After our cab driver takes us what feels far away from the city center of Havana—past brightly colored houses, ominous government buildings, and a circus tent—Ellen and I finally arrive at the Instituto Superior de Artes (ISA), or Higher Institute of Art. Here a few short but inviting buildings are hugged by rolling green lawns unlike anywhere else I’ve seen in Havana. A creek winds its way around the low hills and small wooded areas. We aren’t sure, but I think we even spot a triangular flag or two—our colleague Pablo wasn’t kidding when he said the art school was built on a country club golf course.
Unsure of where we’re going, we follow people with Havana Biennial tote bags. Bright sunlight beats down as we trek across a bridge, up stairs, and along a long white edifice. Around the back of the building, we come to crumbling, shallow stairs that lead downward. At the bottom, red-bricked domes with dark, open archways beckon us closer. Is this where the Gabriel Orozco piece is supposed to be?
These are, in fact, the ruins of a former ballet school, which house Orozco’s mysterious installation for the 11th Havana Biennial. Designed in 1963 by Italian architect Vittorio Garatti, the impressive, if decaying, mass of open-air rooms sets the stage for Orozco and ISA students’ interventions. The interventions range from the obvious (cleanly rendered circles in rooms otherwise filled with dirt, neatly arranged shards of glass) to the subtle (piles of debris or leaves, dust swept from everywhere within a room except a tiny tangle of wire). Cutouts of sunlight created by skylights emphasize the circular forms of the rooms as well as Orozco’s interventions. It feels as if you’re wandering through the remains of a long-forgotten ritual. Each step in each room is laden with the potential for discovery.
A sense of discovery was an ongoing theme for my week-long trip to the 11th Havana Biennial with my colleague Ellen Grenley. The exhibition spaces for the biennial were scattered across the city in museums, galleries, and studios, but also in notable movie theaters, hotels, and the historic Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña. The sprawl of the exhibitions allowed me to explore a number of historic sites, and offered a terrific introduction to Cuba’s capital city for a first time visitor. I encountered unexpected sculptures and murals while aimlessly strolling the streets of Habana Vieja, the recently restored historic city center.
Taking a break in the majestic Hotel Inglaterra after missing a scheduled street performance, Ellen and I found an exhibition of collages by Cuban artists Lourdes León and Alexandra Cué instead. Armed with the suggestions of my MoMA supervisor and biennial artist Pablo Helguera, as well as several newsprint biennial programs and maps, I was never lost for long, with new works finding me along the way.
Participating biennial artists ranged from the local to the international, their works often evoking ideas of migration, nostalgia, identity, and desire. Prominently exhibited works by Sandra Ramos and Abel Barroso captured the social and political tensions between Cuba and the United States, depicting the individual and institutional challenges to travel between the two countries. Other works originally created in other countries were deepened within the Cuban context. Watching videos in the exhibition Cinema Remixed and Reloaded: Black Women and the Moving Image Since 1970 alongside Afro Cubans and other African Americans gave me a special opportunity to reflect on the diversity of the experiences of women from the African diaspora. The exhibition’s inclusion in the biennial was especially poignant, as its curators Andrea Barnwell Brownlee and Valerie Cassel Oliver were the first American curators to participate in the Havana Biennial. By the end of my trip, I came to understand the biennial’s theme “Artistic Practices and Social Imaginaries” as an exploration of how the identities of individuals, social groups, and locations are formed and altered, explicitly and implicitly, through the details of lived experience. Much like traversing a new city, our understandings of other people are an ongoing process of reinterpretation and discovery.