Fabiola Santiago: Artist's censored effort in Havana offered Cubans a voice

If the silence in the Cuban art world (in Miami as well as Havana) seems too maddening for the times, it’s because internationally acclaimed artist Tania Bruguera has shaken — with a powerful, albeit foiled idea — the comfortable established order of co-existence.

For the second time in her dynamic career, this Cuban performance artist has put her art at the service of the Cuban people, offering them what they haven’t had in 56 years: a voice — and an opportunity to speak, if only for one minute, in a public space reserved for the powerful.

She was arrested in the attempt to stage an “open mike” performance, censored, but not all together silenced.

As Cuban-American artist Xavier Cortada puts it: “It showed the world what all of us know.”

Brava.

For far too long, Cuban artists, curators and their supporters and collectors outside the island have been tiptoeing around the regime, playing by government rules and being rewarded with the privileges of money, fame, connections, worldwide travel and return to the island-home.

Since the late 1980s, artists have tested the limits of censorship, only to obtain the same results: They can only go so far before they’re sidelined, grounded, persecuted — some even arrested — until they leave Cuba for good.

When they do leave, they can’t be perceived to be too hard on the Cuban government — or the liberal environment of the art world will also sideline them. This sad reality has been portrayed to me in many private conversations with Cuban artists throughout the years.

The complicity of silence has been profitable on both sides of the Florida Straits.

Bruguera is one of those privileged Cuban artists with dual status and residences in Havana and New York, a self-described woman of the left, daughter of a Cuban diplomat who was a strong supporter of Fidel Castro until the diplomat died in 2006.

With her stellar record of international exhibitions and critical acclaim, she didn’t have to stage a work of art embraced by dissidents that would so pointedly and surely challenge the Cuban government.

But as she tweeted: “I’ve done it in Occupy Wall Street, in Europe, why not in my own country?”

And so she called on fellow Cubans to turn out to the iconic Revolution Square in Havana at 3 p.m. on Dec. 30 for an open mike performance. To boot, she mounted a social media campaign for the event with the gutsy, combative hashtag #YoTambienExijo (#IAlsoDemand). Maybe par for the course in the free world, but an affront to a dictatorship that systematically tramples on freedom of speech.

It was her second such performance.

During the 2009 Havana Biennial, Bruguera set up a podium and microphone at a Havana venue and gave people one minute to speak. As Cubans and foreign visitors wished for freedoms and rights, a white dove flew on their shoulders, a mockery of what happened during a historic Fidel Castro speech in the early years of the revolution.

She got in trouble for the performance, insiders tell me, and she’s been shuttling between residencies, exhibitions, and teaching gigs in New York, France, Germany and Havana since then.

Unlike the Biennial, this time the government made sure Bruguera couldn’t carry out her performance.

She was arrested before she could get to the square, and two more times in two days. She was reportedly released Friday. Dissidents and activists also were arrested so that they could not participate in the event. Some have been released; others have not.

Sadly, only three Cuban artists on the island signed a petition that had hundreds of other signatures calling for Bruguera’s release. And in Miami, some artists and curators have privately criticized the boldness of her work.

“If artists self-censor themselves, then they’re no longer creating art, they’re not engaging in exchange,” says Cortada, who recently participated in a Key West-Cuba show. “They are simply helping the apparatus of censorship. … Art is about truth, so hay que decir las verdades!” Truths need to be told.

One of the issues of concern is the timing of the performance — and the context of the new, friendlier relationship with the United States.

It’s not a stretch to say that the Cuban government’s crackdown may have cooled again the U.S.-Cuba thaw that people like Bruguera had sought for so long to gain. Ironic, perhaps even unfortunate, and certainly uncomfortable for the State Department talks that are supposed to take place at the end of the month, but well worth it.

The stark Cuban reality was a missing component of the sudden, confident change in policy.

After all, despite the hoopla the Cuban government has generated with its censorship, Bruguera’s intervention was simply art. It’s part of her “Immigrant Movement International” project, which entails “appropriation of political strategies, an art form — arte útil, useful art, or art as tool — that she has helped shape with art partners at the Queens Museum and in Europe.

Her work — exhibited in Miami during Art Basel and at major contemporary art museums, including the Guggenheim in New York, which invited people on social media to follow the #YoTambienExijo performance — has always packed social and political punch.

This time, the Cuban government may have turned off her microphone before she even installed it, but the results of Bruguera’s experimental art have spoken louder.

For a change, a Cuban artist has gone too far.

Brava.

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