HAVANA (Reuters) - A group of Cuban artists launched an alternative arts festival this weekend in Havana in response to the Communist government saying it was postponing the official biennial by a year to prioritize funding on rebuilding after Hurricane Irma.
The artists had been indignant at the delay of the state-run arts extravaganza, which typically takes over Havana for a month and allows them to showcase their art to international collectors, galleries and curators.
They said they felt the decision to postpone it to 2019 had to do with the political transition this year and a fear of anything that could cause instability. Cuba named a new president last month, Miguel Diaz-Canel, to replace Raul Castro.
While the “00Biennial” which runs for 10 days until May 15 does not have the scope of the official one, it is offering an unusual independent platform for artists in a country where the state dominates all aspects of society.
The government has criticized it as a “provocative maneuver” but allowed it to go ahead, something unthinkable 10 years ago, according to organizer and artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara.
“We are not against the Havana biennial,” Otero Alcantara told the crowd at the event’s inauguration on Saturday outside his home in Old Havana which is hosting a dozen exhibits.
“But why should we not project our ideas from an alternative platform or that of individual art?”
Cuba punches above its weight culturally, partly because the Communist government has invested in heavily in the arts since the country’s 1959 revolution, seeking to make culture less elitist and more universally accessible.
Otero Alcantara said the 00Biennial, which is taking place in the independent studios that have flourished throughout Havana in recent years as the country has opened up, does not aim to attack Cuban institutions or showcase political art.
However, Cuba’s National Union of Writers and Artists accused it this week of creating “a climate propitious to promoting the interests of the enemies of the nation.”
Cuba’s longtime foe, the United States, has in the past provided funds to promote anti-establishment artists as part of efforts to foster political change on the island.
Many Cuban artists say they are tired of that being used as an excuse to shut down independent arts movements, and complained about pressure from authorities not to participate.
The 00Biennial is focused on a wide range of artists, including Cuba’s rappers who usually struggle to reach their public given a state monopoly on media and other public spaces.
But it is also showcasing artists working within the establishment, like Reynier Leyva Novo, who has exhibited work at the official Havana Biennial as well as the Cuban state pavilion at the Venice Biennial.
In what he called a performance, Leyva Novo sold an artwork to the National Council of Visual Arts and donated the $3,800 payment to the 00Biennial, to undercut government accusations of it receiving “funds of the mercenary counter-revolution.”
“They try to discredit you saying you are counterrevolutionary,” he said. “But really this is a genuine cultural project in the absence of an official space.”
Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Lisa Shumaker