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The 12th Havana Biennial: an introduction

The 12th Havana Biennial: an introduction

Since May 22, the Havana Biennial has transformed the city with contemporary art. This year, it has flung open the doors of once-closed structures, from electric plants to defunct bicycle factories, injected cheeky and spirited installations into the city’s urban texture, and overwhelmed with too much art to possibly see, challenging visitors and locals alike to take in as much as they can before the show comes down on June 22. 

The Havana Biennial—which, in true Cuban fashion, takes place every third year in the early summer­—has been a lauded institution in the city since 1984. As one of the first sweeping, artistically ambitious biennials to take place outside of the first world, it was intended to offer a platform to artists left out of subsidized European shows: it showcased artists not only from Cuba, but South America, Africa, and Asia. As such, the show shifted access to and expectations from global biennials, prioritizing offering Cubans from all walks of life first-class art. 

This year’s iteration both jumps beyond and continues in that vein. As the first biennial to take place in a different economic and regulatory climate than years prior—visitors to Havana will find new tourism infrastructure, and the promise of political change in the form of a fresh diplomatic and economic relationship with the United States—this year’s biennial is a debutante ball of sorts. An exuberant first-week program of ancillary exhibits complemented the formal offerings of the biennial: Cuban artists who had decamped to foreign countries years ago have returned, opening studios and informal galleries in Havana; an assortment of new spaces, eschewing the model of either commercial gallery or artist-run collective and instead creating their own rules, have opened in apartments and homes around the city. Open studios, inaugurations, and performances of the first week of the biennial took place at a dizzying pace. 

Luckily for visitors who didn’t make it to Havana in May, the biennial continues through June. Participatory and diverse, its offerings include an encyclopedic, if overwhelming and slightly scattered exhibit of work by Cuban artists in the Morro-Cabaña. With work that includes the conceptual and the representative, by artists of the widest possible range of ages, the exhibit is a vigorous introduction to Cuban art. In Old Havana, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes show, at the Cuban arts building, exhibits work by Cubans Alexandre Arrechea and Wilfredo Prieto, a survey of abstract drawings by Gustavo Pérez Monzón from the Ella Fontanals Cisneros collection. The museum of universal art has been taken over by an exhibit of work on loan from the Bronx Museum of the Arts, “Wild Noise,” representing the first half of the first art museum exchange in fifty years. Along the Malecón, a curated selection of outdoor sculptures ranging from an icy blue cube by Rachel Valdes to a spiky, innuendo-laden cake-like sculpture by the collective Stainless, including the popular new Malecón beach by Arlés del Río, encourage participation. 

Additional exhibits at the Casa de Africa, Wilfredo Lam Contemporary Art Center, Spanish Embassy, and much more ensure that even the most cursory walk through Old Havana will result in a visitor’s stumbling into an exhibit, whether large or small.

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.

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