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The Third Biennial of Havana

Caption: Outside the front entrance of Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes where Tres Mundos took place. The exhibition brought together work from around the world and in diverse media under the loose theme of ‘Tradition and Contemporaneity’.

The Third Biennial of Havana opened a year late, with its budget cut in half, and was organised at the Centro Wifredo Lam by a team of fourteen people (including secretarial personnel and the lady who does the cleaning). This information is important because it helps in appreciating the improvements this Biennial shows in relation to the previous ones. The First Biennial had been exclusively Latin American, the Second tried to encompass the Third World; both offered prizes and both exhibited artists separated by countries and works separated by techniques. They showed a heavy inheritance from old-fashioned mainstream international art events. Exhibitions supposedly organised within a socialist frame of reference contradicted their own aims by offering a competitive structure, not only for individuals, but for cultures. Juries evaluated anonymous folk art according to values developed in a commercial market favouring individualised production. Leaving aside the normal problems and conflicts of taste, the result was bound to create an ideological mess.

This Third Biennial did away with prizes and classifications. Artists were selected more rigorously than in the past and were allowed a bigger representation. The notion of a ‘central exhibition’ was further diluted, a process already started in the Second Biennial, through the scheduling of many parallel shows, panel discussions, lectures and workshops led by artists. Thus, the Third Biennial came closest to the proposed ideal, a meeting place and laboratory of Third World creativity where participants could share experiences and learn from each other how specific needs could be addressed without necessarily adopting hegemonic devices.

However, the central part of the exhibition, which this year was named ‘Three Worlds’ [‘Tres Mundos’], unavoidably maintained its position of reference. It was hung in the Museum of Fine Arts, and attracted most of the public (26,947 people during the first five days). It is where the world met and its image synthesised. With fifty countries represented, the Biennial was still dominated by Latin America (half of the entries). Only one-third the size of the Second Biennial, it made a concise and pleasurable exhibition. In the past there was a tediousness to the walk which had to be overcome by applying one’s sense of duty.

For the first time this Biennial had a title, ‘Tradition and Contemporaneity’, which served as a guideline to selected artists, critics and topics for discussion. The use of titles for biennials is usually more stifling than beneficial. In this case it was ambiguous enough not to have much effect. Even if the title were not there, it is a subject which, because of its presence or its absence, conditions the work of many Third World artists. But by making it explicit in advance, 01 there was the danger of eliciting simple and explicitly illustrative work.

In the constellation of recent international biennials and exhibitions, the Third Biennial may most obviously be compared with ‘Magiciens de la Terre’. 02 The Parisian exhibition was an attempt to open the doors of hegemonic art to the Third World in order to find parameters for common measurement. Few artists were represented in both exhibitions. José Bedia (Cuba) (an award winner in the Second Biennial) had a one-person exhibition separate from ‘Three Worlds’. Alfredo Jaar (Chile), who was invited, was unable to send his work. That leaves Seven Twins (Nigeria) as the only artist represented in both exhibitions. 03

The difference in availability of resources between both exhibitions was staggering and accounts for many absences in Havana. But in spite of the fact that both exhibitions tried to be a forum for Third World art, there were other differences than just money. The Biennial of Havana was free of any suspicion of paternalism. The exhibition lacked any kind of curatorial artifice; the works were essentially exhibited under the cultural responsibility of the artist. While both shows took the liberty of mixing ‘high’ art with popular art, Havana ignored the fashionable concept of ‘otherness’. In Paris, ‘otherness’ determined the intent as much as the realisation. From the start, the title opened the doors to exoticism, to art which does not follow hegemonic rules and which often doesn’t define itself as art. The twist of having the category of ‘magician’ shared by hegemonic artists included in the exhibition helped to erase the guilt-ridden tracks of the organisers. Nevertheless ‘Magiciens’ was an important and useful show. If the participating hegemonic artists really had access to what they saw, they’ll never again make art the way they have been making it. From the moment the Parisian artifice was forced to share ‘otherness’, frames of reference changed violently. ‘Otherness’ was underlined even more by the change of context into which the non-artistic works were inserted. If there was any homogeneity in the exhibition, it was created by the methods of presentation. It was one more spectacular show among the usual Western museographic super-productions. Havana, on the other hand, achieved an organic whole created by sheer accumulation. To walk through the Biennial was like walking through one’s living room. There were good things and bad things. But the bad things somehow gave added meaning to reality, like a kitschy heirloom. ‘Magiciens’, an isolated and probably unrepeatable event, had the virtue of clarifying the most important issues of the Biennial of Havana; Havana was not to be a forum for ‘otherness’ but for ‘thisness’, where ‘this’ is what defines us, and not how they define us.

As before, the Cuban participation was the most impressive among the section which included art made with the express intention of being art. This point is important because in the Biennial at large there were masks from Guinea Bissau, toy cars from Mozambique and Guinea Conakry and popular [Simón] Bolívar wood carvings from Venezuela, all of which had their own artistic stature. With the presence of relatively ambitious works from other countries (a new development in the Biennial), the difference in favor of the Cubans could no longer be attributed to the advantage of being home players. The Cuban contribution was reflected in all areas, from the ‘spontaneous’ work of Ramon Moya to the extremely sophisticated installation of Flavio Garciandía. 04

Moya, an artist from the city of Guantánamo, works in something which could be called ‘magic pamphletry’, particularly when sculpting, where he exorcises imperialism through a mixture of ‘voodoo’ and santería. His work is decidedly different from that by ‘spontaneous’ artists from other countries; some of them, like Steve Kappata (Zambia), focus on literal sloganeering. Kappata exhibits little paintings whose charm cannot help but engage the accused as well as the accusers. They are too aesthetically appealing to achieve their political effect.

The totality of the Cuban entry was somewhat diluted by the presence of a subsidiary exhibition under the title ‘The Tradition of Humour in Cuban Art’ [‘La tradición del humor’]. Placed in the same museum as a natural stop in the circulation of the ‘Three Worlds’ exhibition, it isolated and insulated some of the strongest pieces of the Biennial. This was a tactical error or victory, depending on one’s point of view. The strong political edge of some pieces was dulled by fitting them into humour. Humour has traditionally been intrinsic to Cuban art. From Rafael Blanco (1885–1955) and Eduardo Abela (1891–1965) to Santiago Armada ‘Chago’ (b. 1937) and the younger artists of today, 05 humour has infiltrated Cuban art to a point of being intrinsic to the work of many of the artists born after the Revolution. To put these artists in a humour ghetto had the danger of diminishing their artistic value, converting their work into a joke or, more seriously, of defusing its political aggressiveness.

One of these artists, Carlos Rodríguez Cárdenas (b. 1962) built his own show room with the title Popular Philosophy [Filosofía popular, 1989]. One entered through curtains painted on wood, and was then invited to contemplate a series of small scatological paintings which, in the style of popular paintings, depicted variations of possible relationships between human beings and faeces. The series of images was interspersed with positive and optimistic texts like: ‘The word that contains the truth doesn’t need to be beautiful.’ However, the sentence appeared to be written with fecal matter. In another canvas the artist asserted that ‘The world is not a shit’ in a sentence surrounding an image of the globe depicted as a mosaic of little brown pellets. The same pellets, although larger, were used to ornament the exit of the room, which acquired a rocky texture. In his Practical Stage [Etapa práctica, 1989], Glexis Novoa (b. 1964) presented a huge mural composition formed by the juxtaposition of several canvases distilling Stalinist aesthetics. Many of the paintings bore non-intelligible inscriptions written in a Cyrillic-looking alphabet created by Glexis. With some code-breaking effort one could spell PCC (Partido Comunista de Cuba) in one inscription and ‘Patria o Muerte’ in another. The Theoretical Stage elliptically referred to in the title is really the artist’s ‘romantic period’. During this period and with considerable success, Glexis had wilfully tried to become ‘the worst painter in the history of art’. With Practical Stage he returns, at least temporarily, to positive values and achieves one of the most important pieces in the entire Biennial.

Made in Cuba, by Ciro Quintana (b. 1964) was a third ‘grand work’ imprisoned in the humour room. A complex and baroque construction, it reminded one somewhat of the work of [Öyvind] Fahlström. Ciro attacked the influx of foreign art and the flow of information, using elements from both. Within his big paint salad covering the wall, the clue was given by a small brushstroke executed in [Roy] Lichtenstein’s fashion, with the comment: ‘Magazine texture and Western brushstroke.’ As is typical in his work, the painting was full of little characters making written comments with irony and sarcasm on aspects of painting, art and culture.

The three pieces described are not only interesting because of their quality, but because they also represent a symptom of the politicisation of this new Cuban generation and the ability of the artists to express this politicisation within the Cuban content. Instead of using nihilist solutions derived from the capitalist mainstream (as in other socialist countries), this generation has become the spearhead of the ‘rectification process’, Cuba’s review of bureaucratic ills and slackening of revolutionary zeal. It is a generation which proclaims itself as the bearer of the Revolution’s ethical values. As such, its members attack what they perceive as a process of ritualisation which has emptied many of the slogans valid at the beginning of the Revolution. They merge ethic with aesthetic concerns and humour, achieving a culturally proactive rather than reactive art. Within a strictly local context, these Cuban artists also symbolise a cusp of the artistic aperture staged by the Ministry of Culture during the last dozen years.

With this definition of a culturally active art generated by the new Cuban generations, the Biennial helps to clarify the futility of much of the art produced by us. A great quantity of the art made in our countries, particularly ‘high art’, is in fact post-cultural art. In colonial, postcolonial and neocolonial situations too often the artist is guided by a prepackaged, imported and imposed culture. The output is placed within the coordinates preset by that culture. Even when the art is produced through rebellion and opposition, it is reactive art, defined by the values of the coloniser. Indigenist artists, those who try to link up with interrupted autochthonous traditions, are frequently unable to go beyond simple formalist solutions. They show a preference and reverence for a past discovered through their hate of the present and often fail to address the future.

During most of its thirty years of revolutionary process, Cuba operated on the premise that social changes, rather than aesthetic programmes, will generate art forms fitting the needs of society. The work by young Cuban artists shown in the Biennial proves the soundness of this assumption. However, in spite of its success, Cuban art is undergoing a tense period. It is not totally clear that all levels of government understand the importance of what Cuban art has presently achieved. Since January of 1988 there have been contradictory events, where on one hand Fidel Castro proclaims that the reason for the existence of socialism shows itself in the freedom of creation ‘not only in form, but in content’; 06 and on the other there are incidents of censorship and self-censorship. A symptom of this tension between what can be called ‘doves’ and ‘hawks’ has been the recent firing of Marcia Leiseca, Vice-Minister of Culture in charge of visual arts. She was seen as a faithful and imaginative executor of the policies of the Ministry. As such she enjoyed the trust and respect of the newer generations of artists. The reason for her dismissal was her delay in the removal from an exhibition of some works of art which were seen as politically offensive. 07 The uncertainty associated with this incident and the strangeness of the parallel with present censorship in the USA produced a sense of bafflement which affected the generally festive mood of the Biennial. 08

Another polemical element was introduced by the possible interpretations of the term ‘Third World’, which determined who exhibited in the Biennial. The ‘Black Artists from Great Britain’ (a label open to all non-white artists in that country) who visited Havana complained about the ‘Latinisation’ of the concept. The critique failed to understand that in Latin America ‘Third World’ is still largely used in the original sense which inspired the Conference of Bandung. Since then the meaning of the term has shifted – particularly in the USA – to refer to non-white peoples, thus becoming an instrument of racist nomenclature. The ensuing discussion with the organisers of the Biennial led to a clarification. The Biennial tried to give access to all dependent sectors, including those dependent in a second degree (within dependent nation states), like many of the indigenous peoples in Latin America. A lack of economic resources and expert counsel had hampered research among many of the groups absent from the exhibition.

As in the previous cases, this Biennial had many works which were more – or as – interesting in terms of their references than for their visual qualities. Sergio François exhibited sculptures based on the same tensile principle used by the US artist Kenneth Snelson in the 1960s. Pieces of bamboo seemed to float between tense wires and, on a first approach, it would seem that Buckminster Fuller’s ingenuity (which had inspired Snelson) was syncretised and absorbed by the aesthetic of local materials in Martinique. However, the process seemingly occurred the other way round. François, a Frenchman, came to Martinique as an adult equipped with technological knowledge into which he absorbed the local materials. The inversion of terms, while leaving the work of art unaffected, changed the perception and the evaluation of its cultural significance. Within the first approach François’s sculptures echoed with sophistication the wonderful African toys shown in a separate exhibition in the Museum of Decorative Arts. (Cars, planes and other examples of advanced technology are mimicked by children and adolescents by means of wire and soda cans.) In the second context, the sculptures were in danger of being seen as an affectation, an attempt at assimilation which, even if successful, seemed artificial.

The thought process generated by these sculptures seemed mandatory in a biennial like that of Havana and impossible in a hegemonic exhibition. The pieces were elegant and attractive enough to limit the viewer to a formalist analysis when seen in the context of dominant Western culture.

Another interesting case is Juraci Dórea (Brazil), who also represented his country in the Biennial of Venice in 1988. His Project Earth [Projeto terra, 1981–89] comprised work made for and with the people in the Brazilian Northeast. It is largely site-specific and exists in an exchange with its environment. Between Venice and Havana, Dórea’s work suffered interesting changes. In Venice it was exhibited as ‘sculpture’, constructions of branches and hides looking like tepees and surrounded by semi-dried, aromatic, bovine excrement. While documentation was exhibited, it was reduced to a secondary role. The fact that, for instance, people may cut out pieces from the hide to make their sandals, the interactivity which gives the work a reason for being, got largely lost. In Havana, the project was solely represented by a large documentary panel. By no means a substitute for the project, informative and humble, it was still direct and faithful to the original spirit.

As in previous biennials, the Latin American contingent continued to raise the problem of evaluation of pre-Colombian traditions in contemporary art and their possible absorption or continuation. Surprisingly, it was Argentina, in spite of this country’s primarily European outlook, which presented most of the work concerned with this issue. It may not be a coincidence that Argentinian painter César Paternosto has come out with a book linking pre- Colombian traditions with Latin American constructivism. 09 Following his own research of the last years, Paternosto exhibited hangings inspired by Inca designs. Accompanied by descriptive labels, they had a didactic feeling which also echoed the presentations of anthropological museums. In a different vein, Alejandro Fogel invented landscapes with fictitious pyramids which, rather than architectural, were painterly and built from within the canvas. However, the pre-Colombian issue was shared by artists scattered all over the continent. Esther Vainstein (Peru) shifted the focus into sculpture with Pyramids of Sand/Screen of Sapphire [1989], built with adobe modules. Ramírez Villamizar (Colombia), in one of the parallel one-person exhibitions of the Biennial, provided what is probably the most rigorous and distilled example of a body of constructivist sculpture maintaining some link with the tradition. Other artists, like Marta Palau (Mexico) and Leandro Soto (Cuba), leaned more on the mythical aspects of pre-Colombian culture than on formal solutions.

The relatively large presence of work dealing with the pre-Colombian question (which may be the product of a distortion caused by the pre-assigned title of the Biennial) does not mean that an answer has been found on how to link up with a lost tradition or a tradition where the only thing in common with most of the artists is geography. The nexus between different cultures is yet waiting to be transcended by something beyond exercises in poetic archeology. As a group effort they show a common nostalgia, but while interesting individually they don’t manage collectively to define an identity.

Armando Hart, Minister of Culture of Cuba, inaugurated the Biennial saying, ‘The defence of the cultural identity of the countries of the Third World not only protects our culture and our art, but also our existence as independent countries.’ The statement would describe the Biennial itself with the omission of the word ‘country’; since the more art shifts towards Western meanings, the less it seems to represent national identities, leaving strictly national representations to occur on the level of local crafts. The wire toy cars from Mozambique are clearly different from those from Guinea Conakry, even though they use the same basic elements, and the carnival masks from Guinea Bissau likewise have their own distinct flavour. With the exception of the young Cuban artists, who are more related by attitude than by form, the only discernible national unity may have been given by the Philippines. Santiago Bose, Raymon Maliwat and Roberto Feleo are all interested in ‘cultivating’ popular, mythological, religious and folkloric forms and seemed to achieve some degree of collective consistency while maintaining their own individuality.

In the rest of the Biennial, consistency seemed to be more extra-national. As in previous biennials there was a community of attitudes in regard to the role of crafts, politics and traditions, and to adapting the models provided by international hegemonic art. There were also strange hybrids, as Shaheen Merali’s (a black artist from Great Britain) quasi-social-realist scenes of strikers’ picket lines in batik. There were odd coincidences, as in the case of Mohamed Reda Abd Salam (Egypt) and Marco Alvarado (Ecuador), who, in nearly interchangeable works, accumulated memorabilia and refuse in order to create a visual field of violence. There were examples of the freezing of time, as in a case of the temperas of Tse Dabaajun (Mongolia) and the panels of Solomon Belachew (Ethiopia). Dabaajun depicted unchanged village life in equally unchanged direct artistic language, and Belachew adhered in a most strict way to the Coptic tradition. There were signs of late access to modernism; romantic and dreamy in the case of Dang Xuan Hoa (Vietnam); abstract and falsely rigorous (further confused by unrelated militant verbiage in the labels) in the case of Samia Halaby (Palestine). But these are works which, in their majority, were self-defined as peripheral with a greater honesty than in preceding biennials.

It would be unfair to end this review without mentioning in more detail some of the parallel exhibitions that filled Havana and its suburbs. The Castillo de la Fuerza, an old Spanish fortress, held an exhibition of the recent work of José Bedia (Cuba). In spite of his age (b. 1959), Bedia belonged to the first generation of artists who changed the outlook of Cuban art during the 1980s. His work evolved from an interest in archeology toward a more specific interest in Afro-Cuban rituals (the palo ritual in particular) and Amerindian traditions. During this evolution he developed a pictographic repertoire, a visual alphabet which, increasingly concise, acquired an efficiency close to that of a functional language. A dangerous process since it is a path that could lead to an entanglement in formal recipes. But with the basic language settled, Bedia was able to shift his imagination to solve problems of content and installation with a startling richness of resources. His room with installation was probably the single most impressive event in the Biennial.

Another Cuban, Roberto Diago, was the subject for a small retrospective exhibition in the Fondo de Bienes Culturales. Diago (1920–1955) worked for only fifteen years and his work, scattered in collections and some still owned by his family, is not readily available. Myth places him next to Wifredo Lam, partly due to his interest in Afro-Cubanism and santería, partly because of the forms he used. If this exhibition is representative, truth will define him as a very interesting but volatile artist. His important work was between 1945 and 1949, a time during which he absorbed European influences in order to define his version of Cuban art. It is a work which, although executed later, can hold a place next to Lam’s work. While he may not have been able to create his paintings without the precedent of Lam, the result creates a dialogue with his work and both artists serve each other as resonance boxes. Diago’s later experiments in abstraction did not mature and were interrupted by his death. The exhibition mainly served to point to the need for a comprehensive retrospective so that Diago can be correctly placed in history.

Two exceptional photographers with very diverse styles also had their own exhibitions. Sebastião Salgado (Brazil), a Magnum photographer, emphasised dehumanising movements of peoples and individuals, particularly in the Brazilian gold mines, underlined by a light charged with fog, dirt and aggression. Graciela Iturbide (Mexico) focused on the individual and her camera served as a tool for nearness and communication – the statistical human being is sealed into his or her complex uniqueness precluding any possibility for generalising classification.

After a certain degree of vacillation shown in the First and Second Biennials, this third version showed not only a greater clarity of purpose, but a sense of stability. The Biennial has established itself as one of the big international events and as the Third World alternative for artists not primarily concerned with their place in the art market. Increasing importance and respect is shown by the growing number of visitors from other countries, which, though admirable, points to two unresolved and maybe unresolvable problems. One is posed by the fact that ‘you have to have been there’ to fully profit from the offerings. As in the case of Dórea’s work, documentation is the most faithful and direct representation of the event, but hardly a substitute for what is a living complex that, unlike hegemonic art exhibitions, cannot be condensed in glossy colour magazines. Often the lesson is not in the individual art pieces but in their juxtaposition. And the artists from the Third World are those least likely to be able to afford the trip to Havana. The other problem is that the increasing importance of the Biennial will attract those who can afford the trip, particularly commercially oriented people from the First World who may see it as another marketplace. So, a rather potent ideological stamina will be required to keep the Biennial on its track.

Editors’ Note: Written in December 1989, this review was originally published in Third Text (Taylor & Francis Ltd,, vol.4, no.10, Spring 1990, pp.79–93. It is reprinted by kind permission of the author and publisher.


  • The title for the Fourth Biennial, ‘The Meeting of Cultures’, has already been chosen. It alludes to the anniversary of the visits of Columbus.
  • EN: ‘Magiciens de la Terre’, curated by Jean-Hubert Martin, took place at the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Grande Halle de la Villette from 18 May to 14 August 1989.
  • Editors’ Note: Camnitzer refers to Twins Seven Seven.
  • Spontaneous’ in Cuba refers to ‘naïve’ artists.
  • Chago’ was the ‘art director’ of the guerrilla movement in Sierra Maestra.
  • Speech at the IV Congress of the Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC), January 1988.
  • The exhibition was by artists Eduardo Ponjuán and René Francisco in the Castillo de la Fuerza, September 1989.
  • Marcia Leiseca has since been appointed Vice-President of the Casa de las Américas.
  • César Paternosto, Piedra abstracta: La escultura inca. Una visión contemporánea, México City and Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1989.