Expansion and Compression. Behind the Inflections of a 13th Havana Biennial

Interview with curators from the Wifredo Lam Contemporary Art Center

/ 23 July, 2019

Ticio Escobar referred to the phenomenon of art as an event, a live experience and openness to dimensions that go beyond the scope of the aesthetic form. This incessant search to generate other types of synergies was perhaps the driving force of the recently concluded 13th Havana Biennial, which for this occasion assumed new roles and expanded its plot in more ways than one. From its conception, more than knowing it would be a preconceived spectacle, it was recognized as an open and susceptible scenario, ready to face all its challenges.

The vicissitudes and challenges, the new forms of exchange and collaboration; the multidisciplinary nature of the projects; the inclusion of other axes of action outside the historic framework of the biennial, were some of the questions that came to light in this interview carried out at the Wifredo Lam Contemporary Art Center with some of its most important curators.


Margarita González

Could you underline three important elements of this 13th Havana Biennial?

One of them, in my opinion, was the organization of the theoretical days, with a weekly frequency, which made it possible to keep the public expecting new lectures and panels, and not as a homogeneous block as had been done in previous years (…). Coupled with this, we were fortunate to have luxury guests, well-known in the art world and (…).

I can describe the presence of the provinces as guests to the event as another distinctive aspect. (…)

In your opinion, what has been the impact of this event on the national and international scene?

It has been positive, with extensive gain for the national public and international visitors. It was possible to bring to Cuba important artists of contemporary art nowadays, large and good projects were carried out as part of the biennial, a Doctorate Honoris Causa was conferred, among other important actions (…).


Nelson Herrera Ysla

From the beginning, all the challenges that this Biennial should or had to overcome since its conception were announced in the catalogs. Do you think these challenges were overcome to a greater or lesser extent?

The Biennial’s first and foremost challenge was to do it, when we thought it was impossible six months ago. And it was achieved and was overcome to a certain extent. All the spaces that were thought out were occupied by the works of numerous artists and we were able to meet many of the public’s expectations. (…) Its extension to other cities in the country was one of the best ideas we had, since the projects in Pinar del Río, Matanzas, Cienfuegos and Camagüey were very valuable. They sent us positive signals in several aspects. But we did not surpass the quality of the works with respect to the previous biennials even when valuable works were presented: it was below par in this important aspect. What could be done was done, given the more than difficult circumstances we are experiencing. (…)

The Corredor de Línea was the event’s largest collaboration project. Does this initiative have any antecedent or is there knowledge of an analogous project somewhere in the world?

The Corredor de Línea is a bold, unique project of unquestionable magnitude. There are no antecedents in the country except for a few blocks, corners, squares, parks, which have been designed to offer cultural activities to the public. The Corredor is more than that. It is thought out based on culture, from within, and is not imposed or randomly programmed. It is the regeneration of an important area of ​​the city, its revitalization according to the new demands of architecture and design: to provide the city with a focus of attention that contributes to the well-being of its inhabitants without necessarily, or always, depending on its past glories, on its history. It is to give back to Havana its lost modernity, dislocated in recent years.


Lisset Alonso Compte

What continues distinguishing the Havana Biennial?

On one occasion Nelson Herrera Ysla defined the Biennial as one of the “collective feats” of the Cuban people that deserve being told. (…)

The interaction with the most diverse public, emanating from the use of the city as a privileged place, the incorporation of workshops and discussion forums to the structure of exhibitions, and the presence of artists and cultural expressions little known and legitimized until then, gave way to the birth of a new paradigm that since then has been used as a referent for the conception of similar events in the world.

That which began as a biennial devoted to Latin American art already added in its second edition artists from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and defined a research model marked by the importance of the links between artistic production and the social contexts in which it materialized. Likewise, it was proposed to orient the debate and the selection of works and projects towards questions that were in consonance with the artistic concerns of the moment and that respected the primary idea of ​​privileging multiculturalism and the diversity of disciplines.

Although it is evident that in the most recent editions there has been a greater approach to recognized artists and spaces of international reputation, the Biennial has continued betting on geographies and creators with counterhegemonic and decolonizing proposals, as well as artistic processes that are almost always on the margin of the market. (…)

In spite of this, new ways of understanding continue being tested to give life to a flexible workforce that, more than giving shape, is capable of adapting and following up on contemporary creative processes. It was thus that the recently concluded edition decided to extend not only to peripheral neighborhoods in the city, something that has already become common, but to other provinces of the country in an attempt, I believe positive, to call attention to cultural processes that have been developed naturally in contexts far from the focus of Havana.

Yanet Oviedo Matos

Yanet Oviedo Matos

Bachelor in Art History from the University of Havana. Lecturer, curator, producer and art critic. Currently she works as a specialist in Artecubano Ediciones and collaborates with the Fototeca de Cuba. She is the editor of the digital magazine CUBAFOTO.

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