How a dissident Cuban artist is helping to empower NYC’s disenfranchised

As a Cuban embassy opens in the U.S. this week for the first time in decades, Cuban dissident artist Tania Bruguera is preparing for some important transitions of her own.

Last week, the Museum of Modern Art revealed it would acquire Bruguera’s video performance installation “Untitled (Havana, 2000),” and the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigration announced that she would be the new artist-in-residence for a new city initiative connecting artists with municipal departments. She will be working with IDNYC, which aims to give identification cards to any resident of New York City, including “the homeless, youth, the elderly, undocumented immigrants, the formerly incarcerated” and others who have had trouble obtaining an ID, according to the project’s website.

A longtime dissident artist and critic of the Cuban government, Bruguera captured public attention in December for her attempt to stage a performance on free speech, which ended in a shutdown and the removal of her passport. Bruguera said she planned the performance after her artist-in-residence position and the MoMA acquisition had been decided, an important detail amid accusations that she staged it for professional gain.

The government returned Bruguera’s passport last week, but she says the case is not yet closed and there is no guarantee she will be allowed to return to the country if she leaves. “It’s a way to immobilize me, politically and artistically,” she said. We asked her about what this means for her work and how she and other artists play a role in politics.

What are some of the projects you’re pursuing outside Cuba?

The first thing I would like to do is reconnect with the project I’m doing in New York with immigrants. The cultural department of the city of New York — the person in charge of that department — has this idea that’s brilliant and amazing, of trying to insert artists in the different departments of the city, inspired by Mierle Ukeles’ work in the 1970s where she worked for the sanitation department as an artist. And he has chosen me, of which I’m very, very proud and extremely honored as the first artist that he chose for his overall project.

What will you be doing in that project?

We have talked about working specifically on the ID project of the city. I’ve been working in immigration issues, so I’m going to be working with the Department of Immigration and we’re going to be focusing specifically on the ID New York cards and the amazing implications that it has and the amazing benefits that immigrants can have with that card.

What’s the significance of the IDNYC project?

I think the ID New York card is extremely important because of the implication it has to recognize people who until now have been in the shadows and to recognize that New York is specifically a city of immigrants. Also, it brings a very concrete benefit. For example, you can enter many art centers and museums for free, you can open bank accounts … basically, you can exist again. You can be in the open without fear of not having a document that represents you. And I think that’s extremely important for the dignity of immigrants, not only in New York but everywhere. I hope it becomes a model for other cities in the U.S.

As an artist, I think what I can do is be a link between the institution and immigrants, bringing information back and forward from one to another, and kind of [bringing] the ideas and also the demands of immigrants to the institution. I hope to create a relationship that is more trustworthy between those. It is the biggest challenge I’ve had as an artist so far. I’m also very proud of the politicians seeing art as a way to communicate and as a way to change.

Would you be able to do that job from Cuba?

I am very proud to say that the commitment and the support of the city of New York has been such that they are willing to work with me even if I’m not able to travel. Of course it will impact the work, because it’s not the same thing as being in person and seeing in person the impact and the challenges of the work, but I’m very proud to say they are willing to do that.

What role do artists play in the renewed diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba?

I think artists have an emotional knowledge, and artists can say some of the things that other people are not allowed to say, and I think this is very important right now. I have to say that I’m extremely happy and I’m for the relations between Cuba and the U.S. I think artists are extremely important, but I’m afraid that because the Cuban government knows how important artists are, they are working toward using artists to give a certain image of Cuba, a certain happiness, that everybody’s together and happy, [when] things are more complex than that.

You can be for the relationship and [also] have some concerns and have some worries. And I think artists can be very articulate in presenting that and they should be part of this transition.

What do artists contribute to presenting a specific view of Cuba?

People see what they want to see, and artists can help to bring another view of reality. Maybe an uncomfortable view, maybe a view nobody wants to see, but they have the tools to provide another reality.

That’s one of the reasons I’m advocating so much for realism in art right now in Cuba, instead of escapism, or abstractionism, or emotional expressionism. That’s why I’m advocating to be realistic right now, because I want to show what nobody else is showing.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.