How do you think Un chino de paso por Venecia, camino a Cuba (A Chinese Man Passes Through Venice On His Way To Cuba) fit in the general context of the Biennial, or didn’t it?

I think it was effectively suited for the Biennial because it broached themes such as emigration and power conflicts among human groups in historical and present contexts. During my stay in Venice I saw that many exhibitions had similar approaches, such as the pavilions of Greece, New Zealand, and Germany, just to mention a few.

How do you evaluate the experience of participating with a solo show in the Venice Biennial?

I am still reflecting on what it means to have a solo show in Venice coinciding with its Biennial. I can say that it enabled me to experience from inside the work processes that are carried out in independent spaces and galleries in parallel to the central event.

Did you visit the central exhibition, other national pavilions, or the collateral showcases? What particularly impressed you?

I visited many exhibition spaces of the Venice Biennial and came to the conclusion that it would take at least three weeks to see the entire event. Looking at the Biennial from a distance I can say that the national pavilions of Egypt, Greece, NSK, New Zealand, and Cuba were my favorites. At the central exhibition I liked the piece Atrato by Marcos Ávila Forero very much, and from the collateral showcases, the retrospective of Tehching Hsieh. For me it was a reunion with his work, which I saw in Montreal eight years ago.

The artist Moataz Mohamed Nasr Eldin, who exhibited in the Egyptian Pavilion, succeeded in creating a shocking atmosphere in which the new media and primary materials like earth or clay were brought together to create an environment that made you feel as if you were inside the images in the video.

I really liked the work by artist George Drivas in the Greek Pavilion because, in a very subtle and creative way, he presented the migratory conflicts faced by our world today. On the other hand, New Zealand approached the same conflicts with more direct images and actions of artist Lisa Reihana, such as the slogans Refugee Rights and Indigenous Rights printed on the bags handed out to the visitors.

The NSK State Pavilion, represented by and commissioned by the IRWIN artistic collective, is quite interesting. It is a project created in Slovenia that consisted of creating a country recognized in the system, but without physical territory. This country has the authority to issue valid passports with almost universal recognition, and that makes it possible for many people to be NSK citizens. The public could apply for NSK citizenship and later receive their passports. Being present at the opening of the pavilion was special for me, because some years ago I visited these artists’ studio in Ljubljana and saw the project that they now turned into a reality.

I think the Cuban Pavilion broached many themes such as emigration, religion, politics, history, and human desires that the selected artists had been developing in their works. The curatorial selection offered a diversity of themes and confluence of generations that worked very well. For example, I see a very special connection between Carlos Martiel’s performance and the work by Meira Marrero & José Ángel Toirac, artists from different generations but with similar concerns that respond to the same context. The curatorial design of the works displayed on the first and second floors also caught my attention. The Cuban Pavilion was among those that aroused most interest in this edition. This is not just my opinion but that of many people I later met in Venice and other European cities.

It was an honor to participate and include some of my work at the Cuban Pavilion in the 57th Venice Biennial. The most important and relevant for me was the realization of the piece Mediterráneo (Mediterranean), which I had conceived years ago and brought to fruition in a context that was ideal for its comprehension.

Mediterráneo refers to the African emigration to Europe and to all the lives that have been lost in recent decades because of the mass immigration and dangerous conditions under which it is carried out. My main interest was to question the background of this problem. Who is responsible for the current state of misery, poverty, and violence on the African continent? How does the policy of arms sales of some European countries contribute to the mass emigration of the African population? What is the value of the lives of the more than 27,700 people who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea between 2000 and 2016? The reality is that thousands of Africans migrate to Europe annually in the most unsafe way, and, making the situation even more dramatic, only a small number reaches their destination since a large percentage of the survivors are deported to their countries of origin. What better place to create this piece than Italy? It was worth all the time I had to wait.

This action starts with a fabric knit in the traditional technique (crochet), playing with the symbolical content of the color red from the personal, political, and social points of view.

The work consists of undoing the fabric, an action that includes deconstruction as a paradigm of a new ideal and a return to the beginning, to the matrix and the raw material as a starting point that suggests the possibility of a new beginning. In this way I am interested in talking about history and its divergences over time.

From the personal point of view, it was a unique experience. I had taken part in a previous edition of the Venice Biennial as an independent artist and this continues to be the style nowadays, a very individualist biennial for certain artists. However, the Cuban presence contributed something different. Perhaps it should be an example for others to present a group of notable artists from different generations. I think we were an event within the event and, without modesty, I guarantee that we were one of the most outstanding and beautiful presentations, and enjoyed great acceptance from the general and specialized audiences. The way our work was exhibited was very democratic, a lively montage that started to draw attention from the square itself with Esterio Segura’s piece.

Roberto Diago. Ciudad quemada / 2010 – 2017 / Instalación, madera quemada / Dimensiones variables

Installations, photographs, and videos were combined in the different spaces of the Loredan. The building seemed to have been constructed especially for us. It was a magical experience that hopefully will be repeated.

How did your work, a piece you had already shown in Cuba, fit into the group project?

In my case, you as curators had a clear concept from the beginning. That seldom happens with such precision. Excessive urgency, with projects requested under pressure, is common when organizing events in our country. In this case, I believe that your experience and vision of the work of the Cuban artists made it possible to construct this show in time. And from the beginning . . . it was clear how we were to interact with one another. In the end, it resulted in a well-thought-out exhibition.

Surely you visited other central exhibitions, national pavilions, collaterals . . . What do you think of this edition?

The power of money is perceived . . . and is allowed to be perceived in events such as this. Being among many of the members of the Cuban delegation, who have all exhibited in many places in the world, something made me feel like a student again: the love for art and the commitment to the work. I found many national pavilions that showed the power of resources, but with quite mediocre projects. The public passed by and rarely stopped to examine the pieces. Sometimes I asked myself, “What is this doing here?”

As a rule, at the Venice Biennial the countries present only one artist. Our group project was somewhat contrary to this practice. What do you think of that?

As a creator, I tell you once more that hopefully other creators would nourish from these experiences, and be influenced by the Cuban idea. The variety of artists and work in the same space facilitated the appreciation of the diversity and richness that characterizes our art. It seemed to me dynamic, effective, and powerful. I attended many parties and extravagant openings, but the Cuban showcase was absolutely special, I can assure that without jingoism.

Do you think our production connects with the concerns and themes that motivate art?

Cuban art is well connected with everything that is happening in the world. The production is at a very high level, even exceeding others from affluent nations. The themes, styles, and procedures are very often similar. However, we are somehow burdened by the fact that we are a poor country, we have no sponsors to finance our events. Perhaps that has made us redouble the creative effort. That particular element has always been appreciated, and I think it was particularly felt in Venice.

Projects, ideas, invitations from this participation?

I am very happy because Ciudad quemada (Burned City) was seen by a curator from the City of Sciences and Industry of Paris, and so, for nine months, the piece will be in a thematic exhibition dedicated to fire. It was incredible, because the curator entered the space and said, “This is the piece!” The path of art, as the path of life, is built step by step. I always draw upon a motto that I think also defines me: Honesty and Patience.

I was already familiar with the Biennial, but being part of the Cuban selection was of course very exciting. Venice is undoubtedly one of the most important events in the world, and the mere fact of having your work included in it is very encouraging.


As it frequently happens with your production, you created the piece in situ using materials you had prepared in Cuba.

The piece obviously has a connection with some of my previous works. The project emerged because Noceda was familiar with a cross from 1999 and asked me to present a proposal in that direction. I accepted, but apprised him that I have added different resources in my work, and the new piece in no way would resemble that one.

On the other hand, the space was beautiful, square, but also full of limitations inherent to the building. It would have been optimal to have more open space to realize a better display. I began to construct only with photographs, but during the process they became obscured with the graphite . . . The original idea gradually transformed with the resources available on the spot, as often happens with my work. The carpet was creating its own geography with the footsteps, and in that way the photographic and graphite volumes gained a different dimension.

As the process advanced I realized that the piece was adopting a distinctive form similar to a city. I was randomly discovering Venice in the networks of the photographic strips, the graphite glazes and the patterns in the carpet. It was an archipelago in shadows, prolonged in paper deposits and dissolved in a sea of one’s own and strangers’ footsteps. That is why it is entitled La sombra dilatada (The Extended Shadow), which comes from a phrase by Martí: “I like sunsets as if my fatherland were the extended shadow.”

Hence the four elongated points, extended in space. At first I tried to achieve something where the photographs would be very visible, but sometimes the result becomes whimsical, and I let myself be carried away by the particular condition of the place and its relation to the materials I was depositing on it. The light gained an essential shade when the windows were closed and it was made to fall vertically, scarce, and precise. It was a new, more spontaneous perspective in my work, where the elements acquired a more autonomous, almost mystic role.

Venice entailed a turning point in the creative process of my work, a step forward along paths that I will surely continue to explore.

There is a very marked trend in international art forms where the accumulations of very dissimilar objects have become central elements . . .

My first solo show, in 1983, was entitled Acumulaciones (Accumulations), so you can consider me a pioneer of that tendency. The fact is that the human being accumulates objects, experiences, knowledge, memories; he lives surrounded by objects, materials, and stories, which define him more for their combinations than for their uniqueness. My accumulations are the material resource to represent the sediment of memories and events in the form of layers, the memory that is fragmented, deposited, and finally revealed in different ways.

The basic material in all my work is paper, an inseparable companion that can bear any possible epigram; kneaded by time, the elements, the photographic emulsion, and life itself.

How would you describe your relationship to the rest of the showcase and the general context of the Biennial?

I was greatly pleased to learn that it was a group project with 14 artists. It generated the possibility for many colleagues to be involved. A single artist in each edition seems terrible to me. On the other hand, the assemblage at Loredan Palace was impressive. I think the work of the other artists was very well elaborated, precise, and intense.

I toured the central exhibitions, all those that my energy allowed. Many impacted me, but one has the habit to see what one considers most interesting. I was impressed by the German and Russian Pavilions, by some parts of The Arsenal . . . but above all I was overwhelmed by the art that is treasured in the city: Titian, Leonardo . . .

I was not familiar with Venice, so every day we got lost and discovered the city anew.

The first time I took part in the Venice Biennial was in 2007 with the Istituto Italo-Latinoamericano (IILA), with the countries that did not have an exhibition space. Later, in 2011, I took part in a collateral exhibition together with Pinchuk Art Centre, and since I completed my studies at ISA I have attended most of the editions, so that in one way or another I’ve always had a personal and professional relationship with Venice and the Biennial.

This year, the IILA unfortunately hung up the gloves and cancelled their support because of financial problems. This deprived many of us artists from Latin America (the ones who most need it) of the possibility of participating, particularly those of us that cannot afford the cost of exhibiting in these marvelous palaces . . . Imagine, then, the pride in knowing that Cuba had its own pavilion for the first time, in the beautiful Loredan Palace: an unthinkable location. This is evidence of great interest and a very important economic sacrifice by the Ministry of Culture and the country. Surprisingly, even the mounting of the show, which is not easy in Venice, went very well.

Regardless of the criticism we may have about biennials, and particularly about the Venice Biennial, one cannot ignore the importance of this event. It’s like the Cuban participation in the Olympics. It’s a stimulus for the Cuban artists, an injection of energy and an exercise in marksmanship in the most important territory.

I would reconsider the participation concept, making it less significant in the next edition. In general, each country chooses one or two artists. In our case, I understand that it was logical that Cuba, in its first participation, wanted to present a wider outlook covering several generations: some 14 artists in 2017. But I think this kind of event is an opportunity, and it would be better to look toward synthesis, to a particular look, to the creation of paradigms, and the participation of artists who can redefine, focus, and signify new standards in the Cuban and international cultural scene.

It is very important to realize that art is purely elitist. I do not mean a bourgeois, economic or purely cognitive elite, but a sensitive one, capable of reaching everyone, regardless of the economic or social status but considering only their sensitivity. Therefore, we cannot fall into the cultural trivialization that obviously exists today at the international level, where the “democratization”, the promotion, and marketing predominate massively and randomly . . . The direction must focus more on the construction of specific paths, very solid and convincing in their content. Events such as this one cannot remain out of sight because of the opportunities they can contribute to our cultural panorama.

Participating in an event such as the Venice Biennial was an extraordinary experience. It is one of the most important artistic events for creators, whatever their origin. And I say it was an extraordinary experience not only because of its international prestige, but also because of the obvious global accommodation. Many countries offered part of their outlook and coexisted in total harmony. Honestly, I had never been to Venice, and had just heard a bit and seen some catalogs about the Biennial.

The space worked wonderfully, although, I of course had to adapt to its specific characteristics. But that was the interesting thing, and what I particularly look for when making installations: adapting. I want the piece to interact with the space and create a special connection. In this case it was a library in Loredan Palace, where I replaced the books with bottles with peel, roots, branches, fruits, and seeds conserved in distilled water; flora from Cuba and Tuscany.

I think the Cuban Pavilion had great visibility because of the privileged location of the Palace. It was a good strategic decision to choose that venue: it was possible to mount the exhibits effectively and almost everyone visiting Venice found it easily.

La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre y Los Remedios (the Virgin of Charity of Cobre and Remedios) is a name given to the Virgin Mary. In response to a petition signed by more than 2,000 veterans of the War of Independence against Spain, Pope Benedict XV proclaimed her to be Patroness of Cuba in 1916. Twenty years later, in 1936, the Virgin was crowned for the first time by Bishop Zubizarreta; the dress, halo, and crown she now wears were created for that occasion. In 1998, during his visit to Cuba, Pope John Paul II crowned her and placed a rosary of gold and pearls in her right hand.

The first images of the Virgin Mary were brought to the New World by the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century. In Cuba, the faith in Mary soon began its transculturation process with the cult of autochthonous divinities related to the waters, the moon, motherhood, and also with the devotion to Ochun, an African deity of aquatic origin who lives in the foams of marine, river and vaginal fluids. She is traditionally represented, among other attributes, by the color yellow, the number five and its multiples, the yellow metals, amber, honey, etc.

The tradition goes that the image of the Virgin conserved today in the Sanctuary of El Cobre appeared in 1612 floating on a board that bore the phrase “I am the Virgin of Charity”, and miraculously saved three humble people who were looking for salt and had been caught by a surprise storm in the Bay of Nipe, in northeastern Cuba. With the passing of time, the rescued men were added to the iconography of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, and they were baptized in the popular imagination as Juan Criollo, Juan Indio and Juan Esclavo (Juan the Cuban-born, Juan the Indian, and Juan the Slave).

The three Juans, sailing together in the boat at the mercy of nature’s forces and divine intervention, represented (and still represent) the hope of the Cuban people to attain a space of integration and coexistence opposed to the racial, social, and cultural violence generated by so many years of conquest, colonization, slavery, underdevelopment, and political outrage.

Ave María, the piece we presented in the Cuban Pavilion at the 57th Venice edition, consists of a wooden board with a phrase engraved in Spanish and English from the historical speech given by our apostle José Martí in 1891 at the Cuban Lyceum in Tampa, Florida.

“The republic is either based on the full character of each one of its children . . . or is not worth a single tear of our women or a single drop of blood of our warriors.”

On the board are 55 different images of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre. We collected them during our pilgrimage to many cities of Cuba and the United States. Ave Maria is an altar to plurality, to Cuban racial and social equality; that Pandora’s Box so fragile and delicately sealed with Martí’s hope to build a Republic with ALL and for the good of ALL.

This piece becomes a prayer for the unity of the Cuban family that has cultivated, on the Island and beyond, that indisputable, syncretic, and racially mixed identity that is protected and symbolized by La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre.

It was an extraordinary experience, personally and professionally. In a certain way, it also made me reflect on my work, on how I have developed it up to now, and the way in which I should project myself toward the future. It was very stimulating to have been selected to participate in one of the most important visual arts events in the world, along with such a highly recognized group of creators.

Loredan Palace, the venue of the Cuban participation, was also a pleasant surprise. It is a magnificent building with many possibilities located on a central square in Venice. The fact that it is an old library with all its great rooms and shelves of books gave a distinctive meaning to our works.

My piece, Escala de valores (Scale of Values), originated from an idea I began to develop with a view to the past Salon of Contemporary Cuban Art. Later, considering how to show it in Venice, I decided to ask several Cuban families from different neighborhoods to cut out articles from the national press that they considered important or attractive in some way, and then create sort of a specific story for each of them. In the end they were very redundant or repetitive, because the editorial standpoint, the news, and the images of all our newspapers is very similar. The narratives created in this way, similar and parallel, made up a distinctive portrait of who we are as nation, as groups, and as individuals.

In Venice, it was necessary to change my original plan for the display. I had to reduce the number of strips with the stories by half because the allotted space had a very low stanchion. That also made it impossible to have the public walk through the space. But those are the challenges imposed by the available space, and I think the solution we found was acceptable. All in all, I am more pleased with the participation, with the experience I lived, than with the piece itself.

After the opening I spent some time visiting the central exhibitions and some of the national pavilions, particularly in The Arsenal and The Gardens. The German exhibition was awesome (it won the Golden Lion award), and I found the French and the Russian exhibitions to be impressive. In general, I noticed a strong tendency to feature the craftsmanship and all those procedures that identify the artists with processes of manipulation and creation of objects, collections, and frameworks. As in all events of this nature, it was impossible to see all of it in a few days.

How did René Peña react to the invitation to participate in the Cuban Pavilion at the 57 Venice Biennial?

When I received your first questionnaire for this interview I realized that I couldn’t answer the questions properly. Around that time I went on the internet and found a question by someone concerned about the number of Cuban artists at the Venice Biennial. I don’t remember if there was a response, but the question was enough for me. And I said to myself a possible answer would be, “Because in Cuba there are a lot of super artists!” or, “Because the curators’ concept involved these artists!”

When you visit any exhibition and talk to the curator/viewers, you always hear negative comments. No matter what is being presented, it’s as if there is a general inability to accept it. People give opinions about everything from positions that gradually develop, forming groups as they coalesce into “circles” of “prestige.” There is a type of censorship common in Cuba, a dark censorship hidden somewhere, which you will never hear verbalized. There is no way to reach those guys; perhaps they are machines. Our curators have that problem: some have grown old and others have not realized that they have to grow a little.

When you proposed the Venice Biennial to me, I was happy . . . very happy. I said to myself, “This is perfect for me.” Besides, I didn’t have to take care of the printing or the shipping. I was happy to participate without having to lift a finger.

It did not occur to me, because it never occurs to me to think of a specific piece for an event or an exhibition. Curators are curators. They choose the work. And if they chose me it’s because of what they’ve seen of my work. That is how I was educated. In the ‘90s it was the curators who decided and did not allow the artist to make those decisions.

If the curators of this edition of Venice select me among many, many artists, I . . . am very flattered. But it is you who choose. Of course, I will never show you a piece that I don’t want exhibited. I will only show you what I think is good, and it is up to you to decide, according to your concepts and the relationships you have already established with the other participants. I leave pieces that don’t please me in storage for one or two years, and if they still do not please me, I discard them. I do not work for any specific reason; I do it because I need to do it. It doesn’t even occur to me . . .

I couldn’t go to Venice because I had problems with my mother. I tried to work things out to make the trip, but it wasn’t possible. Aimée García brought me the catalog.

Even though you didn’t go, you’ve had a clear idea of how it all worked: the showcase, the artists, and the pieces. What is your opinion about that type of project for a biennial that is more individualistic, like Venice?

The style of that biennial is ºto feature a very important artist displayed in an area. In general, biennials usually work with artists whose latest exhibits are considered “good.” According to my experience, it’s easy to find very good artists who are not taken into consideration because they are “out of style”; artists who are no longer in the annual hit parade because the powers that be discard them and very quickly replace them with new ones. This dynamic is repeated again and again, and they do not even know what the artists are currently doing; they’ve been forgotten.

Miles Davis died when he was almost 65 years old, and his last CD is rap and techno music, very crazy. There are artists like me, the mortals, who work, but somehow remain and belong to their time. If we are speaking of Cuba, to take part in a Biennial we could easily do it only with artists from the latest movement, but another perspective is also valid. I ask myself: Is Garaicoa already old? How old is Zilia Sánchez? What’s the problem with speaking of art focused on more than one generation?

If having mixed generations fulfills a theoretical proposal, it is perfectly valid. Of course, those positions attract enemies, and there are counterattacks . . . and comments . . . particularly, “And why am I not there?” Just like that other allegation that the same ones are always chosen. And what if it is well grounded that they should always be the same ones? Because the others do not get to be like “the same ones.”

For instance, Carlos Martiel is super. I have liked him ever since I met him. I always saw him as very dedicated, very coherent, and violent. In the same way, I admire Fors’ honesty and the transparency he assumes in his work. They are artists outside of any fashion. That fusion of generations is valid. Who in Venice cares if they are from the 1970s or from 2002? Faced with the real world of art, we are all equally unknown.

Every once in a while I think about the Havana Biennial, about how it started. So exciting! So cool!