For Creative Engagement

May 6, 2015

I came from Cuba in the 60s and returned in 1993 for a Theatre Festival. Before then my work did not deal directly with revolutionary Cuba. Carmelita Tropicana, the persona I created, was born in Cuba, but she was a downtown New York City performance artist. And while I felt comfortable with criticizing U.S. policies, I felt uneasy commenting on Cuba, a place I only knew from a distance. After my visit in 1993, two of my theatre/performance works addressed the complexity of Cuban politics. One was a solo about my return: “Milk of Amnesia”; the other was based on the Elian Gonzalez saga, and titled “With What Ass Does the Cockroach Sit?”

The debate in question: The Havana Biennial: To Engage or to Boycott?

This debate is a tough one for me. I support Tania Bruguera’s work as an artist, activist, and artivist. Bruguera is now detained in her apartment for attempting to restage her piece Tatlin’s Whisper #6 and her passport has been confiscated.

There is an eloquent description of the work in Gerardo Mosquera’s Cuba in Tania Bruguera’s work: The Body is the Social Body.  And another point of view can be found in Coco Fusco’s The State of Detention: Performance, Politics and the Cuban Public.

The Cuban government’s treatment of Bruguera is a result of her proposal to relocate her 2009 performance Tatlin’s Whisper #6 to the Plaza of the Revolution, an emblem of the Revolution where Fidel Castro has given countless speeches and where the government holds demonstrations.  I asked a visiting journalist, a Cuban national who is in sympathy with the revolution, what she thought of Bruguera. She was not in favor. She said “Imagine if you were to ask to demonstrate on the White House lawn? That’s a sacred space.”

The question of boycotting the Biennial first came up during the recent reenactment of Tatlin’s Whisper #6 in Times Square by Bruguera supporters. When asked, my gut reaction was to engage, to attend the Biennial to go to Cuba.

For me, the boycott is reminiscent of the blockade and I would rather engage. I think those who go to the biennial can be effective in lobbying for Cuban artists, in pressuring biennial programmers in perhaps mounting a dialogue with other nations about artistic freedom of expression. Cuba is not the only country that censors its artists. In the 90s in the U.S. we were in the thick of what is known as the “Culture Wars.”  My political act of choice would be to go to the biennial and find creative ways to engage.