuban artists also produced some friction within the Bienal directorate, given that showcasing it might overshadow the Bienal’s Third Worldist project. Since the beginning of the decade Mosquera had been a prolific and ardent supporter of these artists, defending them against the accusations of the old guard who saw them as ‘formalists’, as abandoning ‘the values of Cuban national identity’, as ‘faux-vanguardist copiers’, ‘facilists’, ‘puppets of imperialism’ and ‘ideological diversionists’. 33 He was also travelling widely and quickly became the voice of the new Cuban art internationally. He was charismatic and articulate, and his enthusiasm was infectious.

The new Cuban art was an extraordinary phenomenon, which had erupted in the midst of a claustrophobic and oppressive cultural climate and comprised a rebuttal to it, characterised above all by its freshness of spirit. The ‘grey’ years of the 1970s were the proximate (negative) referent for the movement, but the new Cuban art was also, crucially, the dynamic entry of a group of young people into the art scene. Born around the time of the Revolution, they were formed not only by its encroaching orthodoxies but also by its poetic idealism and dedication to independence. Hailed in its earliest moments for its sense of joyful affirmation and for its imaginative reach, the new Cuban art almost completely redefined the possibilities for art on the island.

The artists – including not only Bedia, Brey and Elso, but also Flavio Garciandía, Aldito Menéndez, Glexis Novoa, Carlos Rodríguez Cárdenas and many others – proposed an art that was free from ideological coercion, expressive of the complex cultural heritages of the island and connected to contemporary practices elsewhere in the world. Above all, they insisted on an art that, rather than toeing the Revolution’s line, was revolutionary in its ethical foundation and independence of thought. Over the course of the decade, their work became a root space of struggle and humour – an aggressive, caustic, bullseye art. As it accelerated into a critical movement in the second half of the 1980s, the new Cuban art spilled out of studios, classrooms and galleries into the streets, magnetising a large and diverse following by raising taboo subjects such as corruption, dogmatism, the cult of personality and lack of democracy. Mosquera brought this energetic movement into the heart of the Bienal, where it was quickly recognised as the most exciting work on display. 34 As that work became increasingly the focus for many of the Bienal’s visitors, and as the controversy around it became increasingly heated, Mosquera’s support of it came into more pointed conflict with Llanes’s perspective, according to which the work of the young Cubans appeared increasingly as a distraction from the Bienal’s main purpose. This disagreement increased from the second to the third editions. In any case, the two agreed on the question of the Bienal’s social- public vocation, and this was a key convergence. It meant that the project was oriented on all levels – across theoretical-intellectual and administrative- logistical considerations – towards an expanded concept of the agency of a biennial, especially in terms of the role it might play in the life of the city.

Mosquera and Llanes were also in agreement about the Bienal’s need to position itself consciously in relation to the mainstream, or Western, art system. While essentially opposed to that system, the Bienal had to do something other than stand in simple negation of it, for both theoretical and pragmatic reasons. The idea of creating a sort of Third World ghetto was unproductive, and acknowledgement in established Western art-world circles was important to the prestige of the Havana project. In one of the many ironies of the power dynamics at play, it was clear that by developing credibility in precisely the arena that it existed to defy, the Bienal could amplify its importance to Third World artists. Both Mosquera and Llanes worked to attract an audience of major international figures: Mosquera, for instance, invited Joseph Kosuth, an artist of interest to some of the most adventurous young artists in Havana at the time, while Llanes invited the curator Jan Hoet in 1989 (shortly after he had been named Artistic Director of documenta IX), the art historian Shifra Goldman and the critic Pierre Restany (the latter pair were to become among the Bienal’s most staunch promoters in the US and Europe). 35

With the expansion in 1986 from Latin America to Third World coverage and beyond, the Bienal had to navigate a much more complicated map of international affairs. Here, the Havana project’s unusually direct relationship with government becomes more sharply evident. The Bienal was indissolubly linked to the Cuban state, and so participation or non-participation was a matter of formal international relations. The situation was complicated on a number of levels: beyond the question of whether a given country had good relations with Cuba and was therefore fair game for inclusion (China and South Korea were off limits, for instance), there were a variety of other considerations. Some countries had the financial and infrastructural resources to support their artists’ participation and some did not, and some had them but did not consider Havana to be important enough to bother about. There were also countries that were important to Cuba for political reasons but which had either nonexistent contemporary art scenes, or else had cultural machinery which took charge of the selection process, sending works that illustrated populist polemics more than contemporary practices (e.g. North Korea, Vietnam); in other cases, local cultural authorities disapproved of the artists or scholars who were most of interest to Bienal curators (e.g. India). Moreover, while Cuba had well-established cultural and political ties with much of Latin America, it was – despite its active role in Third World political forums and its support of various liberation movements – not nearly as informed about or linked into the other regions that the Bienal now sought to work with. Lacking established and shared protocols, known counterparts or existing dialogues in so many countries, the Bienal team had to negotiate each situation on its own terms.

There was an additional map that had to be navigated, one centred on the Soviet Union, which was the principal sponsor of the whole Cuban experiment at the time. Cold War politics dictated that winning the allegiance of the Third World was an important part of the battle for dominance between the US and the USSR. Moreover, although the same issue pertained in the struggle between the USSR and China, in that case China obviously had the advantage. Cuba was the best surrogate the USSR could muster in this scenario, and so, although the conception of the Third World that the Bienal was working to develop was one based in cultural considerations rather than global power plays, the whole project was nonetheless enfolded in the geopolitics of the Cold War. 36

The Third Bienal – Research and Concepts

By the time work began on the third edition of the Bienal, the project had already made some significant advances. Unlike the biennials in Venice or São Paulo, it had focused attention on art and artists from outside of familiar art-world circuits, and, unlike projects in New Delhi, Cairo or Gabon, it had already made the decisive move beyond its own region to explore artistic production on a global scale.37 The Bienal had, within the space of four years, become a major cultural event in Havana, attracting thousands of visitors from across the developing world and also from the US and Europe: much of the excitement came from the fact that it had begun to develop a new concept of what a large-scale international exhibition could be.

The team was working with a very open-ended idea of the exhibition, proceeding from a general concept rather than from a set of works, artistic trends or precedents. At an early stage in the research process it had been decided that the project would be organised around the theme of ‘Tradition and Contemporaneity’. Although this was a very broad rubric, it suggested an unease with both terms, as typically understood (that is, as opposites of a sort), and proposed an overall reconsideration of the roots of contemporaneity in regions where modernity had been experienced through the process of colonisation. The staff from the Centro Wifredo Lam continued to invent a curatorial methodology that suited both the increasingly ambitious goals of the Bienal and the very limited financial, logistical and infrastructural resources at hand. The process they developed was in some ways familiar and in others not, with the differences arising from a combination of internal factors (especially the intellectual climate around contemporary art in Cuba at the time) and external factors (given the particular political situation of a socialist state).

The expansion in geographical reach since the first Bienal had already given the second Bienal a task of an entirely different magnitude: for the project to move beyond the relatively well-known confines of Latin America was a challenge not only because of the leap in scale but also because, in the late 1980s, published materials on Third World contemporary art (as opposed to ‘traditional’, ‘tribal’ or ethnographic objects) were scarce, scattered and difficult to assemble. In many places, the Bienal team was flying almost blind. 38 The process it devised over the first few years seems, from this distance, almost unbelievably rudimentary: the Centro sent letters advertising their activities and objectives to contacts provided by Cuba’s diplomatic network. The response astonished them, as catalogues, books, magazines, brochures and artists’ materials poured in. The Information and Documentation team used that material to build an archive and compile a directory of institutions, academies, schools, museums, galleries, agents, critics, curators and artists across the Third World. ‘We were’, says Silvia Medina De Miranda, a member of the team, ‘starting a map of the world that had not existed until then.’ 39

Potentially interesting artists might be identified from a single image in an obscure magazine, necessitating a process in which getting even basic contact information could be arduous. All of this was, inevitably, a relatively scattershot method, which obviously could not provide comprehensive coverage. Nonetheless, it established a research methodology that was highly interactive, improvisatory and optimistic.

This basic process continued in the years leading up to the third Bienal, but under even more adverse conditions. While the first and second editions had been put together on a shoestring, the third was made even more difficult by the deterioration of Cuba’s financial situation. According to Luis Camnitzer (at the time a close advisor to the Bienal leadership), the budget was reduced by half, and the Centro staff was cut from about fifty to fourteen: that tiny group was responsible for everything from cleaning ashtrays to designing the catalogue to curating and installing the exhibitions. 40 The logistical difficulties caused by these straitened circumstances resulted in a year’s delay for the third Bienal, and it opened in 1989. 41

As material was collected by the Bienal team, each researcher was assigned primary responsibility for a geographic region, which they studied using the archive and through additional research into the social, historical, political and economic contexts of the regions. (It is worth keeping in mind that Cuba, as not only a relatively poor but also a quite controlled society, had very limited flows of information, which made such research especially challenging.) Leticia Cordero was charged with researching the Arabic region:

We each had to begin studying our zone, to really immerse ourselves in an unfamiliar culture, to look at it from inside. I was studying the Koran, Arabic philosophy, and I didn’t know anything about any of it. […] so I started to work, I started to look, always guided by Gerardo, Llilian and Nelson, Gerardo especially, who always had very advanced ideas, daring and polemical. We studied constantly, and met weekly to review what each of us had been working on, the artists we had found, to analyse and refute and to see what were the particularities of each zone, to try to follow the theme, how to work what we were looking at into the theme, visually and theoretically.42

The process was, as Cordero described it, rigorous, daunting and incredibly rich. It also created an unusual cohesion in the development of the project overall, since the deliberations provided important shared knowledge and constant feedback within the group, modelling a curatorial voice that was at once collective and plural.

Curatorial travel followed the first phase of bibliographic research and discussion, and introduced yet another layer of adaptation and improvisation. Because of scarce funding and the country’s centralised administration, the travel was arranged almost entirely through Cuba’s embassies, which imposed a certain political map on the project but also gave it exceptional access to resources. Cuba had built an enormous diplomatic network, extraordinarily large for such a tiny country but proportional to its internationalist ambitions. ‘In those days,’ Mosquera notes, ‘Cuba had an embassy in every African country with the exception of those which were against [us]. When I say embassies I mean houses, cars, networks, diplomats, contacts, communications and some money.’ 43 They provided lodging, communications, contacts with local authorities, even transportation across borders, all of which made it possible for the curators to cover an extraordinary amount of ground, which again reinforced the flexible and heterodox nature of the curatorial process.

That flexibility was also crucial in another sense since, in many locations the researchers visited, ‘contemporary art’ was not well established or recognised as a practice, and there was little or no arts infrastructure in its conventional forms: no major cultural establishment, no art academy or developed system of training, little or no gallery activity and museums with minimal facilities or collections. Figuring out the situation and identifying the best people to work with required constant ingenuity. All of this meant that each site visited by the curators presented its own set of parameters and criteria through which the ideas of ‘art’, ‘tradition’, ‘contemporaneity’ and ‘Third World’ were encountered.

The diversity of sites that the curators visited, and their basic unfamiliarity with many of them, meant that there was no preexisting set of curatorial criteria or means of evaluation. This situation gave rise to the twin questions of what means the curators would devise in order to understand what they were looking at, and what operative definition of art would guide them. Regarding the problem of interpreting with inadequate contextual knowledge, it became clear that the curators would have to extend their already dialogic process to include on-site peers who could help guide them. As for what they would place within the rubric of ‘art’, a tight and restrictive definition would disallow much of the variety they hoped to capture, while too unstructured an approach would yield a baggy and unfocused array. Both of these are interesting issues, which deserve further elaboration.

The curatorial team’s goal of presenting the contemporary art of the Third World seems potentially naïve and simplistic, and it is here that the acknowledgement of the ‘Western basis’ of contemporary art – regardless of where it is produced – becomes key to the Bienal’s theoretical viability. Mosquera states clearly that they were curating contemporary art in this sense: ‘We were starting out with the idea that there was a certain language that was shared. We were dealing with a Westernised art, artists who were producing what we called contemporary art.’ 44 Accordingly, the extreme heterogeneity of the works that the Bienal curators encountered in their research was seen to be heterogeneous within a unifying framework: their presupposition was that there was a common basis in Western modernism, which artists around the Third World had access to and were working from, and this was the building block that established the concept of contemporary art that was used by the curators. This was, amongst other things, a candid position, according to which there was no attempt to insist or prove that Third World countries and cultures had thrown off all traces of colonialist experience.

The decision to work from a basis of internationalised contemporaneity also had important ramifications for who the Bienal’s curatorial partners abroad would be. Already decades after the great wave of liberation movements that had stamped the Third World as a zone of fierce optimism in the 1960s, by 1989 the identitarian programmes of postcolonial states were often levers for the consolidation of power rather than social mechanisms for building independent subjectivities. In many countries the national ministries, academies and institutes that administered cultural activity were yoked to the conservative nationalist platforms promulgated by ruling elites. In practical terms this meant that it was crucial for the curatorial team to build its own networks of contacts, in order to identify the artists working outside of those official structures and discourses. And conceptually it mandated a shift from the nation-based idea of culture (and, of course, of traditional biennials) to a global perspective. The Bienal, though still wrapped in Third Worldist rhetoric, had actually moved beyond its nationalist and identitarian frameworks by 1989. This is what the decision to accept ‘Westernised art’ as the ‘shared language’ of the show meant – a decision that is probably best understood in terms of cosmopolitanism.

This was not only a key strategy in terms of establishing a coherent curatorial platform, it worked to shape the Bienal in important ways. Presenting works from Third World countries in the context of Western art history was timely, given the intense and ongoing debate about the persistent ‘othering’ of such works by the established Western art world, infamously in the ‘“Primitivism”’ show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1984, 45 and arguably also in the West-or-rest rhetoric of ‘Magiciens de la Terre’. It was consonant with the emerging awareness of a newly globalised landscape, which, at least in principle, was replacing the old model of centre-periphery. It was a way to avoid what might otherwise have become simply another project of indigenist or localist activism. And it inscribed local experience within a larger circle of meaning.

This was a tricky line to negotiate, however, since internationalism – or at least a certain version of it – had been so integral to the ‘imperialist’ and ‘hegemonic’ colonial project. The Bienal’s task, then, was to work from the many and different claims to modernity that had been laid (whether during or subsequent to periods of colonial domination), with all of their varying modes of adoption, recalibration and reformulation. This accounts for the emphasis on specificity that Mosquera reflected at the time, when he said that the curatorial team were principally interested in how the work ‘functions in its context, the value which it has, the kind of response which it generates and whether such a response could be instructive for the Third World in general’. 46 The Bienal, in other words, adopted the very aesthetic ground of the nations whose dominance it opposed, yet found this aesthetic ground in different places and under different conditions of possibility. Uninterested in an art produced and circulated according to problematically restrictive rules of access and problematically financialised standards of value, the Bienal set out to discover what that same art – that is, a symbolic visual production made in cognisance of the tradition of such production through and subsequent to Western modernism – might look like, act like or aspire to when it was produced in the regions that had an intrinsically critical relation to that foundation.

That was one part of it. But along with all that, the fact is that the organisers did not stick to contemporary art. They strayed into popular creativity of various forms, not so much claiming them as ‘art’ as looking for resonances. The Bienal didn’t try to draw an equivalence between those objects and the ones made by artists; unlike ‘Magiciens de la Terre’, it didn’t orchestrate that convergence under the alibi of some universal creative spirit. It didn’t claim every contributor as a magician, but rather as a citizen, and so the zone it sketched was not some neutrally shared terrain, but rather a vexed ground as much comprised of clashing particularities as of cohering accords. 47 A polemically Third Worldist project that accepted Western art history as the lingua franca and an exhibition of contemporary art that contravened its own definitions, the Bienal found its urgency in these unresolved tensions.

Cuba’s own position is also worth mentioning here. As has often been noted, Cuba is both Caribbean and Western – and African, too, in some respects. It is a country with a cultural tradition closer to that of its powerful neighbour to the north than to that of the (geopolitical) world with which it has claimed solidarity since the Revolution. In other words, it simultaneously did and did not belong to the Third World, and moreover it had a long tradition that was in communication with or closely parallel to the European avant-gardes of the twentieth century – even if that tradition was also sometimes formulated in opposition to them. Cuba’s belonging to ‘the West’ was a point that Armando Hart had stressed from the moment he became the country’s first Minister of Culture in 1976, recognising both the fact of the country’s historical experience and the importance of maintaining cultural connectedness to parts of the world that were politically quite distant. This contradictory relation to the West was reflected with special clarity in the act of organising a biennial of contemporary art: the whole conception of curating exhibitions in general and biennials in particular belonged to the lineage of Western modernism.

It should be noted that simply subsuming all the art on display in the Bienal under the umbrella of ‘contemporary art’ risks blurring or even losing altogether what made the exhibition project distinct. There were many different contemporaneities, because there were multiple histories through which the constituent locales had encountered the ‘universal’, many forms of neocolonial and pseudocolonial persistence, many different forms of what Okwui Enwezor has called the ‘terrible nearness of distant places’ characteristic of globalisation. 48 The many different patterns of cultural interaction and action that had been formative for them had encompassed dynamics of domination, refusal, resignification, incorporation, pluralisation and mutation. 49 It was precisely this intricate landscape that the Bienal was concerned with.

What exactly defined the borders of art, in Mosquera’s formulation, had to do with purpose. Locating ‘art’ historically as a product of Kantian and Romantic thinking, the working definition used by the team – a ‘practical definition’ rather than a ‘theory [that was] elaborated’ – was: ‘an aesthetic symbolic production that was created as such and [in order] to circulate in a certain market, in certain institutions, and presented as such… and that’s it’. 50 Any political or social function was purely the result of that aesthetic- symbolic communication at work. Although this made sense in terms of the Bienal’s internal logic, it might seem surprising in light of Cuba’s overall cultural policy, which had focused since 1959 on fostering a ‘culture of the masses’ through support of the aficionados movement, promoting cultural activity among workers, campesinos, combatants and the general population. Not only did the Bienal seem to point in the opposite direction, towards an understanding of art as a specialised activity; it did so by way of cultural roots that were anathema to the anti-imperialist plank of the Revolution.

There are two main explanations for this apparent anomaly. First is the fact that Cuban art had been in an astonishing period of productivity, experimentation and accomplishment since the beginning of the decade. By 1989 the new Cuban art had energised Havana with its iconoclastic approach to the various social and political ills shared by everyone. The excitement that it created as a cultural phenomenon no doubt pointed the way to many of the ideas developed in the institutional form of the Bienal: towards a contemporary art with dual citizenship (national and international, with equal force); towards an artistic process capable of real social agency, without making aesthetic concessions; and towards a far more porous relationship between visual art and daily life than had ever been achieved before in the country. The experience of that work had been proof that the high, Western or modern, on the one hand, and the popular or vernacular, on the other, were not mutually incompatible. The point here is an amplification of what the ‘contemporary’ could encompass, and a loosening of the borders that ruled it off from the ‘masses’. It is arguable, then, that rather than making a nod to the policy of cultural ‘massification’ (masificación) by including popular cultural productions, it seems more likely that the organisers were making a case for contemporary art as a much more ample and inclusive range of contemporaneous expression.

In this, they were also able to, indirectly, counter the frequent criticism of ‘Western’ art made in postcolonial circumstances, namely that it is pointed towards the foreign metropolis for both inspiration and for legitimacy. By placing works that were clearly identifiable as ‘contemporary art’ in proximity and continuity with others that arose from local and regional discourses, the Bienal suggested a reading of contemporaneity that eluded the sharp divisions that were typical of the time.

While the Bienal was therefore able to develop a certain argument about the nexus between ‘popular’ and contemporary cultural forms, there were specific problems related to the display of the ‘traditional’ – often considered kindred to the popular – that had to be taken into account. The 1980s had seen the evolution of a strong critique, coming both from postcolonial theory and from Western anthropology, of the variously neocolonial, primitivising and exoticising bases of much of Western museology. The decontextualisation of ritual or sacred objects and their placement in exhibition contexts had been roundly and energetically discredited as a practice for its imposition of an unrelated logic, disguised as natural or scientific.51 The platform of a curated exhibition or biennial was proper to the history of art, but it could only operate to impose translation on objects made for another context. As Mosquera puts it,

of course traditional forms change but they keep certain canons, and the most important thing to me is that they keep the function that goes far beyond art, in the Western sense. If I put an African mask [in an exhibition], it is an artificial operation, I am transforming that mask into sculpture in the Western view, but actually the mask is part of a dress, part of a ceremony, part of music, part of dance, part of a certain day of the year, a festival, a communication with the gods. It is a whole ensemble of things. To isolate one fragment of that, I think, is perfectly possible. You can do it and the history of culture is full of these appropriations. But it is a different thing from something that is produced in the way in which what we call art is produced, it has a different functionality. 52

Mosquera seems to be referring here to sacred or ritual forms more than to tradition per se, which may well be reflective of the discursive weight of that particular strand of argument about the display of non-Western cultural presentations at the time, and which had made exhibitions as different as ‘“Primitivism”’ and ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ such lightning rods for debate. In fact, the third Bienal seems to have been conceived within a certain rough interchangeability of terms that made cognates of ‘modernity’ and ‘contemporaneity’, for instance, just as it entertained a relatively undifferentiated idea of secular cultural production across geographic, ethnic, historical and economic divisions, which was, perhaps, reflected in the deployment of the term ‘Third World’. That ‘tradition’ was a complicated question at the end of the 1980s is something I shall return to; for the moment, it is probably worth noting, once again, the contingent, ad hoc and improvisatory nature of the Bienal project – a basis which extended from material and logistical exigencies through an intellectual-aesthetic process that was also far more open-ended than the highly theorised and programmatic approach that came to predominate in biennials internationally somewhat later.

The Third Bienal – The Exhibition

1989 and its Bienal were a perfect storm of convergences: in national terms, between the sweeping cultural renovation that had been gaining force since the establishment of the Ministry of Culture in 1976 and the public interest that this attracted and animated throughout the city of Havana; and in geopolitical and geocultural terms, concerning the Cuban state’s desire to be a Third World leader, the desire of the Bienal’s curators to engage a more global vision of contemporary art production and the consolidation of postcolonial theories advocating the replacement of colonial patterns of centre-periphery relations with more plural and nuanced connective circuits. All of this coincided with a time when multiculturalism in the Western metropolitan centres espoused ideas of inclusion and tolerance. The incipient focus on ‘globalisation’ offered a means of recognising the inter-connectedness – for better and for worse – of states, economies and cultures, and it had begun to stimulate international markets for Cuban and other ‘peripheral’ cultural productions. Such was the backdrop for the third Bienal.

At its inception, the Bienal de La Habana had been more a project of counter -assertion than a fundamental overturning of the assumptions of a large- scale periodic international exhibition. Morphologically, the first and second Bienales had been traditional in many respects, aiming as they did for a panoramic survey. Indeed, José Manuel Noceda, a member of the Bienal team since that time, even suggests that they were in fact inspired by international surveys such as the Venice Biennale and the Bienal de São Paulo, not only reacting to those projects but also mimicking them – albeit in the name of a distinct new mission. ‘It was by following these models’, he has said, ‘that the Centro Lam was able to establish [its] status among institutions, initially in the region and later in the Third World.’ 53

As already noted, Mosquera had been advocating, since his arrival at the Centro, for three fundamental changes to the Bienal’s conventional structure and elementary curatorial premise: he argued against prizes, against a scheme of national representation and for a thematic organisation. Although no such changes were made in 1986, by the time that work began on the third Bienal these ideas had been accepted into the core of the project. The use of an organising theme had a significant impact on the actual viewing experience: the shift to a curatorial process led by explicit concerns resulted in a project only about one third the size of its predecessor, with around 850 works by 538 artists from 54 countries. 54 The Bienal had emerged from its early phase, in which it operated as an overwhelming compendium with a tendency towards didacticism: if the first had been a nearly unedited mass and the second an announcement of the Centro Wifredo Lam’s full ambitions, then the third set out to analyse and debate – not only to make a space for the participating artists, but to do so by way of discussing an issue, namely the relationship between tradition and contemporaneity.

The Bienal in 1989 was a gigantic montage comprised of a central exhibition and what the curators called four núcleos – clustered explorations of specific themes in 24 small exhibitions and a robust programme of debates, meetings and workshops – all of which stripped the central exhibition of its special authority. Display methodologies were simple, without elaborate mise en scène or intricate narrative strategies. The venues included a diverse array of spaces, from the National Museum to a refashioned colonial-era fortress, special-interest museums, galleries and cultural centres (some with plate glass walls, making the exhibited works fully visible to passersby on the street), magazine offices, printmaking studios, parks and art schools, in neighbourhoods and commercial districts across the city. Along with its dozens of exhibitions, the Bienal included open-air fashion shows, concerts, performances and events of widely diverse sorts including a printmaking workshop led by Aldo Menéndez out on a street in Old Havana using a steamroller as a press. It was not only a place of specialised interchange, but also and at the same time a more fully public and permeable space, a kind of organism in which all the parts implicated each other. Both the disavowal of a strongly curatorial authorship and the identification of the event as participatory made for an extremely dynamic constellation of activities, imbued with a certain degree of cacophony.

Prizes were eliminated that year largely because, as Mosquera and others had argued, the competitive nature of prizes undermined the Bienal’s spirit of solidarity among artists, and the whole idea of establishing criteria by which to judge works against each other was beside the point, given the immense variety of aesthetic proposals to be considered. 55 This recognition that the works in the show should not be marshalled into a traditional biennial rubric marked the Bienal’s emergence from its initial panoramic and classificatory phase into a full-fledged exploration of the strategies and meanings of art across the developing world.

The central exhibition, ‘Tres Mundos’ (‘Three Worlds’), was installed on two floors of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. 56 The physical organisation of the works in the museum space corresponded to a simple principle of horizontal relations among diverse types of work, which ranged from installations and paintings to carnival masks. 57 The ground floor space was airy and opened onto the central courtyard – mostly because the windows were missing at the time, their replacements apparently waiting to be offloaded from a ship in Havana Harbour – while the upper floor was a more typical modernist museum space. The architectural disparity between the spaces probably accounted, at least in part, for their slightly different presentations, with the ground floor containing a lot of installations and works made with poor materials – among them Marta Palau’s large screen made of amate paper; Ricardo Brey’s delicately enigmatic wall- composition of chalk, bird feet, string, clay and straw; 58 and Francisco Cabral’s chair-altars – while upstairs there were more two-dimensional works. 59

‘Tres Mundos’ was a rambunctious mixture of works, probably more notable for its eclecticism than its coherence. There were remarkable presentations by a number of artists, including Mexican Gerardo Suter’s brooding, slightly ominous photographs suggesting pre-Colombian rites transported into a postmodern register; Bolivian Roberto Valcárcel’s breezy conceptual jokes about art; and Martiniquan Sergio François’s elegant tensegrity sculptures made of bamboo. As usual in the Bienal, the Cuban representation was strong, with new works by Alejandro Aguilera, Adriano Buergo, Flavio Garciandía and Marta María Pérez, as well as Brey and others.

Also included were large-scale Pinturas aeropostales (Air Mail Paintings, 1988 –ongoing) by the Chilean artist Eugenio Dittborn, which he had begun making the year before, as a conceptual and pragmatic response to the conditions under which he and others lived during the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. The imagery in the works varied, but the format remained constant: large, folded sheets of paper, sent through the post to the exhibition site. His work from this series at the Bienal, La historia del rostro (The History of the Face, 1989), clearly signalled its contemporaneity through the use of various tropes familiar in recent Western (international) art: a serial, gridded compositional format; an affinity for multiple and mass- produced imagery; a spare and minimally modulated surface; a mix of industrial and unschooled techniques for image production; a reference to transcontinental mobility; and a self-conscious reflexive approach to its own circulation as a work of art. 60 But all of these elements also functioned in a much more specific local system of signification and political intention, related to the work’s ‘peripheral’ origins and its denunciation of Chilean state violence. In this sense, for example, the multiple imagery provided a material trace of people erased in official histories (classificatory images of extinct indigenous peoples from Tierra del Fuego); the grid took on a second round of echoes derived from authoritarian image regimes (mug shots from police files); the folded paper suggested a hidden or clandestine status; and the fact of being sent through the post marked both the geographic remoteness of the work’s origins and the sharp enclosure of that place. (Dittborn has said he used the post ‘to slip by the censorship of coming and going’.) 61 While the imagery in the Air Mail Paintings avoided directly illustrating the repressive conditions imposed by the Chilean military regime, the works nonetheless clearly conveyed a sense of the fragile and precarious conditions under which they were made, and of the complicated process required for them to leave the confines of the artist’s studio. The works’ visual structure was perfectly concentric to its political strategy, giving us a sense of the ‘contemporaneity’ that the third Bienal invoked.

Stephen Kappata, meanwhile, occupied a very different position in relation to the theme of ‘Tradition and Contemporaneity’. 62 Kappata, who was one of very few Zambian artists with international visibility at the time, had become known for his satirical paintings of Northern Rhodesian colonial rule and its aftermath in contemporary society. 63 His paintings in Havana were all topical in nature and ranged from a biting portrait of white colonials (We Had a Nice Time in Zambia) to a lacerating view of Kenneth Kaunda, the revolutionary leader and first President of independent Zambia – a post he held until 1991, when he was finally forced to call elections (The Country Without Her Own Traditional Culture is Dead). 64 The suite of droll and meticulous paintings Kappata presented in Havana had roots in the 1920s ‘Baoulé colonialist’ figures sold widely to white settlers, which had been among the few forms of independent ‘artistic’ production permitted under colonial rule. 65 This was a tradition that was firmly positioned in the modern era, and which had adopted Western representational conventions in order to mock and delegitimise the European presence in Africa. (It is perhaps interesting to note that, in addition to his historical/political imagery, Kappata was also known at the time for works based on ‘traditional’ African forms.) Kappata’s rendition of this ‘naïve’ style of depiction doubled the irony of the original in its own quasi-naïve mannerism. The work, then, suggested an important line of continuity between various epochs of Zambian history through the role that ‘traditions’ had played in them, and, in that, suggested that it was premature to add a prefix of ‘post’ to the designation ‘colonial’.

It is difficult, from today’s perspective, to assess ‘Tres Mundos’ as an exhibition. There is little documentation of individual works, and still less of the overall installation. Contemporaneous accounts are mostly sketchy, and memory is unreliable after so many years. As commented on in a review by Luis Camnitzer, much of the work tended to reinforce stereotypes about Third World art, with strongly materialist rather than conceptual drives, the literalism of identity politics rather than explorations of more experimental identitarian expression, some suggestion of ‘late access to modernism’ and a sentimental lyricism. 66 In some cases, tradition became nothing more than a weary metaphor, as in Abdel Salam Eid’s Compositions (1988), for which the Egyptian artist jumbled ‘traditional’ elements, such as bits of hand-woven textiles, into the frame surrounding an apparently contemporary painting – a luminous and non-objective field.

The Bienal had also invited a group of UK-based artists of African and Asian descent (including Sonia Boyce, Allan deSouza, Shaheen Merali, Pitika Ntuli and Keith Piper) to participate in ‘Tres Mundos’. This invitation, rather than arising from some wholesale reappraisal of the Bienal’s purview, had actually come about as the result of a visit by Merali to Havana in July 1989, on the occasion of ‘First 89’ (International Art and Craft Symposium). 67 At a meeting with Llanes and other Bienal staff, Merali had ‘pledged and pleaded the case of participation by Black Artists from Britain’, and in a subsequent written proposal he made clear how vital a platform he considered the Bienal to be. 68

The Centro Wifredo Lam’s mission was, in part, to ‘promote internationally the artwork of artists from Asia, Africa and Latin America, as well as of artists who struggle for cultural identity and who are related to those territories’,69 and Merali’s points about the importance of exchange and solidarity among artists were resonant with the project’s overall goals. But things did not go well. Communications with the Bienal office were inevitably slow; answers regarding funding and shipping were difficult to pin down; initial commitments of support were not honoured; and the initial group of ten artists was whittled down to five, who received no funds from Havana and scarce support from British institutions. Nor was the inclusion of these artists, or rather just these, necessarily well received: in her review of the exhibition in The Village Voice, Coco Fusco described the participation of black artists from Britain but not from the US or France as a ‘bizarre blunder’. 70 These artists’ inclusion in the roster of participants was yet another instance of the ad hoc way in which the project had been assembled from the start, exacerbating the inherent financial and logistical challenges that the Bienal faced and leaving it open to criticisms of theoretical inconsistency.

There was also a thorny problem involving works sent by countries whose cultural establishments either did not support ‘contemporary’ or ‘internationalised’ expression, or else did not know where to find it. The most obvious case was North Korea, which was represented by a schizophrenic mix of scroll paintings and Socialist Realist portraits of happy workers. 71 It seems likely that some similar dynamic was at play with Vietnamese cultural authorities since, uniquely in the Bienal, the Vietnamese contributions were displayed together, in the manner of a national representation. Tanzania’s contribution also fell outside of the Western art model: it consisted of a group of paintings all by different authors but in the same folkloric style, and with the same naturalist subjects (animals and birds, mostly).

Overall, only about three per cent of the works were by artists recognisable on the international circuit (for instance, Dittborn, Silvia Gruner, Mona Hatoum, César Paternosto, Adolfo Patiño, Arnaldo Roche Rabell, Twins Seven Seven and Border Art Workshop). The sheer audacity of bringing together such a vast range of virtually unknown artists is evidence of the risks that the Bienal was willing to take. Nonetheless, had ‘Tres Mundos’ been the principal offering in the Bienal, it would be difficult to argue for the event’s landmark status.

When considering the spectrum of artistic approaches in ‘Tres Mundos’, it is worth remembering the unique position that the Bienal de La Habana occupied within the wider context of art and culture internationally – on the one hand, it was informed about and participating in metropolitan debates about the trajectory of art and, on the other, it fully engaged in the intense and fraught relationships with tradition that were playing so many roles in postcolonial cultures. The Bienal was both acknowledging the complicit involvement of ‘peripheral’ contemporary art in this metropolitan game and suggesting that it was playing it differently – that it had a different historical narrative and therefore a different relation to that which was thereby being challenged. Here we are reminded of a question raised right at the start, about the adoption of the biennial form. The Bienal de La Habana not only repeated that form, it also repeated its attention to contemporary art. But the act of relocation was key. In other words, meanings were both different and the same when works moved from the context of the Western art system to that of the Third World, with its complex dialogue of replication and negation with Western centres.

In contrast to the central exhibition’s sprawling aesthetic, the núcleos comprised smaller and more incisive elements. These clusters of exhibitions and events, although untitled, were organised around distinct problematics. There were four núcleos: one addressed the presence of cultural traditions in contemporary artistic languages; another presented popular cultural forms invented from a basis of traditional crafts; a third explored critical expressions targeting specific cultural-political contexts; and a fourth comprised events, debates, a conference and other discursive platforms. The núcleos were important to the overall structure of the Bienal because they proposed a different kind of relation among the many works and ideas at play in the project: while the survey approach of ‘Tres Mundos’ had perpetuated the sense of the exhibition as a unifying framework, the núcleos functioned like prisms, conducive to a reading based on difference rather than comparison.

The first núcleo included works that ‘tackle living cultural traditions, with the instrument of the contemporary language of visual art’. 72  The approach ranged from works referencing inherited myths or rituals to ones focusing on the legacy of national history, in small monographic shows by José Bedia and Roberto Diago (both from Cuba), Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar (Colombia), Ahmed Nawar (Egypt), Roberto Feleo (Philippines), Antonio Ole and Victor Teixeira (Viteix) (both from Angola), as well as group shows such as ‘La caligrafía en la pintura árabe contemporánea’ (‘Calligraphy in Contemporary Arab Painting’), ‘Litografía Cubana’ (‘Cuban Lithography’) and ‘Textil latinoamericano’ (‘Latin American Textiles’).

José Bedia presented ‘Final del centauro’ (‘End of the Centaur’, all works 1989), an extremely powerful exhibition in the recently converted spaces of the colonial-era Castillo de la Fuerza. In a suite of drawings and installations, Bedia’s pared back, pictographic aesthetic created an imaginary in which the ancient and the contemporary intersected through the artist’s explorations of Afro-Cuban religious beliefs and practices. Continuing with a style of drawing he had been developing for a few years, Bedia presented a series of elegant black-and-white crayon drawings in which a simple line traced animal and human figures in the course of spiritual exchange and transformation.

The persistence of Afro-Cuban spiritual traditions placed Bedia equally within the ‘ancient’ world and the contemporary, creating a bridge between both and reducing the contradictions usually seen as dividing them. The spirit world became visibly present in his compressed and spare language, no longer given ‘ancient’ status but actively present in the unfolding conflicts of modernity. The organic, informal aesthetic of the installations corresponded to the materiality of the cultures Bedia was studying, and positioned the work ‘inside’ them, as a result both of Bedia’s great erudition and of his absorption of their cosmovisión and ethos into his own, even while holding them in suspension.

Bedia’s immersion in the Afro-Cuban had quickly attracted curators in the US and Europe working under the rubric of multiculturalism, and he had already participated in several landmark exhibitions, including ‘Art of the Fantastic’ in 1987 and ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ in 1989. 73 The works Bedia showed in these international platforms, like those he showed in Havana, made only indirect reference to his critical opinion of the Cuban regime, keeping politics sotto voce, underneath what critics identified as the work’s ‘enigmatic clarity’. 74 Juguete para niño africano (Toy for an African Child), an installation that was part of the Bienal show, enthroned the eponymous toy on a makeshift altar pierced by garabatos, forked branches used in Afro- Cuban ritual. The ensemble recalled the story of the simple toy made for a child as a present from nothing more than a scrap of wood. Only hinted at was Bedia’s side of the story, which began with his forced conscription by the Cuban military for service in the Angolan Civil War, and concluded in his angry memories of that war’s utter corruption and brutality.

Included in the same núcleo was a small show by Roberto Feleo, from the Philippines, who was part of a group of artists in Manila who had been staging their work in public spaces, in a project that had included kite- making with children. Feleo’s presentation in Havana was of studio work, a complex installation of carvings and tableaux reprising scenes related to Filipino history. He had been inspired as a young man by the work of the early nineteenth-century self-taught painter Esteban Pichay Villanueva, whose images of popular uprisings had created an intriguing and cosmological version of the country’s rebel mythology. Following the end of martial law in 1986, Manila was a place both in transition and still defined by neocolonial relations. Feleo and other young artists were caught up in a popular effort to rethink nationhood and national history, but not only that: his topics in Havana ranged from the complicated and tense interaction between pre-colonial, colonial and subsequent periods, as in the sardonic The Malay Entry to the 1976 US Bicentennial Celebration (1988–89), to an intimately celestial realm replete with divine and human violence (The Blueprint of Man, 1988–89). Feleo’s somewhat rough-hewn but careful aesthetic – a sarcastically attractive and well-wrought faux-naïvety – was peppered with tiny, bejewelled touches like gold leaf, which amplified the work’s complicated ironies. The cowboy-and-Indian aspect of the works was both playful and disturbing; there was an arresting and even fearful quality that derived, in part, from the miniaturised scale of the violence, and the sense of enclosure in the vignettes’ space. Feleo was virtually unknown outside the Philippines, and his work – by chance, very similar to some of the more adventurous work being produced in Havana at the time – was a revelation for young Cuban artists in particular.

In some cases the shows in this núcleo played the tradition/contemporaneity binary broadly, as a call and response between ancient and contemporary culture. This was the case, for example, in Colombian sculptor Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar’s exhibition (which was sandwiched between the floors of ‘Tres Mundos’ in the Museo Nacional), titled ‘Homenaje a los artistas precolombianos’ (‘Homage to the pre-Colombian Artists’, all works 1984–87). The large, angular, steel forms, were installed to dramatic effect. An admixture of geometric abstraction and pre-Colombian visual languages, Ramírez Villamizar’s work was paradigmatic within an older school of Latin American modernism, in part for its reworking of modernist visual strategies in a local formal idiom, and in part because of its dialogue with the (traditional) past. The Bienal catalogue text dedicated to his work positioned it polemically in relation to ‘tradition and contemporaneity’, singling out its clear affinity with European abstraction in order to stake a claim of ownership:

In contrast to other young artists who, after some experience [working] with abstraction then orient their works toward representation, Ramírez Villamizar will never abandon that field of structures, vectors, tensions, axes, harmonies and counterpoint articulated in Apollonian structures. How to distance himself from that ascetic paradise into which he feels himself to have been born? That which was, for many Latin American artists, a cultural apprenticeship under the great European creators, for Ramírez Villamizar instead assumes the character of a profound re-encounter [reencuentro], of a privileged and definitive discovery of his own innate way of conceiving and sublimating experience. 75

Ramírez Villamizar’s work was part of a broader, long-standing problematic in Latin American art regarding how to deal with pre-Colombian traditions, which were (and still are today) both emphatically present and lost across much of the continent. These references were often presented in pretty  schematic form – for example, Argentinean César Paternosto’s T’oqapu I and II (1989) from the Paqcha series, cloth wall hangings with motifs based on Inca symbolic forms, displayed in a vaguely ethnographic style with a didactic effect, accompanied by descriptive labels. 76 As with Ramírez Villamizar and others, Paternosto presented pre-Colombian traditions primarily in the reductive form of a visual alphabet. The Bienal had a fair amount of work in this vein, reflecting not only the persistence of the theme in contemporary works but also a perhaps too-easy fit into the Bienal’s thematic.

A similar curatorial dynamic propelled the presentation of some of the work fig.65–67 made in Africa. Exhibitions at the Casa de África paired Chokwe sculpture with work by the Angolan painters Victor Teixeira (Viteix) and Antonio Ole. Viteix had been employed by an ethnographic museum and his work was directly influenced by this exposure to the styles of wood-carving traditional among the Chokwe peoples of Central Africa. While the gambit of pairing traditional with contemporary forms directly descended from them was predictable, there were a couple of factors that made the display more intriguing. First was the fact that the Chokwe objects, while described as a cultural production that was ‘traditional in an orthodox way’, were apparently also being produced as an art for tourists, ‘but with artistic value’. 77 This complicated the Chokwe objects’ placement in the Bienal as examples of traditional art. Further complication was added since this show was in the Casa de África, which houses, amongst other things, the collection of objects and implements related to Afro-Cuban religious practice gathered by Fernando Ortíz, the renowned early twentieth-century Cuban anthropologist, along with an eccentric array of gifts ‘to the Cuban people’ given by various African dignitaries in the years since 1959. In 1989 these included woodcarvings, musical instruments, animal skins, woven baskets, tourist pictures (including one painted on perpendicular bamboo

slivers showing Fidel Castro from one angle, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni from another and Nelson Mandela from a third), a folk-art picture made of matchsticks and two objects presented to Castro when he visited Somalia in 1977 (a metal relief of an elephant on a painted landscape and ivory tusks). All were arranged in groupings by country and according to the designations of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’. If nothing else, the act of placing the Bienal show in the midst of this striking amalgam of nineteenth- century museology and political kitsch was a provocative and mischievous curatorial gesture.

The second núcleo was more tightly defined, both visually and conceptually, and featured forms of popular culture that had developed in close relation to local histories. It included two exceptional exhibitions: one of wire toys made by children in six countries in sub-Saharan Africa (‘Juguetes de alambre africanos’); and the other, ‘Bolívar en tallas de madera’, of wooden effigies of Simón Bolívar, the ‘Liberator’, who had led the early nineteenth- century Latin American wars of independence. 78Carved by ‘popular artists’, as the catalogue called them, from Venezuela, the latter figures were an interesting testament to how malleable and variable such supposedly iconic figures actually are in the collective imagination. Bolívar appeared alternately tall or squat; venerable or humble; white, black or Indian; famously astride his horse (which in certain cases seemed more like a giant mouse or tin man)or asleep in a modest bed. He was, in this composite portrait, a version of the people who had depicted him with such familiarity. The display mixed the dozens of figures together in an informal grouping made dynamic by the sudden shifts in scale and plastic approach, again an example of the informality that was typical across the Bienal’s installations.

The exhibition of wire toys had a similarly spontaneous feel, given both the fabrication style of the objects and the way they were scattered around the gallery space. The toys, made by children from Burkina Faso, Guinea- Bissau, Mozambique, Zaire, Zambia and Zimbabwe, were mostly replicas of various conveyances that, although completely common, were mostly absent from the children’s future possibilities (planes, cars, motorcycles), and which signified a status (established during colonial rule) they were unlikely to attain. With antecedents in the bamboo toy aeroplanes made by Dogon children in the 1930s, the wire toys continued in that tradition of inventing sculptural processes which made use of the materials that were readily available: the wire, along with tin cans and rubber, being the detritus of industrial manufacture introduced through colonisation. The toys in the Bienal had details that were in some cases lovingly elaborated (as in the many wheels on one plane) or poignantly frail (crumpled paper propellers on another). Although it was perhaps a somewhat sentimental idea to make a museum display out of creativity fuelled by poverty, the project was given a certain edge by its placement in the Museo de Artes Decorativas. The museum, occupying the former mansion of the Countess of Revilla de

Camargo, has since 1964 housed a collection notable for its European nobility and opulence (in its pre-Revolution incarnation it had been famous for ‘parties with 100-pound golden candelabras, 5,000 dozen gladioli and 500 pheasants flown in from the United States’ 79), installed as a gigantic still life, free of any irony. In that setting, the display of wire toys worked in the way that the institutional critique proposed by Fred Wilson did some years later in exhibitions such as ‘Mining the Museum’ (1992), humorously deconstructing the historico-ideological identity of the museum as both a colonial- and revolutionary-era institution. The tensions around the toys’ status as art were heightened by the fact that these objects were already on their way to becoming tourist commodities. As Mosquera explains in the catalogue, the production and circulation of the toys happened on a number of levels, starting with very young children who were simply creating their own toys out of necessity, and culminating in a rank of adolescents who, having become expert fabricators, sold their works in the great markets of Kinshasa and Brazzaville. The toys were, in other words, a class of objects that had already begun its transformation from spontaneous creation to one that anticipated its own export. Their contaminated status, then, relieved some of the aura that the Bolívars had accumulated.

Despite the interest of the particular shows, though, this núcleo was problematic. While the idea of trying to avoid defining popular culture as other to high or academic culture is attractive, it is too much of a stretch to claim works like these under the Bienal’s heading of ‘contemporary art’. It seems more interesting to accept their presence in the Bienal on other terms: their role was not to be more art, but rather to be other than art, and to stand in relation to it in an interesting or illuminating way. This, then, could underscore a point about the extreme heterodoxy of art and creativity, especially in a Third World context.

Rejecting the polar options of pure aesthetic versus direct use-value, the Bienal began to suggest a range of relations and meanings that complicated and enriched the debate about art’s relation to everyday life and to politics. It was developing this train of thought between 1984 and 1989, years that were bracketed in the Western metropolitan centres by the ‘“Primitivism”’ show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ in Paris – each open to accusations of perpetuating, although in different ways, (neo)colonial thinking, despite all the rhetoric to the contrary. The Bienal was, in part, a refutation of that thinking; but it was also, more importantly, a project of rethinking how art’s presence and meanings exist in relation to other cultural forms. In this, it was a challenge to the reductiveness of both a socialist, ‘culture of the masses’ model and the typically ‘high art’ arena of other biennials. The Bienal was more heterodox than these two alternatives, and also more interested in the operations of cultural expressions than in their classification.

The third núcleo included works that were ‘permeated by a critical attitude towards their environment (medio)’. 80 Whether through ‘a strong dose of humour or a sharp denunciation’, the artists gathered were seen to ‘identify with the urgent problems around them, and resolve them in terms of solidarity’. 81 This cluster, with its shows of ‘Fotos censuradas de Chile’ (‘Censored Photographs from Chile’) and photographs by Sebastião Salgado, from Brazil, was probably the most conventional, at least in terms of its leftist political framework. However, it exceeded that conventionality in two directions: with Graciela Iturbide’s quietly explosive reversal of the anthropological gaze, and with a show titled ‘La tradición del humor’ (‘The Tradition of Humour’). 82

Salgado’s show, organised especially at Llanes’s request, was installed in the Castillo de la Fuerza’s dramatic, muscular spaces, and represented an emphatic counterpoint to José Bedia’s mythical realm upstairs. 83 Although visually potent, Salgado’s exhibition was fairly predictable, including the by-then well-known images of the Serra Pelada goldmine, along with other series about workers in Kenya, Laos, Thailand, Mexico, Bolivia and Cuba. Other images showed the victory of FRELIMO in Mozambique, the day of independence in Angola, refugee camps in Ethiopia, Malian refugees kneeling at prayer across a flat expanse of cracked desert ground and an ‘anti-racist demonstration of the Rhodesian army’, as the label read, in which black soldiers rode piggyback on white soldiers – forming a kind of glossary of contemporaneous liberation struggles. Salgado’s vivid, high- contrast images, calibrated for a sharp emotional response mixing empathy with outrage, had particular authority at the time as a knowing presentation of the human realities of underdevelopment. 84

Iturbide presented her portfolio Juchitán de las mujeres (Juchitán of Women, 1989), which had just been published in Mexico. The work consisted of stunning black-and-white photographs of the legendarily matriarchal and hedonistic indigenous community south of Oaxaca. Quoting Miguel Covarrubias in her essay about the work, Elena Poniatowska noted that, ‘In Juchitán one finds neither the evasive behaviour nor the servile humility characteristic of peoples whose strength of character has been undermined by the direct repression of a social class.’ 85 Iturbide’s photographs framed monumental, tightly-cropped portraits of towering women, with desiccated iguana headdresses and enormous skirts (‘like walking towers… their nocturnal girth visited by the moon’). 86 The women of the town, wrote Poniatowska, ‘are strong-willed, in contrast with other regions where women shrink back and cry… They have nothing in common with self-sacrificing Mexican mothers.’87 The few men that appear in Iturbide’s images are impassive, holding gigantic clay phalluses, or cross-dressed, arresting in a floral gown or filigreed sombrero. Iturbide’s work had special status in a different manner from Salgado’s, operating as a portrait of a subaltern life that refuted conventional homilies about ‘tradition’ by revealing it to be not only very much alive and present, but also kindred to debates about, for example, the fluidity and social construction of gender identities.

The show of Chilean photographs, meanwhile, was a matter of exquisite timing that made clear how deeply this Bienal was engaged with its moment. After fifteen years of the Pinochet dictatorship, Chileans had voted in the famous 1988 ‘Sí o no’ (‘Yes or no’) referendum to reject the extension of his rule. Open presidential elections – which Pinochet lost – were held in December 1989, one month after the Bienal opened. In the sequence of events in Chile, from the 1973 overthrow of democratically-elected Salvador Allende through the brutality and neoliberalism of the dictatorship, to the jubilant but ultimately ambiguous nature of its end, Chile stood as a jagged, crystalline model of what had happened across Latin America. The exhibition in the Bienal was comprised of largely unexceptional images of the civil conflict (street protests, police harassment and reprisals) by Chilean photographers and press agencies. Nonetheless, the acuity of the exhibition’s timing in marking the moment of an extraordinary political transition made it a powerful curatorial gesture.

But the real explosion in this núcleo, and in the whole Bienal, lay in ‘La tradición del humor’, an exhibition of work by young Cuban artists with a title that made it appear innocuous. What was actually going on was much more troubled.

As discussed earlier, the Bienal’s rise had coincided with the development and rapid intensification of the new Cuban art. Within the space of a decade, the movement had accelerated from a basic refusal of encroaching orthodoxies to a much more intense and challenging position, taking aim at the increasingly oppressive Sovietisation of culture on the island, at the consolidation of political power and control and at the anathematising of art – and especially of its critical vocation – by the Cuban leadership. The new Cuban artists responded to these issues with a critical spirit and without aesthetic compromises, quickly gathering a public and popular force. That trajectory was cresting just as the third Bienal was opening its doors and was, therefore, a key element of the political space in which the Bienal manoeuvred.

A string of confrontations over politically charged exhibitions of the past year or so had superheated the atmosphere. Shows had been closed and sympathetic officials had been fired, and things were highly volatile. 88 The powerful political tension surrounding the artists made them a potential threat in the very public and international setting of the Bienal, to the point that Vice-Minister of Culture Marcia Leiseca – one of the few officials who had been sympathetic to the provocations of the young artists 89 – had initially vetoed their participation in it. There had always been a latent tension within the Bienal regarding its relation to the work being produced by the young Cubans: the institution was, first and foremost, a vehicle for the promotion of ‘Third World art’, consonant with Cuba’s broader internationalism. But it was also a crucial promotional tool for Cuban art itself, which early on had begun to steal the show and attract substantial international attention. The tension between these two missions – manifest in the figures of Llanes and Mosquera respectively – came to a head in 1989. Llanes was of the opinion that the young artists could not be included in the Bienal, since their presence would risk the cancellation of the Bienal project; Mosquera argued, to the contrary, that their work was the best being produced in the country and therefore had to be included. It was, also, the work that most foreign visitors would be expecting to see. Llanes’s decision, ultimately, to cordon off the controversial works into an exhibition with ‘humour’ in its title was not only a concession to the political realities of the moment, it was also the beginning of what was to become an ideologically tamed project. 90 This opened a new phase of precariousness for the Bienal, in which the Cuban state – confronted with an urgent situation in economic, social and political terms – exerted further control on the ways that Cuban culture was presented.

There had been a kind of golden age for art in Cuba during the 1980s, but by 1989 the period of détente was definitively over in the cultural sector. New policies and leadership mirrored the changes being wrought in the country’s central administration: Leiseca was fired a month before the Bienal opened, and replaced with Omar González Jiménez, an official who embodied the new set of hard-line and commercial priorities, ‘mov[ing] on to a formula that is more expedient and efficient’. 91 Culture, per se, was clearly out of favour: there was such deep mistrust of the young artists that Carlos Aldana, ideology chief of the Cuban Communist Party, had actually taken to previewing all of their shows in the previous months. ‘Imagine’, noted one observer, ‘the ideologue, the guy who was third in power – Fidel, Raúl and him. And there he was, going to every exhibition.’ 92 Speaking at the 1988 UNEAC Congress (Unión Nacional de Escritores y Artistas, or National Writers and Artists Union), Aldana had floated the idea of periodically sending artists and writers to ‘important areas of socioeconomic development, on safari-like expeditions’ in order to create ‘more dynamic, far-reaching and enriching ties’ between the ‘land of art and literature’ and the ‘land of reality’. ‘With… dissatisfaction’, he had continued, ‘we note the limited number of works inspired by internationalist assignments, be they civilian or military, carried out by the Revolution.’ 93 Giving a new cast to Castro’s extremely ambiguous 1961 dictum that had served as the fulcrum of Cuban cultural policy ever since (‘Within the Revolution, everything. Against the Revolution, nothing’), Aldana had argued at some length that it was even possible that an artist who considered him or herself to be ‘within’ could transgress ‘against’ it: an artwork, Aldana had warned, could ‘differ in many instances not just from what the author thinks, feels or says about the work but sometimes can even contradict the author’s ideology’. 94 Aldana’s threats were clear, and in its own main report for the Congress, UNEAC – cowed and quisling – ‘affirm[ed], with all certainty, that the Revolution is the cultural fact par excellence. It is that, precisely, because it permits us to recognise ourselves in a common project and a unity of sense.’ 95

At the Bienal, the political tensions had been evident from the start, and Minister of Culture Armando Hart’s words of welcome on the opening night made the split landscape manifest. After underlining that it was the Revolution’s policy not to privilege any particular artistic tendency or sectarianism – a comment that would seem to resonate with the eclecticism of the Bienal – he then warned that it was also necessary to ‘analyse all the contributions, and assimilate those that are authentically renovadoras’ – a clear nod to the accusations that were then being made against the young artists. 96 A number of foreign visitors to the Bienal had expressed concern about the state’s crackdown on the artists, and, in a development that made clear how extraordinarily sensitive the situation was, Hart had called a private meeting with the group to calm their fears. 97

But the crisis, of course, extended well beyond the art scene. Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Havana in April 1989 had been a clear sign of the beginning of the end for the ‘special relationship’ – including the end of subsidies. Indeed, once the Soviet Union withdrew its support, things on the island fell apart in breathtakingly short order. Meanwhile, in June, General Arnaldo Ochoa, the hero of Cuba’s Angola campaign who had fought with Castro in the Sierra Maestra, was arrested on charges of corruption, misappropriation of economic resources and drug trafficking. An abject confession, summary trial and swift execution left much of the population reeling and deeply disillusioned. By the time the Bienal opened in November, the island’s economy was a wreck, the situation in the city was deteriorating rapidly and a scheme to rebuild based largely on tourism revenues had produced a system of ‘tourist apartheid’ that was a direct affront and humiliation to the vast majority of Cuban citizens.

1989 was the start of an incredibly complex and contradictory transition in Cuban culture, from the artistic efflorescence of the 1980s (that had always, however, been looking over its shoulder to the darkness of the 1970s) to a crackdown in ideo-aesthetic terms that ran parallel to a cynical move by the state to repurpose the cultural sector towards commercial, rather than revolutionary, benefits. In 1989, television sets in hotel rooms broadcast the new Canal del Sol, which showed sweaty documentaries about African dance, adverts for Yves Saint Laurent perfume and, towards the end of the Bienal’s opening week, images of the Berlin Wall ‘sparkling’ to the ground, as the critic and curator Osvaldo Sánchez later put it. 98 1989 was the moment when the utopian vision of the Bienal crossed paths with the realisation that socialism – in Cuba and elsewhere – had become an empty shell; it was when Cuba’s total dependency on the Soviet Union became starkly evident.

1989 was the limit year, when a sketch of the future began to emerge, the starting point for a long process of deterioration on a national scale. It was the year when artists started leaving in droves, and Havana converted from a generative and contested site, a symbolic ground, into merely the place where the Bienal happened. It was when ambivalence came to rule: ambivalence about art from both artists and officials, about defiance, about the relation of artists to institutions and the relation of institutions to artists. The first sign of this was ‘La tradición del humor’.

Humour was indeed a vital cultural force in Cuba, and it had tended to track closely to the degree of political oppression in any given historical period. It had long been recognised as a primary coping mechanism, but it was also, traditionally, a barbed aggression, as it had become in the late 1980s. To frame that work under the banner of humour, however, was to flatten out the escalating conflicts taking place at that very moment, and domesticate them into the register of a joke. ‘Lots of people’, as noted by artist Lázaro Saavedra, ‘saw it as a way to tone down the critical discourse.’ 99

The introduction to the show in the Bienal catalogue was reliably anodyne, stating that humour was an important ‘tradition’ in Cuban art, a premise that matched the Bienal’s theme and slotted the local art scene into it: ‘It is in [the young artists’] work that you can appreciate the uninterrupted dialogue between tradition and contemporaneity, to which the Bienal alludes, and that is why we decided to present it as a special chapter in the ensemble of exhibitions.’ 100

The artists invited to participate in ‘La tradición del humor’ took a variety of approaches to the exhibition: some got aggressive while others retreated, and nobody seemed happy about the ghettoisation. Carlos Rodríguez Cárdenas, who had recently had an exhibition shut down by censors, built a room inside the gallery and festooned its walls with painted turds, titling the installation Filosofía popular (Popular Philosophy, 1989). Inside, a series of paintings rendered with the same meticulous brushwork as in his earlier work showed an orgy of Freudian overtones. Sex and defecation commingled amidst an effluvium of turd-figures painted in shit-hued pigment. Messages written in the same pigment directly on the wall hung among the paintings. ‘La palabra que captura la verdad no tiene que ser bella’ (‘The word that captures truth doesn’t have to be beautiful’), said one. ‘Arte’ noted another, the word spelled out in shit, being shot at with shit bullets. A ruler lying on a painting of shit was a ‘Medida de las cosas’ (‘Measure of things’). Elsewhere in the venue, although part of ‘Tres Mundos’, Tomás Esson showed an installation titled Su suerte: Talismán (His Luck: Talisman, 1989), in which a turd-shaped character called Talismán replaced the mulatto Che Guevara and amputated national flag that he had depicted in a recently censored show – this was perhaps a muted form of the earlier work, but unmistakable nonetheless in its commentary. Back in ‘La tradición del humor’, Glexis Novoa, who had developed what he called his Etapa práctica (Practical Stage, 1989) as an act of solidarity with his silenced colleagues, installed what looked very much like a grandiose piece of communist monumentalism, except that it was all fake. Etapa práctica consisted of a wall covered with images of painted banners, Brutalist architectural forms and sharply snapped vanishing points. The bravura cardboards extolled something unknowable, since the Cyrillic lettering they displayed was as faux as the rest of the work’s fastidious facetiousness. Tonel (Antonio Eligio Fernández) took aim at official rhetoric with Bloqueo (Blockade, 1989), a map of Cuba in the form of a pile of breeze blocks: a supreme tautology, it suggested that not only was the island blocked from the outside, but that it constituted its own worst enemy. The island became a plaza, an empty ceremonial platform. Ciro Quintana, outside the fray, made another of his tour de force postmodernist jokes about art, Made in Cuba (1989), in which cartoony paintings and carnivalesque drawings and collages were combined into a huge bricolage. Quintana’s installation borrowed heavily from the alphabets of kitsch and comics, appropriating postmodernism’s fabled appropriationism in an assemblage that looked vaguely like an Afro-Cuban altar and functioned as a parody of the mainstream, and of the periphery’s reception of it. Lázaro Saavedra contributed Dr Jekyll y Mr Hyde (1987/89), a couple of pedestals with a piece of paper on each, on which an identical letter was printed, once in Spanish – typed onto a crumpled piece of paper with an old typewriter – and once in English – crisp, clean, computer-generated. The letter reads:

The artwork that is being exhibited here, before you, is a magical work. The work will be invisible to all those individuals who have been formed with an aesthetic conscience:– underdeveloped or neocolonised

– subordinated to the ‘great’ biennials (visited or through catalogues)– subordinated to mercantile art, etc.This work can only be seen and understood by those who have in their minds the germs of the new aesthetic conscience that is required by the art of the third world.

Thanks for coming.

Interestingly, a couple of other shows around the city, independent of the Bienal but organised to coincide with it, provided less stormy contexts for these artists’ work. ‘Lo erótico en el arte’ (‘The Erotic in Art’) and ‘Kitsch’ each argued for the persistence of these themes in Cuban culture, much as the Bienal’s show argued for humour. ‘Kitsch’, in particular, was a full-bore look at the youthful movement, with new work placed alongside Mayito’s (Mario García Joya’s) much earlier photographs of Caibarién, the island’s gloriously unapologetic capital of bad taste. As these photographs attested, the vibrancy and irreverence of the youngsters’ work had strong roots. Tonel, writing in the brochure for this exhibition, noted that ‘This so-called “bad taste”, in Cuba, is almost all the time, in reality, taste.’ Kitsch was not just a matter of ‘forms’: ‘it would be sufficient to watch television, look at shop windows and carnival floats or take note of certain billboards of the DOR (Departamento de Orientación Revolucionaria, or Department of Revolutionary Orientation) and INTUR (the National Institute of Tourism) to feel with certainty that we are living an overwhelming and persuasive democratisation of visual taste in the country.’ 101 Here were two bullseyes: Tonel had pinpointed the queasy intersection where ‘tradition’, in the form of popular creativity, met ham-fisted political rhetoric in revolutionary Cuba; and Saavedra’s work had found exactly the point at which the idealism and internationalism of the Bienal crossed paths with the realities of political closure inside the country. This brings us to the final núcleo in 1989, which consisted of the conference and debates, and the many workshops and artistic meetings that took place during the first couple of weeks of the show.

The Third Bienal – Interaction and Debate

The desire to function as a zone of interaction had been central to the Bienal’s purpose and method since the first edition. By the third, this had decidedly shaped the programme, in the form of pedagogical projects and an increased public accessibility. Regarding the former, there were open workshops in lithography, serigraphy, papermaking, photography, ceramics, textiles and Nigerian adiré cloth, all led by prominent artists visiting on the occasion of the Bienal, and mostly attended by art students and artists. A group of architects convened to reimagine the city’s waterfront boulevard, and the Uruguayan artist Carlos Capelán worked with a group of students to transform one of the spaces of the Instituto Superior de Arte with drawings and installations using mud.

The third Bienal was extraordinarily public. It was programmed into all kinds of spaces, many of them open to the street, and in popular and busy districts. It was everywhere, and everywhere available to anyone. Unlike the more prepared ‘interventions’ that were programmed by the Bienal in subsequent years, the projects and events in 1989 flowed naturally into public space, of their own accord, in large measure resulting from the latitude that the artists had been allowed (with the notable exception, that is, of the controversial works by the young Cubans). This porosity between Bienal and public space was matched by the fluidity of the border between exhibition and discursive space: in some ways, it seemed that artists were there to meet each other more than to show their work. The same focus on interaction held sway in the numerous meetings, book and journal presentations, workshops and the conference.

With the international conference in 1989, the Bienal developed its role as a preeminent space for discussion about culture, bringing together a distinguished group of critics and theorists from Latin America, Asia, Africa and beyond. Among the participants were Juan Acha (Mexico), Badi-Banga Ne Mwine (Zaire), Rashid M. Diab (Sudan), Jorge Glusberg (Argentina), Geeta Kapur (India), Mirko Lauer (Peru), Sergio Magalhaes (Brazil), Federico Morais (Brazil), Lisbeth Rebollo (Brazil), Nelly Richard (Chile), Roberto Segre (Cuba), Aly Sinon (Burkina Faso), Elvira Vernaschi (Brazil) and Fruto Vivas (Venezuela); David Kunzle and Lucy Lippard came from the US, Charles Merewether from Australia and Pierre Restany from Paris. 102 While many of the Latin Americans already knew each others’ work, the gathering of scholars from so many regions, each of them immersed in a parallel but distinct debate over questions of culture in postcolonial settings, made for round after round of animated discussion in the packed auditorium of the Museo Nacional. As Kapur later put it, the experience in Havana allowed her to relate to internationalism in a much broader way. The encounter itself, especially with the Latin American contingents, was decisive, a ‘revelation, in particular for the self-assuredness and panache with which those tricky concepts of modernity, internationalism and avant-garde were deployed in the service of a critical project’. 103

Also titled ‘Tradition and Contemporaneity’, the conference was formed around the problematic of how to relocate the Bienal in a very complicated and conflictive internationality. Perhaps the first point to make here is that both ‘tradition’ and ‘contemporaneity’ were fraught terms, though for different reasons. Tradition as it pertained outside the Western world had all too often been viewed from the Western centres as either exotic or primitive. Such ideas linked the traditional to an authenticity that was stuck somewhere in the past. James Clifford highlighted the logic, in order to challenge it:

The various non-Western ‘ethnographic presents’ are actually pasts… What’s different about peoples seen to be moving out of ‘tradition’ into ‘the modern world’ remains tied to inherited structures that either resist or yield to the new but cannot produce it. 104

At the same time, ‘tradition’ had been a fundamental tool of authoritarian and anti-modern aspects of some nation-building projects, as in Zaire, whilst an element of more leftist nation-building exercises, as in Mexico and India.

An internationally prevalent idea of ‘contemporaneity’, meanwhile, assumed it to be the obverse of the Third World’s supposed backwardness and underdevelopment, its non-participation in both economic and cultural advancement. Moreover, the meaning of both terms had migrated frequently in the post-War period. As the Argentinean art historian Andrea Giunta has noted of her country’s history,

whereas in 1956 internationalisation meant, above all, breaking out of isolation, in 1958 it implied joining an international artistic front; in 1960 it meant elevating Argentine art to a level of quality that would enable it to challenge international art spaces; in 1962 attracting European and North American artists to Argentine competitions; in 1964 it brought the ‘new Argentine art’ to international centres; in 1965 it brandished the ‘worldwide’ success of Argentine artists before the local public; and, finally, in 1966, internationalism became increasingly synonymous with ‘imperialism’ and ‘dependence’, upsetting the previous positivity. 105

The instability of all these terms – internationalism, modernity, tradition, contemporaneity – both across time and from one context to another, meant that the conference, like the exhibitions programme, was dealing with a moving target.

Even beyond the problems inherent in each of these terms, the ideological frameworks that seemed to hold them together as a coherent binary were also troubled. As the Peruvian critic Mirko Lauer pointed out in the conference,

Our thinking about the relation between tradition and modernity has followed the evolution of our thinking about what the ‘Third World’ signifies as a social space… It is not surprising that today, when Third Worldism is faltering as an instrument of analysis and tool for action, both within and beyond art, the antinomy of tradition/modernity is also in crisis. 106

Since ‘tradition’ had played a specific ideological role in the decolonising process, it had therefore been the subject of some of the most influential theorising about culture in the self-defined Third World. Tradition had been argued for in opposition to modernity, put forward as a key weapon in the ever-present struggle against neocolonial and imperialist incursions into local cultural development. Summarising those earlier arguments, Lauer spoke of a ‘modernising’ art that was associated with ‘dominant’, ‘developmentalist’ sectors, in conflict with the ‘oppressed sectors’ that played only a marginal role in capitalism with their artisanry and ‘primitive’ forms. The modern was irreversibly alienated from the local/traditional by virtue of what the Mexican writer Marta Traba had called the ‘terrorism of the avant-garde’: the ‘altar of modernity’ represents the destructive dominion of central markets over the traditional. As antidote, Traba and others had proposed an ‘art of resistance’ in the vein of nationalist Mexican muralism – in effect, proposing a regime of liberatory reason as a Third World move against the ‘instrumental’ reason presumed to lie at the heart of Western modernity. 107

It is important to note that arguments such as these were congruent with a broader turn away from a developmental strategy of ‘modernisation’ (i.e. international integration) and towards one that was national or regional in direction. 108 These rehabilitations of tradition as a legitimate and contemporary cultural force were, then, a political project. They opposed the stigmatisation of tradition within the avant-garde credo of vigorous departure from the past and, more recently, the precarious status of traditions as taken up in postmodern appropriationism. They rejected the complex of ideas in which adherence to tradition was tantamount to stagnation, and in which traditional societies were seen as inherently non-modern and marginal because they operated outside of the abiding dialectic between tradition and innovation held to move historical societies forwards.

By 1989, however, such thinking was proving outdated, especially for its prioritisation of identity construction as the principal cultural dynamic. This point was made repeatedly at the conference. And while anti-colonialism was acknowledged as having played an important role in asserting local identities against the force of Eurocentrism, questions were raised concerning what it could offer for negotiating the present. 109 The oppositional relation between tradition and contemporaneity that these arguments demanded fit poorly in a reality in which popular expressions of tradition were suffused with, and responsive to, the present day. Furthermore, an essentialist identity politics could not easily be mapped onto the dispersed and diasporic nature of contemporaneous societies, with their ever-accelerating movement of capital, culture and people. The idea of identities and of communities of interest defined by nationality was incapable of answering to a situation fundamentally defined by the inseparability of cultures – which is, after all, the basic condition in the wake of colonialism. In his remarks at the Bienal conference, the Sudanese artist Rashid Diab took a step in the direction of a more inclusively theorised cultural landscape. 110 Diab retained the valorisation of tradition as legitimately local expression (in this case, in what he identified as the African context), but argued that the ‘contemporary’ offered a set of tools or materials that could be usefully taken up in the production of meaning, which was normally the work of traditional culture. The Indian cultural critic Geeta Kapur, meanwhile, insisted on the authoritarian potential of tradition, which in many cases had been an alibi propping up the nationalist project of the (Western-trained and -oriented) postcolonial bourgeoisie. A doctrinal idea of tradition, she warned, perpetuates the idea of a nativist, ahistorical and essential subject: in this sense traditional production is inherently susceptible to conversion into an institutional bulwark, a process through which it loses the adaptability to a living context that was its initial source of value. Even apart from that historical critique, she warned of the burdens that patrimony can impose on cultures struggling to renew themselves. These were cautionary notes that sounded again and again during the week of the Bienal’s debates.

In Latin America, cultural critics had become increasingly attentive to the inadequacy of categorical descriptors such as ‘Third World’ or ‘underdevelopment’, given the actuality of an increasingly urbanised and globally interconnected landscape. As Federico Morais noted in the conference, for example, attaching the designation of ‘Third World’ to Brazil made little sense, since the country had one of the largest economies in the world even though it also had one of the worst standings in terms of distribution of wealth, social services, human rights and foreign debt. ‘Schizophrenic and indecisive’ with regard to modernisation, Brazil was therefore simultaneously postmodern and pre-modern – not Third, but ‘First World-and-a-half’, as was sometimes said. 111 It is arguable that such nuanced understanding of the Third World was reflected in, or even anticipated by, Mosquera’s insistence on the Western basis of all the work shown in the Bienal, which was, likewise, a means of understanding not only the discontinuities between developed and developing countries, but also the continuities. Néstor García Canclini, Ticio Escobar, Mirko Lauer and others had become interested in vernacular art and culture, but not at the expense of ‘high art’. In fact, Lauer and Escobar (who is currently the Minister of Culture in Paraguay) were the main critics supporting contemporary art in their respective countries, and Canclini, likewise, was closely involved in Mexico’s contemporary art scene.112 In their formulations, traditional and contemporary cultures and vernacular and ‘cultured’ art were in many ways continuous with one another, rather than staked out across an ideological divide. The Bienal itself reflected the inclusiveness and heterodoxy of their approach. The Chilean critic Nelly Richard, who also attended the conference, was another influential voice in these discussions, with her wide-ranging analysis of cultural appropriation and resignification in the Latin American context, which, again, pointed to a dynamic framework that was globalist rather than parochial in its principles.

At base, the question of tradition and contemporaneity was about the power relations that shape and inform assertions of the local vis-à-vis the global. Rejecting those conservative meanings in which tradition was mostly a caricature deployed in the name of Third World culture, the curators of the Bienal and the debates at the conference took up the question from a much less bifurcated perspective. 113 Rather than connoting an indispensable and essential cultural practice, tradition was for them a comparative term. In place of an either/or formulation, the discussions tried to account for the realities of a situation in which both tradition and contemporaneity existed simultaneously, and in a productively complex and fraught relation. Tradition was conceived in broadly transcultural and contemporary terms, and linked to an idea of popular creativity. Traditions, in this sense, were residual rather than archaic, and in fact often closely related to emergent artistic or cultural forms. Traditions, in other words, were a living force that could be articulated in a contemporary (international) idiom, and they were important because they made manifest the complicated history of cultural encounters within the colonial and postcolonial process. This approach facilitated and legitimated a Third World claim to contemporaneity whilst recognising its capacity to originate its own contemporary forms.

In parallel fashion, the 1989 Bienal insisted on multiple and distinct contemporaneities, and on a model of culture that was fundamentally conglomerate and therefore impure and always unfinished. It was a model that allowed for an approach to the local not mired in the archaic, and of globality not flattened into homogeneity. What the Bienal also suggested is that engagement with ‘universal’ culture – the hallmark of both modernity and contemporaneity – was, even beyond an occasion for a self-affirming resistance (a central motif of Third World modernism), also a useful foil. That is, elements of local experience and culture could in fact be highlighted, and their value accentuated, through the engagement with the alien-ness of a ‘universal’ culture that was mostly generated and propagated from elsewhere. In fact, it was in the idea of ‘contemporaneity’ that the differences between the Bienal de La Habana and its sister international exhibitions were most productively rallied. Contemporaneity in Havana meant, in some cases, a condition of self-reflexivity on the part of artists and works, just as it did in the more developed circuits of cultural production and distribution, but this was always embedded in a complicated process not only of decontextualisation but also of recontextualising that contemporaneity into different socioeconomic networks. As in the arguments that had been made against locking tradition into a condition of interpretative closure, the sense of the contemporary that the Bienal argued for placed it within a broader history in order to find connections between various pasts and presents.

Such were the general lines of debate during the conference, and while participants represented a broad array of perspectives, there was a kind of soft consensus about the vital and revisionary nature of the Bienal project. This sense of common purpose was disrupted on a couple of tense occasions. The first arose when, amidst a heated discussion about postmodernism in the Third World, an audience member proposed the introduction of the term ‘post-communism’ into the debate. This not only prompted sharp disapproval, it also broke the insular spell of the event, which was, after all, taking place at the very moment when European communism was falling apart. This huge shift in the political landscape had somehow not been a part of the overall discussion until that moment.

There was also an uncomfortable confrontation over the particular version of the Third World that the Bienal was putting forward. In an ad hoc caucus of artists of African and Asian descent, convened under the heading of ‘Third World artists living in the First World’, the black artists from the UK who were exhibiting in Havana objected to what they saw as a ‘Latinisation’ of the concept of the Third World (among the specific complaints aired was the fact that translation from Spanish had not been provided consistently at Bienal events). The session, at times heated, was reflective of more substantial cultural divides: there were multiple maps of the Third World in play here, and their failure to correspond proved how tricky that term was, how much distance it hid under its will to mutuality, and also how raw the feelings were around it.

Other tensions arose, inevitably, from the political situation in Cuba. While the Bienal space was imagined as fundamentally open, the political space of the island was not. Alfredo Márquez, arriving from Lima to install his work, noticed that discrepancy and opted out of the official activities of the Bienal, immersing himself instead in the shadowy realm of young artists’ daily life in the city. For him, and others, the Bienal as an event was inseparable from its status as part of the Cuban system, and all of its virtues did not change the fact that that system was at war with its own artists. 114


Although in its initial editions the Bienal had enjoyed an unusual degree of autonomy from the Cuban state, that delicate balance of power was to falter increasingly after 1989. Mosquera left the Centro Wifredo Lam shortly after the third Bienal concluded, resigning because of the escalating repression in the cultural sector and because of disagreements over the future direction of the Bienal. From then on, the event’s independent spirit and conceptual adventurousness began to decline. Institutionally, it embarked on a protracted process of sometimes compromising liaisons with foreign partners, including the famously anti-communist chocolatier and art collector Peter Ludwig (whose cultural altruism had already been put in the spotlight by Hans Haacke), 115 for whom a private sale was organised in advance of the opening of the fourth Bienal in 1991. 116Meanwhile, what had been a crisis for Cuba became a catastrophe as the Soviet Union pulled all its subsidies and preferential trade agreements, and the nation slid into an economic and psychic chasm. And, concurrently, as the confrontation between young artists and the Cuban state became increasingly explosive and attracted increasing popular support, 117 the emigration during the early 1990s of virtually the entire generation of artists who had been active in the 1980s was cynically facilitated by the authorities, who meanwhile withheld permission to leave from ‘normal’ citizens.

The Bienal de La Habana began as the direct result of one of Fidel Castro’s legendary brainstorms. It was inaugurated under the banner of Cuba’s forceful idealism and anti-imperialism. A stalwart advocate of the need for a global forum outside the mainstream in which local discourses and aesthetics could grow, the Bienal told a story that was different from the stories offered by international exhibitions elsewhere in the world. It occupied the role of antidote to the homogenising forces of the marketplace, and offered a model for an alternative practice. As the only biennial operated by an avowedly socialist country, it stood for anti-commercialism and solidarity among artists, for a reciprocal instead of market base of exchange. The early guiding principles of the Bienal also coincided neatly with ideas circulating elsewhere in contemporary arts discourse. Among the most important were the need for an even-handed representation of cultures typically left out of hegemonic international circuits, and the urgency of reimagining the audience for art in order to include a broader slice of the public, of making that audience’s role in the art-viewing situation more participatory and of altering the location of the art itself so that it became more interwoven with the fabric of daily life. With all these factors taken together, the Bienal de La Habana was pretty much in a class by itself, and it quickly acquired a certain cachet for its compelling vision and for having been there first.

The Bienal also arose in direct synergy with the extraordinary artistic renaissance that took place in Havana during the 1980s. Art and the art system in Cuba were in transition. Political dogmatism and compliance had been overturned by a generation of young artists, critics and curators who placed themselves in a contemporary and international – rather than nationalistic – context. Changes to the institutional structure and leadership in the cultural sector had created a new flexibility of mission, and Soviet subsidies had created a period of relative prosperity. The era of exporting revolution was largely over, but the era of exporting culture was renewed.

The Bienal’s history is an unambiguous reflection of this double, and increasingly divergent, origin. The questions raised by the project, then, pertain not only to the relationships between an alternative and oppositional project, on the one hand, and the global systems it contests, on the other, but also to the troubled relationship that has often existed between such large international exhibitions and their local contexts.

In the case of the third Bienal there is another layer of complexity, given the transitional nature of its moment. Exhibition-making was shifting, thanks to a wave of self-criticism in Western anthropology which had occasioned a wide-ranging re-evaluation of that discipline and especially of how its principles were made manifest in museum collections and displays. A ‘new museology’, which critiqued the naturalisation (and fossilisation) of museums as neutral sites of fixed knowledge, was being established, and questions about the nature of the art institution, which had been posed since at least the 1960s, were also beginning to be internalised into a more self-conscious curatorial process.

The third Bienal took place at the confluence of all these streams, and took them up with an optimism and sense of possibility that was characteristic of the cultural energies in Cuba at the time. The double mandate – to include the excluded and to rethink the meanings of art in excluded zones – both coincided and conflicted with policy directions on the island, setting the stage for eventual co-option and absorption. But that mostly came later, and in 1989 the original project was at its apogee.

The first two editions of the Bienal had been largely celebratory, attending primarily to the inclusionary mandate. But simply changing the roster of biennial participants had addressed what was really a secondary issue: it substituted one centre for another, leaving the aesthetic, spatial and logical structure of the exhibition undisturbed. By the third iteration, however, the conversation had deepened, and moved from the creation of a usable past to a critical analysis of culture in the contemporary sphere. It was, in broad terms, a move away from the literalism, or realism, of identity politics and nationalist/regionalist legitimation, to a post-realist, post-nativist, transnational solidarity and debate. It became a kind of critical reflection reprising, or interrupting, the institution of the biennial and reworking it towards a different end, a project of transforming the terms of the enquiry. The 1989 Bienal replaced the pocketed national space that characterised the biennial as an exhibition form at the time with a transnational organisation based around ideas; it opened up the space of ‘contemporary art’ to include new locations and different modes of production; it conceived of an exhibition as a constellation of related arguments rather than a single essay, and a biennial as equally a process of display and discussion; and, finally, it imagined that the entire enterprise could be exciting for non-specialists, and not just for professionals. In all of this, the third Bienal anticipated curatorial trends that would emerge in the ensuing decades.


  • Exhibition statement dated January 1989. ‘Magiciens de la Terre’, curated by Jean-Hubert Martin, took place at the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Grande Halle de la Villette, 18 May to 14 August 1989. It brought together works by fifty ‘Western’ and fifty ‘non-Western’ artists, including Marina Abramovic, Alighiero e Boetti, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, Daniel Buren, Maestre Didi, On Kawara, Bodys Isek Kingelez and Jimmy Wululu. The exhibition’s ‘world-wide’ claim resulted in a heated discussion about the politics of representation of ‘others’ by Western institutions and curators. For example, see Third Text, vol.3, no.6 (Special Issue: Magiciens de la Terre), Spring 1989. The third Bienal de La Habana ran from 1 November to 31 December 1989. Editors’ Note: ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ will be the subject of a forthcoming book in Afterall’s Exhibition Histories series, Making Art Global (Part 2).
  • The theme of ‘Tradition and Contemporaneity’ was promoted in the Bienal regulations. See Tercera Bienal de La Habana ’89 (exh. cat.), Havana: Centro Wifredo Lam and Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1989, p.19, as reproduced in translation in this volume, p.174.
  • Minister of Culture Armando Hart, Vice-Minister Marcia Leiseca and Director of Cultural Patrimony Marta Arjona were in attendance, along with Lam’s widow, Lou Laurin-Lam. Beatriz Aulet, first Director of the Centro Wifredo Lam, conversation with the author, March 2009.
  • Wifredo Lam, ‘Statement’ (1975), in Dore Ashton (ed.), Twentieth Century Artists on Art, New York: Pantheon Books, 1985, p.118.
  • Llilian Llanes Godoy, ‘Presentación’, in Tercera Bienal de La Habana ’89, op. cit., p.14, as reproduced in translation in this volume, p.179. Subsequent translations of Spanish quotations are, unless noted, the author’s.
  • The official narrative limits the ‘grey’ years to the period between 1971 and 1976, which it calls the quinquenio gris. This moniker, however, greatly underplays both the duration and the severity of the period.
  • Probably the most infamous episode concerned the poet Heberto Padilla, who in 1968 was denied the Julian del Casál Prize, awarded by an international jury on behalf of the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists, on the grounds that his work was ‘insufficiently committed’. He was ultimately arrested in 1971, without charges and apparently by personal order of Fidel Castro. See Hugh Thomas, Cuba, or The Pursuit of Freedom (1971), New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, pp.1466–67; and Desiderio Navarro, ‘In Medias Res Publicas: On Intellectuals and Social Criticism in the Cuban Public Sphere’, Nepantla: Views from South, vol.2, no.2, 2001, pp.355–71.
  • These included the International Cairo Biennale, FESTAC in Lagos and the Bienal de Arte in Medellín.
  • L. Llanes Godoy, ‘Presentación’, op. cit., p.14, as reproduced in translation in this volume, p.179.
  • Conversation with the author, March 2009.
  • Quoted in Miguel Rojas-Sotelo, ‘Cultural Maps, Networks and Flows: The History and Impact of the Havana Biennale 1984 to the Present’, unpublished doctoral thesis, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2009, p.160.
  • Refusing to align with either the First or Second Worlds (headed by the US and the USSR, respectively), the nations participating in the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference (or Bandung Conference) developed a new principle of solidarity among themselves as protection from the interference of the major powers. Participants included Jawaharlal Nehru, Zhou Enlai and Sukarno.
  • See ‘Presentación’, in Catálogo General: 1era Bienal de La Habana (exh. cat.), Havana: Centro Wifredo Lam and Dirección de Artes Plásticas, 1984, p.7.
  • Eliseo Diego, ‘Introducción’, in Catálogo General, op. cit., p.10. Diego (1920–1994) was an acclaimed poet, short-story writer and essayist.
  • The Casa de las Américas was founded by the Cuban government in April 1959, only four months after the Revolution, following Che Guevara’s call for a means of bridging the cultures of Latin America. It was given the task of fostering sociocultural relations with the countries of Latin America, the Caribbean and the rest of the world. Its first president was Haydée Santamaría, a respected revolutionary and the wife of Minister of Education Armando Hart (later, Minister of Culture). She was succeeded by the renowned painter Mariano Rodríguez, and then by Roberto Fernández Retamar, a close confidant of Guevara and Castro, who has been a perennial figure in official Cuban culture since the Revolution. The contacts provided to the Bienal, therefore, amounted to a kind of Rolodex of the hemisphere’s cultural Left at the time.
  • Luis Camnitzer, ‘Report from Havana: The First Biennial of Latin American Art’, Art in America, vol.72, no.11, December 1984, p.43.
  • Ibid.
  • Ibid.
  • ‘Tradición y contemporaneidad: Entrevista a Federico Morais’, Arte en Colombia, no.43, February 1990, p.60.
  • Higher Institute of Art, the national college-level school of art in Cuba, established in 1976.
  • Llanes was also extremely well connected in political circles: her husband, Regino Boti, had been the first Economy Minister appointed after the 1959 Revolution. In fact, several key cultural officials had close personal ties to the highest levels of political power, including Vice-Minister of Culture Marcia Leiseca (married to Osmani Cienfuegos, secretary of the Council of Ministers at the moment of the creation of the Centro Wifredo Lam and brother of Camilo Cienfuegos, a hero of the Revolution), who became indispensable in the development of contemporary art on the island during the 1980s. See M. Rojas- Sotelo, ‘Cultural Maps, Networks and Flows’, op. cit., p.443; and http://www. (last accessed on 16 May 2011).
  • Prior to his appointment at the Centro, Mosquera had worked as a ‘specialist’ (curator) at the Dirección de Artes Plásticas y Diseño; as a journalist at the Dirección de Divulgación del Ministerio de Cultura; and, before that, at the Consejo Nacional de Cultura. Throughout that time his work as an independent researcher and art critic had attracted much attention in Cuba (where he was quite controversial) and abroad (where he was widely praised). Mosquera had trained as an art historian at the Universidad de La Habana.
  • Medina de Miranda graduated with a degree in philology. The team for the third Bienal consisted of Llilian Llanes Godoy (Director); Gerardo Mosquera, José Manuel Noceda and Hilda María Rodríguez (Research); Nelson Herrera Ysla, Magda Ileana González-Mora, Leticia Cordero and Nora Hochbaum (Promotion, although some of them were also involved in content); Ibis Hernández, Silvia María Medina de Miranda, Margarita Sánchez, Ana Vilma Castellanos and José M. Varela (Information and Documentation); José Luis Ayala, Lourdes Castillo and Dominica Ojeda (International Relations); Rosa Elaine Cárdenas and Ivonne Bru Quiñones (Administration); and Pedro Fernández (Finance).
  • Nelson Herrera Ysla was an original member of the Centro Wifredo Lam team, and is the only one who is still associated with the Bienal. Following Llanes’s resignation after the sixth Bienal, he was appointed Director for the seventh edition, a position which he held for that installment only.
  • As already mentioned, this was specifically claimed for ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ in an exhibition statement dated January 1989.
  • Armando Hart Dávalos, ‘Presentación’, in Segunda Bienal de La Habana ’86: Catálogo General (exh. cat.), Havana: Centro Wifredo Lam, 1986, p.14.
  • Jonathan Glancey, ‘I Pick Up My Pen, A Building Appears’, The Guardian, 1 August 2007, available at /01/architecture (last accessed on 16 May 2011).
  • The 1986 conference focused on ‘Plastic Art of the Caribbean’.
  • This was perhaps most visible in the way that the conference topics picked up on conversations from the previous events and laid the groundwork for the next. For example, the 1986 conference on ‘Plastic Art of the Caribbean’ focused on issues that had featured prominently in the 1984 Bienal conference about Wifredo Lam, exploring the creole nature of Caribbean culture. That, in turn, fostered questions about the relation between tradition and contemporaneity, the theme of the 1989 Bienal.
  • Conversation with the author, March 2009.
  • It may seem, in retrospect, that this protective role diminished over the years following the 1989 edition. This question, though, is outside of the scope of the present study.
  • ‘I’ve always had a visceral rejection of curatorial protagonism, those who want to put themselves above the artists. While I worked at the Centro, I never put the specialists in a position to shine. At the opening we were all anonymous, it’s the artists who should shine.’ L. Llanes Godoy, conversation with the author, March 2009.
  • Ángel Tomás González, ‘Desafío en San Rafael’, El Caiman Barbudo, no.159, March 1981, pp.7–27. Cited in José Veigas, Cristina Vives, Adolfo V. Nodal, Valia Garzón and Dannys Montes de Oca, Memoria: Cuban Art of the 20th Century, Los Angeles: California/International Arts Foundation, 2002, p.456.
  • See, for example, Rudolf Baranik, Luis Camnitzer, Eva Cockcroft, Douglas Crimp and Lucy Lippard, ‘Report from Havana: Cuba Conversation’, Art in America, vol.75, no.3, March 1987, pp.21–29.
  • While it was the subject of numerous articles and previews in the national press, the third Bienal received relatively scant notice outside of Cuba. By far the most extensive coverage was in Arte en Colombia, which ran a series of pieces that included an interview with Mosquera about the ‘conception’ of the Bienal and with Federico Morais and Pierre Restany about their impressions of the event. Camnitzer contributed a lengthy review (also published, in an expanded form, in Third Text, as reproduced in this volume, pp.206–14), and Leslie Judd Ahlander wrote an additional and also highly complimentary review. Much shorter pieces also appeared in Latin American Art (by Rosalyn Mesquita) and High Performance (by this author), while Mark Alice Durant, writing in the New Art Examiner, expressed disappointment at the lack of context provided for the exhibited artworks. Further reviews featured in publications as disparate as The Village Voice (an article by Coco Fusco, as reproduced in this volume, pp.204–05) and African Arts. Coverage increased sharply for the next couple of editions of the Bienal, and the 1991 edition was the subject of a special section in Third Textincluding articles by Llanes, Guy Brett (who compared it to Venice, Paris, Kassel and São Paulo) and Jay Murphy (who focused on the decline of ‘critical’ artmaking in Cuba), and reviews also appeared in Art in America (again by Murphy), Art Nexus and High Performance. Coverage increased significantly the next time around in 1994, with reviews appearing both in influential art magazines and in the general press, including Artforum, frieze, Art in America, Art News, Third Text, the New Art Examiner, The Sydney Morning Herald, Miami New Times, The Times of London, The Economist and The New York Times, along with the usual extensive coverage in ArtNexus.
  • Of course this changed radically after 1989, but that is beyond the scope of this text.
  • These biennials are the Indian Triennale, the International Cairo Biennial and the Biennale de l’Art Bantu Contemporain.
  • In terms of art history, the curriculum taught in the University of Havana at the time covered Western art from antiquity up to around the 1970s. There were a few classes on pre-Colombian art, but the emphasis was on Europe and later on the US. See José Manuel Noceda, quoted in M. Rojas-Sotelo, ‘Cultural Maps, Networks and Flows’, op. cit., p.87. As Margarita Sánchez, a longtime staff member at the Centro Wifredo Lam points out, sometime after the 1970s the art history faculty was separated from the faculty of philosophy and letters, and some specialisations were added, including Cuban art and Latin American art.
  • Ibid. , pp.91–92. The improvisatory nature of the curatorial process was mirrored in the fundraising process as well. For example, letters soliciting support were sent out to European funding bodies without any of the usual protocols, and apparently without much effect: the list of collaborating institutions in 1989 names only the Philippines Cultural Center, the Saddam Hussein Center in Iraq, the Venezuelan National Gallery of Art, the Mexican National Institute of Fine Arts and the Lalit Kala Academy in India as international partners. The situation had not changed much even by the end of the 1990s, when Manuel E. González, former director of the art programme at the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York City, spent time instructing the Centro Wifredo Lam staff in basic financial management skills. ‘My role was peculiar’, he said. ‘It was like Capitalism 101 – how to underwrite an exhibition, because they had no idea…’ Quoted in M. Rojas-Sotelo, ‘Cultural Maps, Networks and Flows’, op. cit., p.185.
  • Luis Camnitzer, ‘The Third Biennial of Havana’, Third Text, vol.4, no.10, Spring 1990, p.79, and reproduced in this volume, p.206.
  • L. Camnitzer, ‘The Biennial of Utopias’, On Art, Artists, Latin America, and Other Utopias (ed. Rachel Weiss), Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009, p.217.
  • Conversation with the author, March 2009.
  • Ibid.
  • Ibid.
  • ‘“Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and Modern’, curated by William Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe, took place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, 27 September 1984 to 15 January 1985.
  • Gerardo Mosquera, ‘Concepción de la Bienal’, Arte en Colombia, no.43, February 1990, p.140.
  • For some viewers, however, some works included in the Bienal read precisely as ‘tribal’, or as ‘mock ritual tableaux’, in the words of Geeta Kapur (telephone conversation with the author, December 2009). This particular reading, based on the ways in which modernist art was being defined at the time in India, makes clear that the range of ways in which the Bienal was understood was at least as broad as the range of artistic proposals in the show.
  • Okwui Enwezor, ‘The Black Box’, in Documenta11: Platform 5 (exh. cat.), Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2003, p.44.
  • In fact, in his presentation at the Bienal conference in 1989, Mirko Lauer made a point of emphasising the differences in regional experiences of colonisation – the development of local cultures in Latin America and in Africa was, as he noted, ‘profoundly affected’ – and in those places modernity had ‘tried to reproduce itself as a space that was alternative to the traditional’. On the other hand, according to Lauer, in China and India, where ‘cultures were able to withstand the most pernicious effects of colonisation because of their density and demography, modernity has attempted to ally itself with the traditional’. M. Lauer, ‘Notes on the Art, Identity and Poverty of the Third World’, in this volume, pp.191–92. For Lauer, the ensuing question is one about whether a culture has sufficient confidence in its own capacity to make use of the Western cultural intrusions toward its own ends – an approach which emphasises the aspect of power relations in these cultural encounters.
  • G. Mosquera, conversation with the author, March 2009.
  • Thomas McEvilley’s strong critique in Artforum of ‘“Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern’ was an influential example in this regard. See T. McEvilley, ‘Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief’, Artforum, vol.23, no.3, November 1984, pp.54–61. This text, together with a response by the curators of the exhibition, William Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe, and their subsequent exchange with McEvilley, is reprinted in Bill Beckley and David Shapiro (ed.), Uncontrollable Beauty: Toward a New Aesthetic, New York: Allworth Press, 1998, pp.149–258.
  • Conversation with the author, March 2009.
  • Quoted in M. Rojas-Sotelo, ‘Cultural Maps, Networks and Flows’, op. cit., p.131.
  • Compare the statistics for the previous editions, as already cited: 2,400 works by 690 artists from 57 countries in 1986; 2,200 works by 835 artists from 21 countries in 1984.
  • The awarding of prizes in cultural events was a well-established and prestigious practice in Cuba, perhaps best exemplified by the annual Casa de las Américas prizes, which had been extremely successful in consolidating Havana’s role as a centre of gravity for culture in Latin America. There was, therefore, real reluctance to dispense with them in the Bienal. As of 1986, however, outside support for the idea was probably crucial: Luis Camnitzer, a highly valued supporter of the Bienal who had been a juror that year, had argued against continuing the prizes, both in person with Llanes and in a published review of the Bienal. See L. Camnitzer, ‘La Segunda Bienal de La Habana’, Arte en Colombia, no.33, May 1987, pp.79–85. Some years later, in an essay on the history of the Bienal, Camnitzer provided insight into the jury’s thinking: ‘During the deliberations, it became obvious to the jury that, however diversified our perceptions, ideologies and definitions of art, we still were very much inhabitants of the mainstream. It was also clear that many objects in the show, like certain masks that had been sent from Cambodia, had definitely not been produced for competition in a Western context. To us they looked like airport trinkets and lacked artistic merit. Were we supposed to punish them for that? Were we qualified to punish them?’ L. Camnitzer, On Art, Artists, Latin America, and Other Utopias, op. cit., p.214.
  • There is no reference in the catalogue as to what the title ‘Tres Mundos’ refers to, but one might assume that it invokes a global reach to third, second and first worlds.
  • Mosquera had also proposed including decorative coffins by Ghanaian Kane Kwei (presented in ‘Magiciens de la Terre’) but the idea was vetoed on the grounds that coffins would bring bad luck.
  • Because of the missing museum windows, a violent thunderstorm a day or two after the opening of the Bienal flooded the ground floor of the museum, endangering all the works installed there. Half the show was pulled from the walls, and later replaced, all with a mixture of hysteria and apathy. Brey’s installation was, it seemed, ruined by a leak in the wall, but as it turned out the streak caused by the water was in the exact spot where he had wanted to mark the wall with grease, but had not been allowed to. Brey saw the effects of the flood as completing the work.
  • Some commentators described the ground floor as containing more ‘traditional’ works, while the more ‘contemporary’ material was upstairs, but this seems to be mostly the result of questionable usages of those terms. For example, Toni Piñera, writing in Granma, noted that downstairs were ‘works very close to the cultural roots of each country and those artists who had based their works on popular forms and constructed them with simple materials and scarce resources’; he referred, for example, to the work of Marta Palau, whose Eva Hesse-like installation was made of amate paper, as ‘recalling our ancestors’. T. Piñera, ‘Concierto de sorpresas artísticas’, Granma, date and page unknown.
  • The work included photographic images from police files and anthropological indexes, along with drawings by Dittborn’s young daughter.
  • Conversation with the author, November 1989.
  • Kappata, although included in the exhibition, is not mentioned in the catalogue, nor is Zambia given in the list of participating countries.
  • According to Ruth Bush, director of Mpapa, Zambia’s sole art gallery at the time, Kappata had been able to work independently of the tourist trade because of the gallery’s support, which consisted primarily of promoting his work to foreign sponsors and buying it for the gallery. Mpapa was started in 1979, but only began to be operational full-time in 1984; its viability as a commercial venue depended on Bush’s frequent travels, during which she was able to acquire such staple supplies as frame clips and computers. Conversation with the author, November 1989.
  • Kaunda had promulgated a Zambian ‘humanism’ as official state ideology, which mixed elements of centralised planning with ‘traditional’ African values. Kaunda appears in Kappata’s canvas as an excessively pious and inert figure, under the heading that titles the work.
  • See Virginie Andriamirado, ‘Colonial Memory in Kappata’s Painting’, available at (last accessed on 16 May 2011).
  • L. Camnitzer, ‘Un laboratorio vivo’, Arte en Colombia, no.43, February 1990, p.91. And see the English version of this review, published in Third Text at the time and reprinted here, p.212.
  • Documents pertaining to the process of arranging the invitation reveal the precarious nature of how the Bienal actually worked, and subsequent communication (and lack thereof) confirming the invitation and concerning funding and shipping are even more tenuous. The invitation, sent by telex, arrived in London only six weeks before the show was to open in Havana: ‘INTERESTED EXHIBIT WORKS FOLLOWING ARTISTS SHAHEEN MERALI, SOKARI DOUGLAS CAMP, PITIKA NTULI, K.G.KELLY, K.PIPER, SONIA BOYCE, WORKS NUEST [SIC] BE HAVANE BEFORE LIST [SIC] WEEK OCTOBER, YOU CAN SEND THEM BY COLLECT HABANA LONDON-MADRID-HABANA. WE PAY HERE TRANSPORTATION. HOPING YOU NEWS. REMEMBER. 6 METERS FOR EACH ARTIST. REGARDS, LLILIAN LLANES, DIRECTOR, WIFREDO LAM CENTER.’ Unpublished document in the British Council archives. Despite its initial offer to cover shipping costs, the Centro Wifredo Lam was ultimately not able to do so owing to a lack of hard currency. Participation by a reduced number of artists was eventually partially subsidised by the British Council’s Minor International Exhibitions fund (administered by the Visual Arts Department in London), and the remaining costs were, presumably, covered by the artists themselves. It was not unusual for artists to take on such responsibilities in order to participate in the Bienal, as the funding situation in Havana was always precarious, and last-minute budget cuts were frequent. I am grateful to Teresa Gleadowe for sharing her research into the British Council archives on this matter.
  • Merali argued the cause under the following headings: ‘A short history of Black people’s presence in Great Britain’, ‘What is Black Art in Great Britain?’, ‘The role of Black Artists in Great Britain’ and ‘Reasons for Participation’. As to the last, Merali argued as follows: ‘From the evidence provided by our previous statements one begins to understand the marginalisation that occurs for Black Artists. / The importance of their work, not only as artists and educationalists, has constantly gone unacknowledged and yet their services within education and race relations are constantly in demand. / For Black Artists to maintain their cultural impact it is vital to develop strong International links with other projects, artists and cultural movements. We believe this would be a two-way process, where not only would we gain strength and knowledge, but we could share the particular expertise and experience we have with other artists. / To take part in the Cuban Biennale would be the first major exchange between Black Artists and their counterparts from the whole of the Third World. The impact on cultural practices in Britain could be enormous, especially now that the advances made by Black Artists are severely threatened by the political and cultural conservatism. / To this end we ask for the organising committee and curators of the Biennale to look upon favourably our late request to join with the rest of the artists in the Third World in solidarity and equality.’ Shaheen Merali and Allan deSouza, ‘Proposal for an Exhibition by Black Artists from Great Britain’, unpublished, undated document in the British Council archives.
  • M. Rojas-Sotelo, ‘Cultural Maps, Networks and Flows’, op. cit., p.12. The Bienal catalogue listed in the ‘Reglamento’ that the exhibition was open to the participation of ‘– African, Asian, Caribbean and Latin American artists, resident in their country or not. – Artists belonging to ethno-cultural groups of the above origins based in other countries.’ Tercera Bienal de La Habana ’89, op. cit., p.19.
  • Coco Fusco, ‘The Margin of the “Margin”’, The Village Voice, 9 January 1990, p.90 and reproduced in this volume, p.204.
  • The scrolls were made by Zong Chong Yo, Che Ha Tek, Lik Sok Io, Juang Yong Zun and Jam Zong Chol. The Socialist Realist portraits were authored by Li Chang, Li Che Zu, Zim Pom Ja and Pak Zong San.
  • N. Herrera Ysla, ‘Diálogo, ensayo, puertas abiertas’, in Tercera Bienal de La Habana ’89, op. cit., p.56. The first núcleo was presented at Galería Habana, the Casa de las Américas, the Casa de África, the Castillo de la Fuerza, the Centro Provincial de Artes Plásticas y Diseño, the Casa de los Árabes, the Fondo Cubano de Bienes Culturales and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.
  • ‘Art of the Fantastic: Latin America, 1920–1987’, curated by Holliday T. Day and Hollister Sturges, took place at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, 28 June to 13 September 1987. It is probably worth noting that Bedia and Twins Seven Seven, from Nigeria, were the only artists represented in both the Bienal and ‘Magiciens de la Terre’.
  • Orlando Hernández, ‘Tres visiones del héroe’, in Tres visiones del héroe (exh. brochure), Havana: Castillo de la Fuerza, 1987, unpaginated.
  • Anonymous, inTercera Bienal de La Habana ’89, op. cit., p.227.
  • L. Camnitzer, ‘Un laboratorio vivo’, op. cit., p.65. And see the English version of this review, published in Third Text at the time and reprinted here, p.211. Also in 1989, Paternosto published Piedra Abstracta: La escultura inca, una vision contemporánea (Mexico City: Colección Tierra Firme, Fondo de Cultura Económica), a treatise linking Latin American constructivism to pre-Colombian traditions.
  • ‘Tercera Bienal de La Habana’, planning document, Centro Wifredo Lam, 1989.
  • ‘Juguetes de alambre africanos’ was housed at the Museo de Artes Decorativas and ‘Bolívar en tallas de madera’ at the Casa Simón Bolívar. A third exhibition, titled ‘Muñecas mexicanas’, at the Casa de México, was also part of this núcleo.
  • See Dick Cluster and Rafael Hernández, The History of Havana, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006, p.226.
  • N. Herrera Ysla, ‘Diálogo, ensayo, puertas abiertas’, op. cit., p.56.
  • Ibid .
  • There were seven shows in this núcleo: ‘La tradición del humor’, in the Museo Nacional; ‘Fotos censuradas de Chile’ (location not noted in the program); ‘Te queremos Paraguay’, in Galería L; ‘Mensajes de Sudáfrica’, in the Casa de la Obrapía; Sebastião Salgado, in Castillo de la Fuerza; Graciela Iturbide’s ‘Juchitán de las mujeres’, in Fototeca de Cuba; and José Tola, in Galería Servando Cabrera Moreno. The inclusion of Tola in this group seems odd, since his work was known for its grotesque, hallucinatory nature, derived from the artist’s fondness for hallucinogenic drugs and his mysterious, remote and hermetic lifestyle.
  • As is clear from the fact that these two shows were in the same facility but different núcleos, the organising logic of the núcleo was conceptual, rather than literal or physical in form.
  • Salgado’s work was already well known in the West, as his photographs of Serra Pelada in Brazil had been published in The New York Times Magazine as a photoessay on 7 June 1987.
  • Elena Poniatowska, ‘The Man with the Sweet Penis’, English translation inserted in the volume Juchitán de las mujeres, Mexico City: Ediciones Toledo, 1989, p.3.
  • Ibid ., p.2.
  • Ibid. , p.3.
  • Among the artists who had had shows closed, censored or edited because of their content were Tomás Esson, Carlos Rodríguez Cárdenas, Ponjuán and René Francisco and ABTV. For a fuller account of this period, see R. Weiss, To and From Utopia in the New Cuban Art, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
  • Leiseca was a controversial figure, criticised by some for insufficient support of artists, and recognised by others for having established an advisory council on culture in which artists were centrally positioned, for engaging in dialogue with the young artists about their work and for arguing on their behalf with other officials.
  • The comments of one observer articulate this incorporation into state-directed imperatives well: ‘the Bienal de La Habana does not present a discourse about art and from art, but rather a discourse about the world, from the perspective of Cuba, or a discourse about the international art world from the perspective of the official Cuban institution of art, in the best of cases’. Juan Antonio Molina, Después de la rebelión blog, 6 April 2009, available at http://despuesdelarebelion. (last accessed on 16 May 2011).
  • Omar González Jimenez, quoted in Pedro de la Hoz, ‘Nuestro desafío no puede ser imitar el pasado, sino adelantarnos al futuro’, Revolución y cultura, May–June 1994, page unknown.
  • Conversation with the author, Havana, December 2001.
  • Carlos Aldana, ‘As Much as We Need the Air We Breathe We Need Art, Its News and Prophecies’, Granma, 14 February 1988, p.8 (English version of the address by Aldana on the last day of the Fourth Congress of UNEAC).
  • Ibid.
  • ‘Informe central’, IV Congreso de la UNEAC, unpublished typescript, 1988, p.4.
  • ‘Renovadoras’ can literally be translated to ‘renovating’ or ‘innovative’, but has in this case connotations of revolutionary credentials. A. Hart, ‘Culture Expresses Itself in Defense of Identity’, Granma, 14 February 1988, p.9 (English version of Hart’s opening words).
  • The group of visitors included, among others, Luis Camnitzer.
  • Osvaldo Sánchez, ‘15 artistas cubanos o del muro que nunca existió’, in 15 artistas cubanos (exh. cat.), Mexico City: Ninart Centro de Cultura, 1991, p.43.
  • Conversation with the author, March 2009.
  • N. Herrera Ysla, ‘La tradición del humor’, in Tercera Bienal de La Habana ’89, op. cit., p.323. The text mistakenly reads ‘which the Bienal avoids’ (elude), rather than ‘to which the Bienal alludes’ (alude).
  • Untitled text in exhibition brochure, unpaginated.
  • The conference lasted a total of eleven days and its start coincided with the opening of the exhibition. The first and second days were devoted to formal discussion of the visual arts, and included six papers, each followed by an hour of ‘debate’. There was also one book presentation and one journal presentation in this part of the event. The third and fourth days were devoted to formal discussion of architecture, and, as for the visual arts, included six papers, with an hour of debate following each, plus presentations of a further book and a further journal. All of this was then followed by seven days of the Tribuna Libre (Free Platform), at which 28 scholars and artists made hour-long scheduled presentations during the first four days, with the last three days left open for further debate.
  • Telephone conversation with the author, December 2009.
  • James Clifford, ‘The Others: Beyond the Salvage Paradigm’, Third Text, vol.3, no.6 (Special Issue: Magiciens de la Terre), Spring 1989, pp.73–74.
  • Andrea Giunta, Avant-Garde, Internationalism, and Politics: Argentine Art in the Sixties (trans. Peter Kahn), Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007, p.9.
  • M. Lauer, ‘Notes on the Art, Identity and Poverty of the Third World’, in this volume, p.185.
  • Ibid ., pp.186–91.
  • The debate in culture had important connections to broader theories about development. Modernisation Theory, mostly expounded in Europe and the US, considered underdevelopment the result of internal conditions, and held that development in poor countries should follow the pattern that had been established by already-developed countries, and with their help and leadership. Dependency Theory, on the other hand, was developed largely by Latin American and/or Marxist writers and became increasingly influential in the 1960s and 70s as an alternative way to understand the chronic syndromes of underdevelopment in the Third World. It argued that development and underdevelopment were relational and structural, with the core of wealthy nations dominating a periphery of poor ones that were exploited as the source of cheap labour and raw materials. Dependency Theory, then, suggested that in order for underdeveloped nations to develop, they would have to break the cycle of their dependency on developed nations and pursue internal growth. This led to, among other policy tendencies, the idea of industrialisation based on Import Substitution. See, for example, Jean Franco, The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City: Latin America in the Cold War,Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2002.
  • José Rabasa has provided a helpful definition of this term: Eurocentrism is not only ‘a tradition that places Europe as a universal cultural ideal embodied in what is called the West’, but also ‘a pervasive condition of thought’. Quoted in Santiago Colás, ‘Of Creole Symptoms, Cuban Fantasies and Other Latin American Postcolonial Ideologies’, PMLA, vol.110, no.3, May 1995, p.392.
  • See Rashid Diab, ‘Hacia una contribución peculiar del arte africano contemporáneo a la historia universal del arte y a una comprensión nuestra de la estética’, in Debate Abierto Tradición y Contemporaneidad en la Plástica del Tercer Mundo, op. cit., pp.14–18.
  • Federico Morais, ‘Tradición y Modernidad en la Plástica Brasileña’, in ibid., pp.28–29.
  • Escobar, although principally known for his work on Paraguayan popular and indigenous cultures, had even published Una interpretación de las artes visuales en el Paraguay (Asunción: Colección de las Américas, 1982 and 1984), a voluminous study of the country’s visual art.
  • L. Llanes Godoy, ‘Presentación’, op. cit, p.17, as reproduced in translation in this volume, p.182: ‘We were aware of the risks of choosing this theme, given the widespread tendency to associate such ideas with artists exploring their ethnic roots whilst disregarding traditions arising from other aspects of our historical and cultural processes.’
  • A more extensive discussion of Márquez’s experience and ideas is provided in the conversation with him published in this volume, pp.228–36.
  • Hans Haacke, Der Pralinenmeister, 1981. The work chronicles the triple streams of Ludwig’s collecting, philanthropic and business dealings, and suggests that the former two were undertaken in the service of the latter. Ludwig also invested heavily in Soviet, East German and Bulgarian art during the 1980s (locations where, as Haacke seems to suggest, he was working to establish business contacts), and has been identified as anti-communist by John Wineland in ‘The Havana Biennale’, (last accessed on 16 May 2011). For more information on Ludwig’s activities, see H. Haacke, ‘Der Pralinenmeister’, in Hans Haacke: Unfinished Business(exh. cat.), New York, Cambridge, MA and London: The New Museum of Contemporary Art and The MIT Press, 1986, p.226.
  • Ludwig established the Ludwig Forum in Havana in 1995 to promote contemporary art on the island. Ostensibly an NGO, the space has actually had close ties to the state’s cultural establishment, and has at times played an important, if paradoxical role as an officially-sanctioned yet extra-official exhibition platform. See R. Weiss, To and From Utopia in the New Cuban Art, op. cit., p.132.
  • Such support is difficult to verify, but informal measures give some indication of the popularity of this work. Exhibitions were routinely packed with excited visitors, and street performances and actions drew large crowds, which often burst into spontaneous debate.