Just Back From

Havana Biennial

I don’t know whether I was more excited to visit Cuba for the first time or to return a year later. Never have 12 months made such a difference for a destination from a tourism standpoint. My inaugural trip, in 2014 was eye-opening, soul-enriching and heartbreaking. My return, in May 2015 (six months after President Obama met with Raul Castro and began to ease the American restrictions on visiting the island nation) was bound to be politically charged, hopeful and prescient of a new chapter.

A lot can happen in a year. I was there to lead the Indagare Insider Trip for the 12th Cuba Biennial and the energy of the event was palpable even from the Miami airport. What last year was a terminal that resembled a scene from The Shining was now positively buzzing with well-dressed Americans. The charter flight, on an old Chinese Airlines jet, was a party complete with drinks being passed around—at 10am. Everyone is excited about Cuba opening up to Americans and nowhere is this more apparent than in the art world.

The visit mixed five days of visiting galleries, museums and Biennial exhibitions with a healthy dose of classic Havana tourism (Hemingway’s house, Finca Vigia should absolutely not be missed and a ride in a 1950s Buick convertible will forever be thrilling) and the overriding theme was clear: Cuba is having another revolucion, but this time it’s cultural.

As always, the best parts of the trip were the personal interactions that we all had with locals and specialists. My small group's favorite experience was having dinner with an American television news correspondent based in Havana and his Cuban-Panamanian wife who owns a cooperative-style shop in Miramar that sells handmade works by Cubans. We were invited to the Mexican Embassy and after meeting the ambassador and his wife, had cocktails in the magnificent garden alongside dignitaries—both political and those of the art world. We wandered the closed-down Malecón on foot, mingling with locals and international hipsters, listening to Jazz bands and checking out the installations and sculptures set along the famous sea wall.

The visit culminated on our final night in Cuba when we went to Fábrica de Arte Cubano, a space devoted to the arts (visual and otherwise) that I had discovered on my first visit. Back then the venue was a ramshackle, derelict factory with peeling walls and some space dividers holding photographs. Now, it is Havana’s most beloved hot spot that celebrates visiting and Cuban artists, their fans and the process. It is the perfect analogy of the country’s art scene—the passion and talent were there long ago, but with interest and money beginning to flow in from the U.S. and beyond, they are just now hitting their stride. It seems that here—once more—life has imitated art.

Published onMay 29, 2015

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