Cuban Art at the Venice Biennial
Access to the famous Biennale, one of the most rigorous and at the same time exclusive events in the international visual arts world, has not always been easy for artists from the Third World. That is especially the case when they live in their countries of origin. However, after several years of participation, whether in the form of a national pavilion, specific invitations to artists as part of the general curatorship, in collective exhibitions, or under the umbrella of the Instituto Italo-Latinoamericano (IILA), the Cuban presence was again significant in this 57th edition.
Cuba’s first participation in Venice was in 1952. Since then, some of our most versatile creators have paraded through the City of Canals, among them: René Portocarrero, Wifredo Lam, Raúl Martínez, and Flavio Garciandía. In recent years, our country has continued strengthening its importance in the Venetian exhibition circuit, first under tutorship and support of Miria Vicini, who assumed the role of administrator of the three previous showcases, and now with Jorge A. Fernández Torres, director of the National Museum of Fine Arts and co-curator of the three previous shows, as curator of a Cuban pavilion.
The new autonomy with which Cuba faces this 57th edition offers the possibility to increase the number of guest artists to 14, which is atypical for the event, in which most countries present solo exhibits. José Manuel Noceda Fernández assumed the challenge as curator of the Cuban Pavilion.
According to Noceda, the concept of the showcase began to develop in late November 2016, after successive invitations to Jorge A. Fernández and Rubén del Valle Lantarón, then president of the Consejo Nacional de las Artes Plásticas (CNAP). He said that the work process was complex, and was characterized the whole time by a collegial methodology and active intervention; initially of Rubén del Valle Lantarón and Isabel Pérez as curatorial assistant, and later of Jorge A. Fernández, Teresa Domínguez (who subsequently assumed the presidency of CNAP), and Quique Martínez as head of Art Engineering.
In the design of the Cuban Pavilion, the planners took into account the Biennial’s general curatorship as well as the particularities of the context and the art produced in our country. Regarding this relationship, Noceda explained, “As I usually do when participating in an international event, I try to understand the curatorial logic that orients and guides it; I study the theoretical document that describes the general project and try to interpret its possible meanings. It is an act of respect for the ideas of the general curatorship, this time under the tutelage of Christine Macel under the title Viva Arte Viva. . . . But at the same time I do not ignore the geo-cultural context under study, trying to create a much more specific connection with it.”
This is how the idea emerged of working from one of Alejo Carpentier’s definitions of ‘temporality’ in Latin America and the Caribbean; a notion, Noceda assures, that is still fully pertinent and that he himself has applied to some studies on the art and creative processes in our region. “In one of his conferences on the novel in Latin America, early in the 1960s, the writer pointed out the coexistence of three simultaneous time-related categories: the time of the past or time of the memory; the time of the present or time of intuition and vision; and the time of the future or time of waiting.”
Following this idea, Tiempo de la intuición (Time of Intuition), the expression used as title of the exhibition, “alludes metaphorically to the country’s present, and to the reality of the art being made here, through very specific figures.” But at the same time it inserts itself in the curatorial logic of Macel, who dedicated one of the nine “trans-pavilions” that make up the Central Showcase to explore the notions of time and infinity.
However, there is a still deeper connection between the concept of the Cuban exhibition and the ideas expressed by the Biennial’s general curator. “In her approaches,” says Noceda, “Macel insists on the circumstances that define the global present in which we live (riddled with crises and conflicts), calls to recover the artist’s responsibility, defends the role of art to counteract those circumstances, and emphasizes the urgency to restore the increasingly impoverished notion of humanism.”
In turn, the selection that represents our country, in addition to the inclusion of different generations, a diversity of themes, and the multiplicity of styles that define the island’s variegated art, reflects the artists’ commitment to their context and the importance of their projects and works “in sketching a different concept of humanity, based on a multiple identity in opposition to the old notion of atavism, of unique identity (Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau, Raphaël Confiant), that takes into consideration the intersections and sounds of all cultures.”
Exhibited in Campo Santo Stefano, specifically in Loredan Palace (venue of the Venetian Institute of Sciences, Arts and Literature since 1838), one of the most frequented itineraries for the public daily touring Venice, the Cuban showcase once more had to face the peculiarities of a space far from the ideal “white cube”, and for that reason most pieces functioned as site specific. “When selecting the artists and their works, the building’s characteristics and its surroundings were well taken into consideration, i.e., thought was given to the exterior as well as to the interior, and to which artists and types of works or projects would best fit in them. That is why Híbrido de Chrysler (Chrysler Hybrid), a work by Esterio Segura from 2016, is exhibited in the square.”
Inside the building, Tiempo de la intuición fills the lobby, the ground floor and the first floor of this majestic palace. In the rooms and libraries can be found works by Abel Barroso, Iván Capote, Roberto Diago, Roberto Fabelo, José Manuel Fors, Aimée García, Reynier Leyva Novo, Meira Marrero & José Ángel Toirac, Carlos Martiel, René Peña, Mabel Poblet, Wilfredo Prieto, and José E. Yaque.
“All those spaces,” Noceda comments, “were the object of studies, and the projects that best suited their characteristics were installed in them. For example, part of the Palace entrance exhibits a group of busts of relevant figures of the art and culture of La Toscana. Fabelo included in it three pieces from the series Torres (Towers), alternating sculptures among the busts and creating relations among them. On the ground floor, in smaller and rather narrow halls, the minimal nature of Iván Capote’s works and Carlos Martiel’s video performance were predominant, a spatial occupation concept in the cases of Mabel Poblet, René Peña and Abel Barroso, and the subtle administration of the space with Reynier Leyva Novo.”
“The upper floor involved another challenge and at the same time offered other possibilities. The institution’s library is on that floor, and for that reason the projects exhibited in it of the authorship of Meira Marrero and José Ángel Toirac, Wilfredo Prieto, José E. Yaque, Roberto Diago, and José Manuel Fors, refer, to a certain extent, to information of very diverse origins, or are rooted in research and develop through patterns and reiteration in a real or simulated way. The tour of that floor ends with Aimée García’s work in a small, mottled hall that allows her Rewind project to interact with a domestic location related to the issues she constantly broaches.”
Referring to the artists’ selection and their link with the curatorial concept, Noceda states, “All of them express in their own way those ‘oscillations’ between past and present to be found in the intentions of many of our local artists, in that constant mobility between registers of temporality without rejecting that intangible infinite alluded to by Christine Macel, which, on this side of the Atlantic might mean that ‘time of waiting’ imagined by Carpentier.”
Sixty-five years after the first Cuban participation in the Italian event, the Cuban Pavilion opens an important space for analysis of the Island’s contemporary art, and, (why not?) of the coexistence of different temporal registers in our chronological present. Because, as expressed by Carpentier, “The only human race that is prevented from ignoring dates is the race of those who make art, and not only have to advance from an immediate yesterday represented by tangible testimonies, but must anticipate to the order of the day and form of others that will follow, creating new tangible testimonies with full awareness of what has been done previously.”
 Based on an interview with José Manuel Noceda Fernández, curator of the Cuban pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennial.
 Andrés Bello: Los pasos perdidos. Viaje a la semilla, Santiago de Chile, 1997, p. 285.