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Catalogue: Introduction

Page view from Making Art Global (Part 1): The Third Havana Biennial 1989 (Afterall Books 2011) showing catalogue cover for the third Bienal de La Habana. Courtesy of the Central Wilfredo Lam, Havana

Over the last fifty years, the number of institutions and foundations promoting contemporary visual arts has noticeably increased in highly industrialised nations. Those institutions have, for the most part, aimed to disseminate art from their own countries, while art from the Third World has been marginalised and to a great extent ignored. It is therefore not surprising for it to be unknown and in a position of disadvantage.

Accordingly, the mass media, and in particular art magazines and international art events closely linked to the art market, either ignore or underestimate contemporary artistic activity taking place in Third World countries. This is often even the case when the artists involved have enjoyed a certain degree of recognition, temporarily or for posterity, because of their links with European or North American schools that they are seen to represent.

For various reasons, there are currently expressions of interest in contemporary art from the Third World, especially for Latin American art, but instances of this are few and far between and do not yet constitute any substantial change to the general situation just outlined.

Researchers have historically directed their studies toward traditional manifestations of our artistic production, as if in this day and age our peoples were incapable of creating a culture based both on our traditions and on a dialectical relationship with the present, a culture enriched by life.

The defence and study of our roots is an unquestionable necessity, but this cannot be based on the lack of awareness of our current reality. To ignore the work of our contemporary artists is to deny our right to create a living culture, a culture that is the result of the social and artistic potential that exists between our peoples, and of the realisation of their present and future aspirations.

The wider world is familiar with a broad bibliography about pre-Colombian art, and about traditional African, Arabic and Asian culture, produced by eminent researchers from all over the world. Nevertheless, it is difficult to find significant publications on the contemporary art of the countries that are the historical continuation of these cultures. Not even we ourselves attend to making them.

We are frequently more up to date with what is going on in the art of Paris or New York than with what is happening in countries that are culturally and even geographically closer to us. Without denying the need to be aware of the art from industrialised countries (it would be a mistake to ignore it), it seems unforgivable not to know the current artistic output of those countries with which we have so many things in common.

For this reason, promoting an awareness of the work of contemporary artists from the Third World is a challenge and a duty for all those who are in one way or another connected to the art or general culture of the countries thereby conjoined. And it is essential for there to be an institution that might satisfy the needs for expression and exchange among artists from Asia, Africa and Latin America in order to secure the role they deserve in the world.

The main goal of the Centro Wifredo Lam is to work towards increasing mutual awareness; towards an ever deeper understanding of our values; towards a closer integration of our artists, researchers and critics, based on shared interests and on the defence of our art, culture and existence.

The Centro was established in 1983 in homage to one of this century’s great artists, whose work offers an exemplary synthesis reflecting our drive for a universality based on a profound reinvigoration of our roots and traditions. Launching the Centro has been enthusiastically welcomed in the Third World, fundamentally because this institution is fulfilling a common need: to provide an active space for integration dedicated to learning about, valuing and promoting our current artistic heritage, affirming the Third World’s identity as distinct from a hegemonic ‘international’ culture.

In the cultural sphere, the Third World may be characterised by the wealth and diversity of its expressions, uniting both an interest in the reaffirmation of roots and an impulse towards universalism, arising from its extraordinary mixture of peoples and cultures. But there are also powerful forces bent on deforming these expressions, whether it be by subsuming them within the folkloric, or by attempting to homogenise them through the global expansion of industrial capitalism – with its web of multi-national companies, financial and commercial bodies, consumerism, the mass media and information networks – and its multiple paths of penetration and manipulation within ideological and cultural spheres.

Consequently, it is absolutely necessary to approach the Third World on this level, and this approach, based on challenging the marginalised situation of its cultures, as they face the colonialism attempting to deform them, constitutes a decisive step. It lays a foundation for the possible union of our peoples and our effective connection in economic, political and social terms.

The very survival of our countries is also being decided in the battle we are facing on the cultural level. In the same way that there is a struggle for a New International Economic Order and for a new information order that may make it possible to confront the oppressive disadvantage that the Third World experiences, it is absolutely necessary to propose a new international cultural order. Our countries are compelled to join the offensive and to fight so that they themselves – according to their own history and interests – may make that ‘universal culture’ that is otherwise imposed on them.

In this way we will begin the process of creating a truly universal culture that includes what is of worth in all and that preserves local resources.

The Centro Wifredo Lam is set to make a modest contribution in this sense, and is taking steps towards the realisation of encounters that might allow this kind of mutual cultural rapprochement.

Both the establishment of the Bienal de La Habana as a space for exchange amongst and knowledge of artists from the Third World and the reception that it has had since its first edition bear witness to the need for its existence. Until now this event has resulted from empirical work, which should be perfected as the Centro further increases its knowledge about the artistic reality of the Third World and manages to bring together the efforts of artists, researchers and institutions from all countries.

With this goal, the Centro has established documentation and information resources, gathering together various databases, numerous collective and individual catalogues and other useful materials that might be useful for a diversity of approaches to this topic. Considering the shortage of publications about the work of artists from the Third World, and considering also their dispersion, finding these materials collected in a single institution offers major advantages to those wishing to begin a general study and even to those interested in focusing on a specific area or country. The information that has been gathered has allowed us to come closer to a knowledge of the artistic situation in the different regions and to begin fruitful communication with organisations, key individuals and artists. It has also facilitated a definition of initial research areas and opened a way to international collaboration.

The main tools at the Centro’s disposal for the realisation of its aspirations are the gathering of information and the deployment of researchers who might let us get to know art’s current situation in the Third World in more depth.

Those who have followed the two previous editions of the Bienal de La Habana will notice the changes that it has undergone for its third edition. It is true that there were also changes between the first and the second – limited fundamentally to the event’s extension, both in terms of participating countries and of the programme that was presented – but both of those editions maintained their competitive character and their panoramic vision. The first was directed towards Latin America and the Caribbean and the second also included Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

At that time it was practically impossible to consider any goal other than that of obtaining a broad, overall vision of the art of the Third World. Aware of the need to catalyse the integration of Third World artists based on the partial knowledge provided by their proposals, a great attempt was made to venture into unknown areas and regions and to explore their artistic output. The aim was to offer a panoramic view while being fully aware of the risks posed by the lack of preexisting information and by the limitations on conducting research trips in situ.

What was hoped for was a first approach to a broad and in good measure ignored subject, and a speeding up of the process of learning among artists, without waiting until all the conditions necessary for its optimal realisation were met. Artistic integration stood as a necessity and it was unavoidable to take the first step toward it.

Even with the difficulties posed by the coordination of such a varied exhibition, the decision was upheld to award prizes in order to highlight those works that might serve as an example in terms of diversity and wealth of expression. However, the process of selecting works caused serious and deep reflections among the judges and the audience, both of whom understood the need to know certain contextual references concerning the exhibited works in order to best comprehend them.

At the same time, the chance to take in all the exhibited works as information about the state of art in the Third World broadly speaking was overshadowed by the undeniable priority that is always given to the awarding of prizes and to competition.

The second Bienal, like the first, set up a group of activities the goal of which was to integrate all those who in some way or other are connected to the visual arts. Nevertheless, competition caused the event to be valued by most only for its prize giving, and many lost sight of its integrating and multipurpose conceptualisation. In addition to this there was the fact that the exhibitions were set up on a broad and panoramic concept, and that resources were not therefore spent on delving into some of that landscape’s fundamental aspects. It was only through the process of organising this third edition that the possibilities for knowledge exchange among artists, critics and institutions from Third World countries, as set up by the second Bienal, really became apparent.

Without this past, the character of continuity that our Bienales have had since their establishment until today may not be understood, and they might appear to be three isolated and unconnected editions.

The conceptualisation and design of the third Bienal de La Habana originated from analysing previous experiences and assessing how effective they were in terms of meeting the general brief set up by the Centro Wifredo Lam.

Even though we were aware of the important role that awarding prizes had from the point of view of mobilisation and dissemination, and in terms of directing art criticism, it was noticed that this process got in the way of a full and integrated conception of the Bienal. So in this way, whilst the design criteria of the Bienal were maintained – and, as such, the project was organised around a group of activities intended for the effective participation of all interested parties, artists, critics, researchers and the general public – its competitive character was removed and it was given a reflective character instead. Consequently, all of the Bienal’s activities had to stem from this concept and had to contribute, in their own way, to delving into the chosen thematic direction. The exhibitions would have to contribute all necessary visual material for an initial level of analysis; workshops would allow for the exchange and enrichment of ideas among artists, starting from particular experiences that could be generalised; and theoretical debates would become the necessary space for reflection between all participants.

The last thing to be decided was the thematic direction to be given to the event. After considering several problems of common interest, it was thought that the current Bienal should focus its efforts on reflecting on issues of tradition and contemporaneity in art from the Third World. The point was not so much to find a definitive answer, but to analyse, debate and judge some paths taken by artists, their results and their importance within the general context of Third World art.

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.

We would like to end this way of doing things by calling for research into what characterises us, as a consequence of the making of our nations over thousands of years. We seek to identify those traditions that have been shaped in the course of our history as the result of multiple combinations, of interaction with the geographic and natural environment and of the particular historical, economic, social and political processes, among other kinds, that have been and still are expressed through art. In Latin America, for example, does anyone doubt that within our most deeply-seated traditions one will find admiration and respect for our heroes and martyrs, who faced the successive processes of conquest, colonisation and neocolonisation? Do we not in our countries rely on the legacy of our ancestors, a legacy that lives on and nurtures us? Is the struggle for the creation of our better future and the protecting of nature, the environment and our cultural values, not part of our traditions?

In our relationships with what is foreign, doesn’t a stance of appropriation and integration carry the day, conscious that everything good in the world belongs to us?

The goal of the third Bienal de La Habana is to ponder on these problems, on the ways of working which our artists are considering within this framework, and to offer information towards the debate. We offer it up for everyone’s consideration and hope that research will begin that in the future will help us to understand this problem.

Within the process of universalising art that is characteristic of these times, we must ask ourselves: what risks do we run if we are not aware of that with which we can be identified, if we distance ourselves from our history and our tradition of struggle in order to build a nobler and better future for everyone?

However, should that realm of traditions that makes up part of our culture express itself through a language that responds to contemporary codes, in tune with the world we live in, and along with our custom of going from what is ours in a familiar way to what is ours universally?

Our contemporary art is fought for within this dialectical relationship. We would feel deeply pleased if we could manage to transform the third Bienal into a space for fruitful and enriching exchange. We are far from thinking that the role of the Bienal de La Habana is fully developed. Its gradual improvement constantly concerns those who work at the Centro and everyone who, along with us, shares in its realisation through the Consejo Nacional de Artes Plásticas (National Council for the Visual Arts) and the Ministry of Culture. Many daily efforts are geared towards a shared goal in the belief that the Bienal will form the main means of conveying knowledge about the arts from the Third World.

Still, today the Bienal already stands as the most important international event for artists from Asia, Africa and Latin America, the context where they can show the development of their artistic expression, and set up relationships that will foster the understanding and the importance of its true values.

As works of the highest rank are exhibited and artists representing the diversity and resources of the Third World are here gathered, this will also become a space visited by experts from all around the world.

We thank all those colleagues and friends who have, with their criteria and their appropriate and constructive opinion, helped us to improve our task. We also thank all those who have collaborated with their efforts to make this third edition a reality.

Translated by Lupe Núñez-Fernández

Editors’ Note: This text by the director of the Centro Wifredo Lam opened the catalogue for the third edition of the Bienal: Tercera Bienal de La Habana ’89  (exh. cat.), Havana: Centro Wifredo Lam and Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1989, pp.13–18.