Few know or remember that what has been the Cuban event of the visual arts of greatest scope at an international level emerged in the 1980s in Havana in its Historic Center. Since then, many and very versatile works that have been able to meet with aesthetic-conceptual concerns from Latin American, Caribbean and African countries, or faraway places, in Casa Bolívar, Guayasamín, in the Convent of San Francisco de Asís, the Casa de Africa, the Carmen Montilla Gallery and other exhibition spaces that, edition after edition, have expanded their work by exhibiting new expressions of contemporaneity.
Thus, the paintings winners of the Grand Prize in the 1st Biennial, in 1984, Traición y muerte de Emiliano Zapata and Asesinato de Rubén Jaramillo, by Arnold Belkin, today are part of the collection of the Casa del Benemérito de las Américas Benito Juárez, where they receive us with their impressive solemnity. Casa Bolívar also owns several works by contemporary Venezuelan artists, and most urban or exhibition spaces have hosted artists with a committed work, sometimes semi-unknown, but also essential personalities of contemporary culture (…).
The Historic Center has not only served the major event with the infrastructure of its facilities, and with the benefits of being a central area, legitimated and well-valued. The dialogue with its cultural, historical and patrimonial heritage, together with its remarkable work of integral restoration and its social projection, establishes interesting challenges for the insertion of each proposal. This process of conciliation between the creative institutions of the Biennial, the artists and the Office of the City Historian, has been essential. In this regard we spoke with the head of the integral management of the Historic Center, Dr. Eusebio Leal Spengler.
How does the Historian remember the foundational moments of the Biennial?
The memories…together with an extraordinary personality, Dr. Llilian Llanes, a person of willpower, full of a working spirit, a woman of culture. I believe that Llilian has been a substantive contribution to the spirit of the Biennial, which brought something entirely new, which overflowed the space of the museum and became the discourse of the contemporary, a discourse that was sometimes challenging, tempting as a proposal, which started encompassing and filling the Historic Center, and which today is advancing along the Malecón with everything proposed by our imponderable Juanito Delgado in Detrás del muro.
In all its editions, the Biennial has had a space in Old Havana. And interventions in public spaces have been recurrent, permeating much more the collective memory. (…)
I am very much in favor of things being out in the street, that only what is strictly necessary be indoors. From the experience of previous years, for me, as far as the Historic Center is concerned, it has been very enriching. And of course, many pieces can be placed outdoors taking advantage of the pedestrian areas that predominate in a large part of the Historic Center as a result of the restoration. Some are very surprising.
(…) You have reminded me of some of the highlights of the Biennial, when these large volumes were placed in the Plaza Vieja. It was a true wonder, those metallic sculptures that were inflated, and that roamed in an unusual way through different parts of Havana. I remember that some generous artists, at a certain moment, left their pieces for the city. For example, Roberto Fabelo left that beautiful horsewoman on the rooster in the Plaza Vieja, where there is also the monumental 10-meter-high marble and stainless steel flower by Juan Quintanilla; Alfredo Sosabravo has left monumental works for Old Havana; or the mask, that face of a woman in front of the Deauville Hotel, which is Rafael San Juan’s Primavera, an indispensable piece and that is so difficult to conserve. It is necessary to produce works that stand the test of time. The merit of the great works of Havana, their monumentality, both in its theaters and in its public monuments, is that they have been made with very resistant materials. Sometimes when they fall apart, and we are forced to reproduce them, we realize what it represents to do it right.
The Biennial represents a good opportunity for some of these works to remain as part of the historic city’s collection, on the occasion of its 500th anniversary which we are celebrating this year. (…)
You who are a pragmatic man, how do you assess the theme proposed by the 13th Havana Biennial: “the construction of the possible”?
The definition seems great to me. The construction of the possible should be the goal in everything. Because it is realistic, because, as you said, it is pragmatic, because it is absolutely real: we must build what is possible as a starting point. I believe that the Biennial evolved to become a much more popular event, with much more enjoyment by the immense crowd with that competition that involves the exhibition of a work of art. The Biennial has moved throughout the city and all its scenarios. And now an idea comes to mind: in this area of Havana that suffered the damages of the tornado, which was so affected and for which a colossal effort has been made to restore schools, hospitals, and housing, it would be interesting that the Biennial could also choose public spaces there, which would lift the people’s spirit, because we must remember that art is also a source of encouragement and strength.