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The Third Bienal de La Habana in Its Global and Local Contexts

Installation view of Juraci Dórea’s Projeto Terra (1981–1989) at Tres Mundos. Juraci Dórea’s Projeto terra (Project Earth, 1981–89) was the second part of the Brazilian artist’s project made for and with the people of the Brazilian northeast.

It is amazing how misrecognised the historical role of the Bienal de La Habana remains. The event, which recently celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary, is now well-known internationally and enjoys a certain sex- appeal due to its location, but despite its large scale it is mostly considered a minor, somewhat messy biennial. There is scant knowledge about the groundbreaking role it played in transforming international art circulation towards the broadness it enjoys today, breaking away from the restrictive situation that prevailed in the mid-1980s, and in changing mainstream hierarchies. Hopefully the development of exhibition studies as a new scholarly discipline will eliminate the ‘itinerary of silence’ – as Gayatri Spivak would say – that the Bienal has suffered, probably because of its marginal situation and its being too revolutionary in several senses, among them the circumstance that it was happening in Cuba.

Since I was one of the founders of the Bienal, it is uncomfortable for me to be advocating for its importance. To make things worse, I resigned from the Bienal’s organising team immediately after the 1989 edition to be analysed here. This decision was taken in part because of my disagreement with the way in which the event was envisaged and my concern for its future in the midst of post-Cold War stagnation and official conservatism in Cuba, and in the face of increasing censorship of critical Cuban artists. Therefore, I am placed not only in an uneasy but almost contradictory position to discuss the 1989 Bienal. Added to that, I am very critical of the way in which the Bienal de La Habana has developed up to the most recent edition. Thus, praising the 1989 show and its precedents is in a way like saying: the first three exhibitions, in which I was involved, were the good ones, and then, after me, the deluge! That is not true. However, on second thoughts, both my involvement and issues with the Bienal convinced me that you have to go all the way with your children.

The creation of the Bienal was suggested by Fidel Castro himself, without his having a full idea of its implications. It was the last and most ambitious international cultural event focused on Latin America and the so-called Third World that was launched by Cuba, a country well-known for organising international conferences, symposia and congresses of every kind and in all fields as a way of publicising itself and building a good image. Representation has always been a priority for the Cuban regime, and its practice has surpassed the country’s scale and economic capacity. Before the Bienal there were literary awards, theatre, film and music festivals and cultural journals, some of them running since the 1960s. Many are still in place, and the Latin American Film Festival has maintained its relevance at a regional level and beyond. During the 1960s and early 70s, such institutions as the Casa de las Américas and ICAIC (Cuban Institute of Art and Film Industry) exercised a top cultural and ideological influence in Latin America. Before the creation of the Bienal there was no big international event in Cuba dedicated to the visual arts, although there were Latin American print and photography contests, which included exhibitions organised by the Casa de las Américas for many years.

Wifredo Lam’s death in 1982 triggered the Bienal’s foundation. The son of a Cuban black woman and a Cantonese immigrant, and an artist who used modernism to launch a Third World imaginary, Lam was the perfect ethnic, cultural and artistic symbol to inspire the event. The Cuban government rushed to appropriate his name when he passed away, and launched a resolution creating the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam in Havana, with the mission to research and promote art produced in the so- called Third World. The Bienal was the main assignment of the centre. The first edition was organised very fast, in 1984, by the Visual Arts Division of the Ministry of Culture, under Beatriz Aulet’s direction, simply because the Lam centre had only a legal existence at the time. It thus became the fourth biennial to be established (after Venice, São Paulo and Sydney) and the sixth international periodic art event after the aforementioned biennials, the Carnegie International and Documenta.

The Bienal, like the other international cultural events, was funded by the Cuban government, which was in turn subsidised by the USSR. Being a socialist country with a state-run, centralised economy, it was easier for Cuba to access government resources to organise such large events. The reason for the Cuban regime’s intense expenditure in cultural activity has always been ideological with a strong international side. But we would restrict our view of it if we merely think that its purposes were only to promote socialist ideas, to fight against political isolation imposed by the US, to showcase a good image of the country and to co-opt Cuban and Third World intellectuals. Since the Revolution in 1959, Cuba has been an outpost for ideological struggles by virtue of its combination of geographic location and political messianism. The Cuban Revolution has always had an expansionist agenda, and has been involved in revolutionary warfare and subversion throughout the world. Beyond obvious differences, the arts were approached in a similarly aggressive way. The Bienal took advantage of the facilities and networks that were established to implement the Cuban state’s geopolitical goals, especially its immense web of embassies throughout the world – a network comparable in scale to that of larger powers and absolutely beyond what might be expected of the country given its size and resources. This network – with its diplomats, buildings, transportation, communication facilities and connections – was instrumental for the Bienal’s organisation. If, during certain periods, Cuba maintained considerable political autonomy, by the 1980s it was fully within the Soviet Bloc. However, Cuba was a strange member of the Bloc: a Caribbean country with a very distinct culture, the most Spanish and simultaneously one of the most African Latin American countries, ninety miles from the United States, its clocks showing the same time as New York, with a long and consistent modernist tradition beginning in the early twentieth century… The Cuban Revolution produced one of the toughest and most radical regimes, but, since it happened in a Caribbean country famous for its music and nightlife, it was also, as Che Guevara proverbially put it, ‘revolución con pachanga’, or ‘revolution with party’.

Moreover, Cuba had a genuine Latin American and Third World cultural and political agenda that was sometimes at odds with the Soviet Union’s communist orthodoxy. And as part of the role of beachhead for communism and USSR policy that Cuba had always played, it was in competition with China, which was opposed to the Soviet Bloc and was also trying to accomplish that role. This confrontation was the reason why Chinese artists and artists of Chinese descent were not invited to the first Bienales. Therefore, on the one hand, and for historical, political and cultural reasons, Cuba was inclined towards Caribbean, Latin American and Third World cultures; on the other, this inclination was exploited and supported by the Soviet Bloc to gain political influence over Third World countries.

This background made the historic role played by the Bienal possible. The Cuban regime launched the event with political aims – unaware of its artistic and cultural scope and importance – but was smart enough to leave its organisation to a team of specialists from the visual arts field. The government left considerable room for the curators involved, imposing only decisions that could have a direct political impact, such as the exclusion of the Chinese or the inclusion of North Korean artists who, given that country’s authoritarian regime, were just doing official propaganda. Such a policy has been typical of the Cuban government since the Revolution: it has generally allowed a degree of freedom for the arts and culture, although it has gone through numerous repressive episodes. It was also clear that in order to organise an event dealing with such a vast range of countries and artists, it would not be possible to keep a restricted Marxist ideological frame – for example, a text in the second Bienal’s catalogue began by invoking Allah and stated that the main purpose for an Iranian Muslim artist was ‘to access a divine condition’. 01 The Bienal was conceived as a largely open space for contemporary artists, critics, curators and scholars from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Middle East, including immigrants to Europe and North America, to meet and become acquainted with each others’ works and ideas beyond ideology or sheer politics. The Bienal also functioned as a platform for research and promotion at a time when artists from the ‘peripheries’ (most of the world) were unknown beyond their own local contexts. Of course, by so doing the regime was successfully contributing to fulfilling its political goal of becoming a Third World leader. But, at the same time, it was satisfying a critical need for contemporary art outside the mainstream, and was giving room to a sincere commitment by the Bienal’s curators to work inspired by a vision that they considered of global importance. There was hence a convergence between governmental politics and a plausible commitment to transform circulation, knowledge and legitimation of contemporary art at a global scale with a vision for the future.

The Centro Wifredo Lam reported to the Ministry of Culture. The Centro’s director, and therefore the Bienal’s director, was a Communist Party member trusted by the Ministry, but she, the curators and other specialists had a chance to shape the Bienal conceptually and in practice with considerable freedom. Llilian Llanes Godoy held directorial responsibility from the second Bienal in 1986 to the sixth in 1997. Created in 1976, the Ministry of Culture was developing a liberal policy partially in response to a radical cultural renovation carried out in Cuba by a new generation of visual artists and critics emerging at the end of the 1970s. This so-called ‘new Cuban art’ transformed forever the ideology-oriented, conservative, official culture that had prevailed during that decade. 02 It developed a critical, postmodern, internationally open approach in the 1980s that expanded from the visual arts to the rest of the arts, and continues today. The Bienal’s foundation coincided with this very intense period of renovation in Cuban arts, and the new liberal climate was crucial to shaping the event’s nature.

The first Bienal de La Habana in 1984 was huge, but restricted to Latin American art for reasons of logistics and organisation, and functioned as a sort of test and training experience for the organisers. The second edition, in 1986, reached a full Third World scope. It was the first global contemporary art show ever made: a mammoth, uneven, rather chaotic bunch of more than fifty exhibitions and events presenting 2,400 works by 690 artists from 57 countries. The Bienal’s variegated structure made it a true urban festival, a pachanga that involved the whole city. 03 More importantly: never before had artists, curators, critics and scholars from so many places – Beirut, Brazzaville, Buenos Aires, Jakarta and Kingston, to name just a few – met ‘horizontally’. What made this Bienal historic was not its curating but its curatorial perspective. If its curating suffered from the vastness and swiftness of the task and our lack of knowledge, preparation and organisation, the event’s curatorial standpoint was the result of a clear vision, in the making, towards the internationalisation of contemporary art that we enjoy today. The importance of this breakthrough at the time is more evident when we witness that, even today, a deficit in South-South linkage and interaction persists as a postcolonial legacy. It is true that globalisation has activated and pluralised cultural circulation, making it much more international. However, it has done so to a great extent by following the channels designed by the globalised economy, reproducing its power structures.

Around the mid-1980s, segregation was an essential part of the visual arts system. The periodic international art events already in place, from the Venice Biennale to Documenta, were far from global. This was not only because the participating artists were mainly from Western backgrounds, but because the events’ idea of art was restricted to the Western mainstream, and their organisers were not interested in exploring what was going on elsewhere. Thus the Bienal created a new space, acting as a gigantic ‘Salon des Refusés’ that involved most of the world, born from a spirit of action. If, in those days, the Bienal only included artists from the Third World, this was in order to confront their exclusion and lack of communication and networking opportunities, not because the event organisers considered that there existed a ‘Third World art’ as a distinct, ontological category opposed to a ‘Western art’. As Luis Camnitzer has said, the Bienal was not about ‘otherness’, but about ‘itness’. 04 The Bienal, of course, recognised and emphasised artistic and cultural differences, but within a shared, postcolonial practice of contemporary art. In this sense, too, it was foreseeing the current way in which art is created and consumed internationally. Paradoxically, as a result of its focus on contemporary art, the Bienal was accused of being Westernised.

The third edition of the Bienal took place one year later than originally planned, in 1989. Actually, even though the event has kept its name, it has been more of a triennial, since several of its editions were delayed owing to organisational problems and economic constraints. Such a delay was worthwhile for the 1989 Bienal. The event was brought under control and narrowed down to a more reasonable – even if still very large – scope: there were 538 artists (from 54 countries). 05 Its catalogue credited the Bienal’s ‘general curating’ to Llilian Llanes Godoy, Nelson Herrera Ysla and me. 06 However, since its inception the Bienal has always been the result of a broader teamwork. The ‘general curators’ travelled throughout different regions in the world and came back with information and recommendations. In my case, I visited seventeen sub-Saharan countries during 1987 and 1988, and, in response to invitations to give lectures and to contribute to conferences and other events, I visited several other countries in the Americas. For organisational purposes, the globe was divided into zones in which the different Bienal curators specialised. An important part of the curating was indirect, performed through researching the significant amount of documentation that the Centro Wifredo Lam was collecting, and by examining applications sent by artists from all over the world who responded to a public convocation. The Centro’s curators Leticia Cordero, Magda Ileana González-Mora and Nora Hochbaum actively participated in this process for the 1989 edition. Since the Bienal was an ensemble of different exhibitions, conferences, seminars, workshops and interdisciplinary events, these young curators were also engaged in organising them together with the ‘general curators’ and other staff members (José Manuel Noceda and Hilda María Rodríguez, in this case), and were credited in the catalogue accordingly. This team spirit reached beyond the Centro Wifredo Lam’s staff, as we actively consulted curators, critics, scholars, artists and other experts from different countries and from other institutions in Cuba and around the world. We were curating with our eyes, but also with our ears. In spite of all this, there was plenty of improvisation and lack of curatorial rigour, especially in the main show, where the works were often badly displayed and protected, with no consistent exhibition design. The technical deficiencies and the shortages typical of communist countries affected the curatorial process.

From 1984 to 1989, all the Bienales were curated by the Centro Wifredo Lam’s staff. This system has continued since then, but with a more institutional, anonymous and centralised style, focused on the Centro’s director. This scheme reproduces the country’s own centralised political system and shows the organisers’ apprehension about opening up to the participation of foreign curators. The Bienal has paradoxically become a global event that is always curated by almost the same official Cuban team. While most international biennials present themselves as less canonical, more autonomous spaces than contemporary art museums – on the basis of the guest curators’ role in their organisation and their less institutional, more flexible framework 07 – this is not the case with the Bienal de La Habana. All the more: its centralism has predisposed the Bienal to a certain authoritarian, bureaucratic and even repressive stance, and indirect or straightforward censorship has occurred in the latest editions. 08

The third Bienal, like the second one, I insist, was not conceived as an exhibition but as an organism consisting of shows, events, meetings, publications and outreach programmes. It assembled a big main international exhibition, eleven thematic group shows (three by Cuban artists and eight by artists from other countries), ten individual exhibitions (two by Cuban artists and eight by artists from other countries), two international conferences and eight international workshops. Apart from this central programme there was a constellation of exhibitions and artistic, cultural and educational events organised by many museums, galleries, universities, houses of culture and community institutions throughout the whole city. This model intended, ideally, a more diverse approach at the general level, while keeping a specific thematic, artistic and cultural focus in each particular event. It also proposed, early on, a move away from the nineteenth-century fair-like biennial prototype, structured around national representation and the salon-style big show, whilst opposing the idea of the biennial as a big spectacle with direct market reverberations. However, the Bienal never abandoned the customary large, blockbuster exhibition – regarded by many as ‘the Bienal’ – surrounded by smaller events or exhibitions that appeared as fringe ventures.

The open and diverse structure of the Bienal’s first editions also looked for a broader social and educational impact, and a deeper involvement with the city. Entrance to the Bienal was free, and the event was discussed in the media and in schools. There were outreach programmes but, more importantly, the Bienal was everywhere. Artists and critics worked at houses of culture in the city’s neighbourhoods, they talked and danced with people at grass-roots parties, were mugged, had love affairs, were joined by students who volunteered to put the shows and workshops together… Most local artists, even if not exhibiting at the Bienal, became involved with it in one way or another.

A meaningful element of the Bienal’s programme in the early days was the bar. We were always concerned with providing an accessible space for informal meetings and exchanges among participants coming from different continents, many of whom worked in isolation. This was not so easy in 1989 Cuba, before the country opened up to tourism, when the few bars, cafes and restaurants that were open to the public were usually both terrible and packed. The two bars that the Bienal created and placed at two main exhibition venues were even included in the second Bienal catalogue’s long list of exhibitions and events, where they were referred to as ‘meeting places’. The bars were perhaps emblems of one of the Bienal’s main achievements: the foundation of a space for encounter and shared knowledge.

The 1989 Bienal made some crucial changes from previous editions. Awards and representation by countries were both eliminated. 09 A general thematic approach was also introduced. The subject for the whole event was tradition and the contemporary condition in Third World art and design. The third Bienal expanded the exhibitions and debates to include international design and architecture, in a move that was later reversed. Even if too general, the event’s subject was a timely one for analysing the predicaments of ‘peripheral’ and postcolonial art at the time it was beginning to face globalisation, a process towards which the Bienal had been contributing since 1986. We could say that, given its philosophy and projection, the Bienal’s theme in its third edition was the Bienal. The event has always focused on modern and contemporary art, developing the notion of a plurality of active modernisms, and giving little room to traditional or religious aesthetic-symbolic productions, which at the time were frequently stereotyped as the authentic art created in Third World countries, while other work was disqualified as an epigonal Westernised production.

Another significant change brought by the third Bienal was that European and North American artists with Third World diaspora backgrounds, such as those identifying themselves as black artists from Great Britain, were included, as was the Border Art Workshop from San Diego and Tijuana. This move was crucial in order to open out our geographic notion of Third World, incorporating the porosities brought about by migration and its cultural transformations. It was a first step away from a problem noted by Luis Camnitzer: that the Bienal ‘was still thinking international in an increasingly transnational market’. 10 However, what today seems a natural decision was only taken after intense debate. There was a persistent reluctance in the face of two perceived problems: the danger of ‘Westernising’ the Bienal even more, and of using the new space that it had opened up to benefit artists who were already able to circulate their work internationally.

The Bienal’s international vocation was evident in the fact that Cuban artists have always had a limited presence in it, never in bigger numbers than artists from any other country. We managed to show at the Bienal the new artists who were transforming the cultural status quo in Cuba, instead of the established, somewhat official ones. The emerging Cuban artists caused a great impression on visiting curators, who invited them later to exhibit abroad. 11 Of course, this also occurred for artists from other countries, proving that the Bienal was working as a space where ‘peripheral’, generally ignored artists were valued by curators and critics from other ‘peripheries’ and from the artistic ‘centres’. However, since ‘central’ curators had money and solid and active institutions behind them, they were much more able to scout talent than their less provided-for colleagues. This situation contaminated the Bienal, turning it increasingly into a showcase of Third World art for European and North American curators, galleries and collectors, following Cuba’s own economic reconversion toward tourism. As Camnitzer has said, the Bienal ‘has gone from leadership of Latin America to a form of artistic OSPAAAL (Organization of Solidarity with the Peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America), to then become an alternative independent forum, and finally to become a provider of the international market’. 12

By 1989 the new Cuban artists were trespassing the boundaries that the Cuban regime was prepared to tolerate. Their criticism of Cuba’s society and their deconstruction of the official rhetoric were becoming too radical for an authoritarian, military regime. Even if the Bienal was a particularly tolerant space due to its international implications, in the third edition Cuban artists with hard-hitting critical work – which meant most of them – were ghettoised in a group show called ‘La tradición del humor’ (‘The Tradition of Humour’), together with cartoonists, some of them official. This decision was imposed from the top as a way to divert and reduce the artists’ social and political impact in the Bienal. It was a sign of the repressive backlash that was going on in Cuba, which a little later imposed drastic censorship on some shows, while liberal Ministry of Culture officials such as Vice-Minister Marcia Leiseca and Beatriz Aulet were fired. The most repressive act was artist Ángel Delgado’s sentence of six months in jail for public scandal after a performance, in what felt like a clear warning to artists and intellectuals. As a result, the ‘new artists’ escaped en masse at the turn of the decade and settled abroad. 13 Cuban art’s golden age was over.

Even if such a dramatic diaspora made Cuban cultural authorities readjust their policy to more permissive standards, the limits for radical artistic practice in Cuba became apparent. For me, it was contradictory to continue working for the Bienal after what happened, especially since, as an art critic, I had been an advocate for the new critical art. This was one of my reasons for resigning after the 1989 Bienal, together with an erosion of trust that I experienced as a result of other incidents. Also, even if I had always been a radical component of the Bienal’s team, my transgressive spirit was escalating, becoming more at odds with the prevalent inclinations. In this sense, a main question for me was the following: if we were organising a groundbreaking biennial, an event that was different and that aimed to open a new space and challenge the mainstream, why do so by repeating prevailing structures? Why put new wine inside an old wineskin? Why not create something distinct for the needs of a complex constellation of artistic and cultural practices? The Bienal never did this. Although it made substantial efforts in this direction, the issue was never an overall priority for the Centro Wifredo Lam. On the contrary, the Bienal evolved as a standard international art exhibition instead of seeking new methods and strategies that could experiment and promote actions to transform the market-oriented approach. The Bienal never went drastically enough beyond the big-show model, and even its positively diversified structure has been abandoned in recent editions: workshops, conferences, panels, publications and outreach programmes have been reduced or eliminated, and the broad interaction with the city lost. The last several editions comprised mostly Latin American artists, giving up the effort to create a thorough global approach.

As if indicating a ghostly presence from the decentralised configuration of the initial Bienales and Havana’s involvement, the most interesting aspects of the last editions were the multiple alternative, autonomous or semi- autonomous shows and events conceived and organised by artists and young curators in spaces ranging from galleries to private houses, in order to take advantage of the occasion and the chance for visibility that the Bienal creates. These events have been too abundant and dispersed to be controlled and repressed, although incidents with the official authorities usually take place. This ‘ghost bienal’ is usually more interesting, intense and energetic than the official one. Although for the tenth edition in 2009 this informal programme was registered, publicised and thus to a certain extent controlled by the Bienal’s organisers in a co-opting move, it managed to keep part of its edge, even if losing some spontaneity. A good example was Tania Bruguera’s Estado de excepción (State of Exception, 2009), a nine-day programme of performances, exhibitions and events by young Cuban artists who had participated in Bruguera’s ‘Cátedra Arte de Conducta’ (‘Art of Conduct Chair’), the four-year-long independent seminar she started in Havana in 2002.

I believe the Bienal has lost its character and its possibilities. Cuba was unable to reinvent itself in the post-Cold War situation as the regime survived and maintained its one-man power system by introducing minor changes to keep everything the same instead of responding to new, challenging times. Ultimately, the Bienal was not independent enough to escape from determinations imposed by the country that created it.

Editors’ Note: This essay was first presented as a paper at ‘Exhibitions and the World at Large’, a symposium organised in London by Afterall and TrAIN (the research centre for Transnational Art, Identity and Nation) on 3 April 2009. An abridged version titled ‘The Havana Biennial: A Concrete Utopia’ was later printed in Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal and Solveig Øvstebø (ed.), The Biennial Reader, Bergen and Ostfildern-Ruit: Bergen Kunsthall and Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2010, pp.198–207.


  • Anonymous, ‘El Arte en el Islam’ (‘Art in Islam’), in Segunda Bienal de La Habana ’86: Catálogo General (exh. cat.), Havana: Centro Wifredo Lam, 1986, p.413.
  • See Gerardo Mosquera, ‘The New Cuban Art’, in Ales Erjavec (ed.), Postmod- ernism and the Postsocialist Condition: Politicized Art Under Late Socialism, Los Angeles, Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2003, pp.208–46; and Luis Camnitzer, New Art of Cuba, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.
  • For its paradigmatic involvement with the public I remember in particular Julio Le Parc’s workshop with young artists, which consisted of playful, interactive interventions at a park in the El Vedado neighbourhood. There was also the impressive transformation of the space of the Museo de Artes Decorativas, a Petit Trianon-looking building, by young Cuban artists who participated in Marta Palau’s workshop. Another project, called Telarte, involved an amazing fashion show with models wearing dresses made out of fabric designed by Cuban artists and performing at night over a catwalk that was built in a colonial plaza in Old Havana, watched by a crowd of people from the neighbourhood, visitors and the local art world.
  • L. Camnitzer, On Art, Artists, Latin America and Other Utopias (ed. Rachel Weiss), Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009, p.217.
  • Still smaller figures characterised the fourth Bienal (150 artists from 40 countries) and the fifth (240 artists from 40 countries).
  • See Tercera Bienal de La Habana ’89 (exh. cat.), Havana: Centro Wifredo Lam and Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1989, p.9.
  • The best-known case targeted a work by Costa Rican artist Priscilla Monge in 2003. This drew a strong international reaction and prompted the Prince Claus Fund in the Netherlands to withdraw its financial support from the Bienal.
  • The best-known case targeted a work by Costa Rican artist Priscilla Monge in 2003. This drew a strong international reaction and prompted the Prince Claus Fund in the Netherlands to withdraw its financial support from the Bienal.
  • Almost two decades earlier than the Bienal de São Paulo, which abolished national representation in 2006, in its 27th edition.
  • L. Camnitzer, On Art, Artists, Latin America, and Other Utopias, op. cit., p.225.
  • For instance, José Bedia was invited to ‘Art of the Fantastic: Latin America 1920–1987’, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, as a result of his presence in the 1986 Bienal.
  • L. Camnitzer, On Art, Artists, Latin America, and Other Utopias, op. cit., p.223. OSPAAAL was a political organisation created in Cuba to support radical leftist movements and organisations in the Third World.
  • See the list drawn of more than a hundred young artists who emigrated from Cuba in that period in Tania Bruguera, Memorias de la postguerra, November 1993, p.12.