The Bienal de La Habana, started in 1984 as the direct result of one of Fidel Castro's legendary brainstorms, was inaugurated under the banner of Cuba's forceful idealism and anti-imperialism. The Bienal has stalwartly advocated the need for a forum outside the mainstream in which local discourses and aesthetics can grow. It has told a story that differs from the stories told by international exhibitions elsewhere in the world. It has served as antidote to the homogenizing forces of the marketplace, while presenting a potential model for an alternate practice. As the only biennial operated by an avowedly socialist country, it has stood for anticommercialism and solidarity among artists. The Havana biennial, in short, is in a class by itself, and it has quickly acquired a certain cachet for its clarity of vision and for having been there first. The Bienal is now at an interesting point in its development, reflective not only of conditions particular to Cuba and Cuban art but also symptomatic of broader dynamics in the global art system and the institution of biennials. If it is true, as some writers have recently asserted, that the era of the grand international exhibitions has crested, then Havana stands as an important and fascinating case study in this history.
The Havana Bienal has encapsulated the logics, progressions, reversals, and perversities of the Cuban reality as it has unfolded in the last twenty-three years. Among the most important features of this period have been the virtual collapse of the national economy around 1990 and efforts to rebuild it that envisioned culture, among other products, in a more strategic and financialized capacity. Parallel to this, although for somewhat different reasons, an international market for Cuban art has emerged during more or less the same period. The Bienal has also tracked to transnational phenomena in contemporary art, including the broadly instrumentalizing role accorded to art under the rubrics of urban or community or economic development, and the key role played by biennials in particular as public stages on which that work can be effectively carried out. The founding vision for the Havana Bienal was a relatively doctrinaire, yet extremely passionate conviction. In 2006, as it celebrated its ninth iteration, with the country in extremis and artists increasingly part of the new upper class, the event apparently retained its initial political gravity, even after it had become a key element of the Ministry of Culture's promotional policies. In the effort to understand how the Havana project traveled from those foundations to the present circumstances, it may be helpful to sketch the event's history alongside the language it has employed to describe itself, and to situate those in relation to some of the larger forces at play.
The Bienal began at a time of relative prosperity for Cuba, fueled in large measure by Soviet subsidies. The country's visual arts had reawakened with a vengeance in the early 1980s after a period of ideologically induced doldrums in the previous decade. (1) The resurgence came thanks to an extremely talented cohort of charismatic young artists who were full of curiosity, informed about international contemporary practices, and allergic to dogma. The Bienal, however, emanated from a somewhat older generational perspective, in both political and aesthetic terms. "The lack of communication among the peoples of the Third World has been a catastrophe," wrote Eliseo Diego in the introduction to the first Bienal's catalogue, "encouraged by the vicious intentions of decrepit imperialisms, already in a critical moment of corrupt decomposition. The Cuban Revolution has proposed, with unyielding resolve, to break every barrier between brothers, to reintegrate the dispersed. Because of this, the first Bienal will be not only an important artistic event, but also a fact of historical significance that will have incalculable, and comforting, consequences for the future of all." (2)
Moreover, the Bienal was on a mission to build a living bridge from art back to "the people": "With modesty and audacity, the Havana Bienal opens itself ... in a meeting between artists and spectators. Together, a country that has been fed by many cultures and a people that believes in art because it has learned to fight for life will create this necessary dialogue." (3)
The second Bienal sounded much the same notes in 1986, but from a higher perch: the Minister of Culture Armando Hart, not only the most powerful figure in Cuba's cultural realm but also one of the original revolutionary cadre, provided the introductory words for the catalogue. Hart also upped the ante in terms of the project's political status, locating it parallel to Cuba's other internationalist ventures. "Cuba is a small country," he wrote, "underdeveloped, and it suffers the onslaughts of the world economy. The celebration of the Bienal of Havana constitutes, for us, a great effort ... The bienal, nonetheless, will only reach its noble goals if it becomes a task of all of us. As such, it must convert into a grand force of union of the values and common interests of Third World art, and into an instrument of unified action of its culture." (4)
But the difficulties that Hart signaled in 1986 soon seemed like a golden age compared to what happened once the Soviet Union withdrew its support from Cuba at the beginning of the 1990s. In breathtakingly short order, things on the island fell apart, both in economic and psychic terms. The third Bienal was therefore launched in November 1989 amid a national catastrophe. (5) Ironically, though, the show may have been the project's best: the vision for the Bienal had quickly outgrown its cadenced rhetoric and erupted into a dynamic, eclectic, and adventurous experiment with art, and with its definitions and limits and purview. Havana itself was engaged and energized, the Bienal shed its remaining vestiges of colonialist form (prizes and organization of works according to nationality of artist), and a theme-based curatorial methodology afforded the space for greater intellectual ambition and achievement. (6) At the same time, the Bienal was operating inside a mounting battle between young Cuban artists and the cultural institutions, and even the political leadership of the Communist Party. A string of confrontations over politically charged exhibitions in the previous year or so had superheated the atmosphere: shows had been closed, sympathetic officials had been fired, and the mood was extremely volatile. A new set of hardline and commercial priorities were embodied in the incoming vice-minister, and at the Bienal the controversial works by the young Cubans were safely cordoned off into a side exhibition called The Tradition of Humor. TV sets in hotels broadcast programming on the new Canal del Sol, including sweaty documentaries about African dance, the 1986 thriller No Mercy starring Richard Gere and Kim Basinger, and ads for Yves St. Laurent perfume. Nonetheless, serious debates among figures like Frederico Morais and Geeta Kapur tackled issues of cultural development in the Third World, including the lag between political and cultural independence and the structural cynicism of mainstream postmodernism.
Curatorially, the Bienal's theme of "Tradition and Contemporaneity" was handled as a …