HAVANA – Most of the art on view at the Fifth Havana Biennial would not have been out of place at last year’s Whitney Biennial: it is both uneven in quality and highly political in content. Pride of place, filling the entry hall of Cuba’s Museo Nacional, goes to a 100-foot-long photomontage by the New York artist Michael Lebron lambasting the owners of Coors beer for supporting right-wing causes. The work was conceived for a billboard at Pennsylvania Station in New York, but after Amtrak officials refused to display it made its debut here in a wholly different context.
Salsa bands, rum-based drinks and the presence of the Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez lent a festive air to the opening last month. But with the Cuban capital crumbling into ruin and its residents suffering severe shortages of food, electricity and transportation, this extravaganza, involving 738 works by 171 artists from 41 countries, is taking place against an anomalous backdrop.
The Biennial was scheduled for last year but was delayed for lack of money amid the worst economic conditions since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. When it finally got under way on May 7, Cuban officials admitted that they had managed to stage the event only through extraordinary measures. “We are in the presence of a miracle,” proclaimed Armando Hart, the Cultural Minister.
Stepping into the financial breach, the German chocolate magnate Peter Ludwig helped subsidize the exhibition. And not a minute too soon. Artworks are being displayed around Havana on nails recycled from previous biennials. Basic supplies like lighting, labels and hanging wires, unavailable on the island, were donated from abroad. Prison labor was used to install shows at two exhibition sites.
The Castro Government, banking a large part of its economic survival on tourism, regards artistic production as a rarefied cash crop, a supplement to sugar cane since the collapse of East bloc aid and a tightening of the United States trade embargo. In contrast to the recent sugar shortfall, an abundance of Cuban art has sparked a surge of interest on the international market. Mr. Ludwig, for one, a collector with an appetite for works forged under repression, has bought 120 Cuban works over the past three years.
Since it began in 1984, the Havana Biennial has showcased third world and minority artists. “This is the only place to see this range of work,” said Carol Becker, dean of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who was among more than 100 art professionals from the United States who attended the opening. Sixteen United States artists are exhibiting at the invitation of the organizers, the Centro Wifredo Lam, named for Cuba’s best-known 20th-century painter and under the aegis of the Cultural Ministry. They include the sculptors and installation artists Mel Chin and Betye and Alison Saar. (The show will be up through June 30, at 17 sites throughout the city.)
Some of the most talked-about exhibits were provided by the Cubans themselves. Since Castro seized the Havana Country Club and turned it into an advanced arts institute, Cuba has produced a diverse group of artists, subject to periodic censorship but never bound by Socialist Realism. Sophistication prevails in a vibrant multiethnic art scene that draws on a rich prerevolutionary tradition together with the latest international art-world trends.
Perhaps the star of the show was Alexis Leyva, 23, a Cuban who goes by the name Kcho. He created an installation piece comprising hundreds of tiny boats arrayed in a north-bound flotilla. The work pays quiet homage to the thousands of Cubans who have fled their homeland in handmade rafts, as well as to the larger tide of migrants now moving across the globe.
The topic is obviously a compelling one. An installation by the Cuban artist Sandra Ramos, titled “Migrations,” involves a set of 10 suitcases lined with images of both the promise and the peril awaiting those who leave. Other Cuban works probe home-grown kitsch, machismo, the commercialization of art now that its makers can pocket between 50 and 70 percent of hard-currency sales, and the disparity between official statements and daily conditions.
That certain boundaries could not be crossed became clear when Llilian Llanes, director of the Biennial, ordered the removal of two exhibits from abroad. One, by Marcos Alvarado of Ecuador, contained cutouts from skin magazines, said to violate Cuba’s ban on pornography. Nonetheless, erotica abounded in Cuban exhibits, including a series of plaster sculptures of Karl Marx coupling with the island’s patron saint, the Virgin of Caridad del Cobre.
The other exhibit censored involved portraits of 13 Cuban emigrants and the text of interviews with them by Lourdes Grobet, a Mexican photographer. The images and interviews, voicing disillusionment with the Cuban revolution, disappeared for four days. After Ms. Grobet protested at a public forum, her work went back on display in a different location.
Several satirical images of Fidel Castro are on view, both in the Biennial and in simultaneous independent exhibitions. A sculptured tableau shows him blindfolded and trying to pin the tail on the donkey. In a painted portrait, he is shown having his fabled beard shorn by the hand of an unseen perpetrator. And a bronze sculpture presents him with no clothes on as two infants suckle at an udder dangling beneath his genitals.
Now that Castro’s ability to provide for his people is running dry, other artists lampoon the Government’s moves to permit the very sort of capitalism it once reviled. A triptych by Pedro Alvarez juxtaposes official slogans like “Socialismo o Muerte” with the recent emergence in Havana of United Colors of Benetton billboards. A scene by Fernando Rodriguez portrays Castro as a tourist photographing a restorer in Old Havana putting finishing touches on a pre-revolutionary Coca-Cola sign.
A leading Cuban art critic, Gerardo Mosquera, likened relations between Cuban artists and the authorities to a dangerous chess game. Cuba, he said, was prepared to liberalize but only up to a point: “The government is afraid of the possibility of a civil society.”
Some Cuban artists say provocative works are partly calculated to sell to foreign collectors as curiosities from one of the world’s last remaining Communist regimes. “We are in fashion, and we know exactly what they want of us and what they want to see,” said Tania Bruguera, a Conceptual artist who teaches at the Instituto Superior de Arte. The works also seem to have little resonance beyond art circles, and can therefore be used without risk by authorities to give an image of official tolerance while handily serving as an export commodity. State art sales for hard currency rose to over half a million dollars last year from little more than $20,000 a decade ago, according to the Fondo Cubano de Bienes Culturales, the body handling the transactions.
In 1991, the United States Treasury Department exempted Cuban paintings and drawings from the 30-year-old trade embargo after American artists, dealers and art critics complained that it hindered the free flow of ideas. The exemption has helped promote interest in Cuban art in the United States, creating a climate the Havana Government hopes to exploit to encourage unofficial contacts.
A few days after the Biennial began, Mr. Hart, the Culture Minister, met the New York dealer and curator Alex Rosenberg to discuss preliminary plans for a major exhibition of works from Cuban national collections to tour the United States. This would be the first such show since the Castro takeover. Mr. Rosenberg said he was looking for corporate money and that the Cuban Government was in no position to assist with financing. “It would be unrealistic to expect financial support,” he said, “from a country that is dead broke.”