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Casablanca in the 12th Havana Biennial

Casablanca in the 12th Havana Biennial

I cross the bay in a ferry, the regular mode of transportation from one side of the great pocket of ocean water to the other. They say that its depths shelter treasure from colonial times. Today the ferry seems unusually slow, carrying more than its usual load of local passengers. I see French and Austrians, Latin Americans, and Cubans, of course. There are many cameras documenting the brief crossing.

We are met by an esplanade when we land and it’s covered by 72 folding wooden and canvas chairs imprinted with lovely designs, the work of Chilean artist Guisela Munita. For a long time nobody dares to sit on them either because  the sun is still unforgiving or because accustomed as we are to the traditional viewer/artwork relationship, this seems sacrosanct to us. Once the initial surprise is over, the more irreverent among us decides to flop down, glasses ready, and get a picture taken. And when nighttime takes over the afternoon, foot-weary visitors start fighting over the chairs to sit down. This is the first stoop of what was to become an adventurous couple of hours walking all over the town that has been transformed into an art gallery.

At first glance, the most remarkable sight is the ancient Hershey train car, part of the electric train that, for better or worse, is part of Casablanca tradition. When we arrive it still hasn’t been opened for the public and so I decide to explore the recently painted train station, which on this sweltering afternoon, is providing shade not for passengers en route to Matanzas but instead for a mixed bag of artists, townsfolk and gawkers who want to know who the short man dressed in a white shirt and black jacket is. He is surrounded by reporters. As I watch and listen I find out he is Daniel Buren, a famous French conceptual artist who wanted to leave his mark on this side of Havana Bay. He has left us a restored railroad station as a souvenir of his visit to Cuba.

In front of the station there is a small park and there, using a portable printing press, young Mexicans representing the graphic arts workshop La curtiduría are producing small engravings on paper and distributing them free of charge. It is a successful enterprise. Adults bring T-shirts to be printed with souvenirs of the Biennial. They are told they will take a few days to dry and that this isn’t the best way to be doing it, but they insist and the Mexicans give in, much to the T-shirt owner’ satisfaction. Likewise some kids who aren’t wearing shirts because of the heat get them to print images on their skin. They exhibit these like trophies in the town’s central park, which is up the hill dominated by Mauricio Abad’s installation. We stop to chat with this young Cuban artist. His work is called Gamers OK, and it shows in real time the casualties suffered by the Gamers de Cuba community, a group of around 15,000 avid Cuban videogame players.

The din of the comparsa interrupts our conversation with Mauricio. This is being prepared before our eyes with dancers and musicians, young people disguised with giant papier-mâché heads of black women, carrying signs identifying them as Los componedores de la Batea.” The comparsa is being followed by townsfolk and visitors, dancing and laughing their way through Casablanca streets.

Later, the official inauguration takes place with speeches and thanks, but I don’t get to see it because I am climbing the stairs that leads to the Christ of Havana, searching for more art and artists. The stairs wind their way among houses, almost as if they were a part of them, and from above you can see Casablanca residents sitting on their rooftops, enjoying the unusual spectacle of hundreds of visitors wandering around, and the lovely sunset over Havana Bay.

Twenty-five art projects make up this section of the Havana Biennial in Casablanca: Cuban and foreign artists with their installations, interventions, murals, audiovisuals, performances, sculptures, community projects. The pilot edition of the local newspaper La Voz de Casablanca is being hawked on the street, like hotcakes. It has been reborn after a silence lasting 70 years. Exhausted, I sit down to read it and to take a drink of water inside the old Hershey train car which by now has been opened as part of the AI&P (Art, Industry and Landscape) cultural project. I love the newspaper’s lovely photos.

As I write this report, my head is still reverberating with the echoes of the genuine Conga, whose drums heralded the start of the Havana Biennial, and which took place in the seaside town of Casablanca. Joining the Conga, I had the sensation of being swept up in something that is really genuine and spontaneous. It’s really remarkable how this popular manifestation worked to bring people together. Neighbors sat by their front doors or hung over their balconies, constantly interacting. Everyone admired the leader who never for one single moment let the energy of the percussion wane. The audience enjoying this spectacle included all ages and walks of life.

I travel back across the Bay, much like someone crossing the ocean. Christ watches me from the Casablanca hill. Until June 22, the Havana Biennial lies at His feet.

June 2015 This article formed part of the june 2015 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.

What’s On Havana What’s On La Habana What’s On La Havane June, 2015
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