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Is Cuban art inhibited by censorship?

June 18, 2015 at 7:29 PM EDT
In the latest installment of our series “Cuban Evolution,” Jeffrey Brown explores the world of art in the country. He takes a look at the booming and vibrant art market that exists, as well as the limits on free expression that remain.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to Cuba.

Tonight, Jeffrey Brown visits the Havana Biennial art show to report on Cuba’s booming art market, as well as the very real limits on free expression that remain in the socialist country.

It’s another installment in our series this week, The Cuban Evolution.

JEFFREY BROWN: On a recent fine evening in Havana, one could follow the yellow brick road leading into the sea, hopscotch through an American flag made of giant pickup sticks, enter a translucent cube and look out at a blue world — all part of a grand festival, the Havana Biennial.

There is art all along Havana’s famous Malecon and throughout the city right now. Art, in fact, is one of the ways this isolated island has chosen to show itself to the world, and the world is paying attention.

This is the city’s 12th Biennial, but it’s the first since the U.S. and Cuba announced efforts to normalize diplomatic relations — everywhere you looked, in various corners of the city, work by artists from some 42 countries, some of it fairly traditional, some of it not, like this tropical ice skating rink.

Why is the Biennial so important here? What does it mean?

Margarita Sanchez is one of the Biennial curators.

MARGARITA SANCHEZ, Curator, Havana Biennial: In Cuba, culture is very important. We live and work and express out our home, in the street, maybe because of the weather. We don’t know. Because we are Cubans, we are very expressive.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, increasingly, very prominent on the international art scene. At the Biennial, more than 250 Cuban artists exhibited works in a historic 16th century fortress on a bluff above Havana.

Tony Rubenstein, an American with a new guide book on Cuban contemporary art, says demand for this work is high.

TONY RUBENSTEIN, Author of Art Guide Book: The art market right now is exploding, especially on the very, very top end. There are artists here who are already in the Tate Modern, that are already in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. And when there is established here a museum of contemporary art, those artists, the value of their works will explode.

JEFFREY BROWN: Howard Farber is one of the top collectors.

At the Biennial, he sponsored a gala affair to announce the first International Cuban Art Awards.

HOWARD FARBER, Art Collector: Our mission has been to spread the word on how great the art scene is in Cuba.

JEFFREY BROWN: Farber began buying Cuban art in earnest, and bulk, in the last decade, after making millions on the sale of his contemporary Chinese art collection in 2007.

Is part of the attraction for you, as a collector, the forbidden?

HOWARD FARBER:
I guess so. I never really thought about it before, but I like to collect and go where people haven’t gone before.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a paradox in this home of the socialist revolution, big money flowing from outside to artists inside. Indeed, artists here are positively entrepreneurial.

Adrian Fernandez and his partners were able to create this upscale studio after new laws made it possible to buy and sell property. They now sell their work directly to consumers, mostly abroad, avoiding government-run galleries and reaping their own profits.

ADRIAN FERNANDEZ: We deal directly with the people that reach us here. We connect directly.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, indeed, he and his friends were receiving American visitors by the busload during the Biennial.

In another part of town, an even more unexpected scene, the Beverly Hills Women’s Club, talking money and monopoly art at the home of one of Cuba’s most prominent artists.

KADIR LOPEZ, Artist: I mix it all with the Coca-Cola signs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kadir Lopez takes old signs from American companies that were active here before the revolution, and superimposes images and photographs on top of them.

KADIR LOPEZ: I like to put some kind of metaphors in between.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a layering of times and messages, working through metaphor, he says, not overt politics, that can be read a variety of ways.

But what about the seeming contradiction of making art in a socialist country for Americans from Beverly Hills?

KADIR LOPEZ: I put X-amount of energy in a canvas or on a piece of metal on a sculpture or an installation. That energy could have a value market.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, it does.

KADIR LOPEZ: A person comes and says, here, here is my energy, X-amount of money that I’m willing to trade for you, if you give me that. So that’s how I balance that.

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: But isn’t that — isn’t that capitalism?

KADIR LOPEZ: Yes, it could be capitalistic or not. I have no idea, and I’m not thinking about it. I know there’s something good come from my art.

JEFFREY BROWN: Call it what you will. Clearly, things are changing here. But some things remain, casting a shadow over the Biennial.

TANIA BRUGUERA, Artist: I have been accused by the government to incite people to be delinquent, that I incite people to do public disturbances.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the 2009 Biennial, Tania Bruguera presented a piece of performance art in which Cubans were invited to speak their minds. When she tried to stage it again in December, in response to the announcement of a reopening of diplomatic relations with the U.S., she was stopped and detained, her passport taken.

Were you trying to provoke a response?

TANIA BRUGUERA: Absolutely not. Absolutely not.

I think I believed that it was a historical moment, and that art has a role to play during historical moments. People were in shock. Why? Because it is an announcement that puts into reflection, into doubt, and to rethink what it means to be Cuban, what it means to be revolutionary. I think it was a historical moment because it was a moment of identity crisis for the revolution.

JEFFREY BROWN: She says fellow Cuban artists practice a form of self- censorship.

TANIA BRUGUERA: It’s kind of sad when you have to conform it to just a little moment of complicity, instead of being able to say, hey, this is what I think, and involve everybody else in that conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bruguera says she’s been told she can leave Cuba, but only if she never returns, a deal she’s refused. In the meantime, she awaits possible prosecution.

The Havana Biennial, minus Tania Bruguera, will be on display until June 22.

From Cuba, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

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