8 Questions for Nelson Herrera Ysla, Curator of the 2019 Havana Biennial
What makes the Havana Biennale special?
I think what Havana Biennial so special is that it was the first of its kind, starting in 1986. It included artists from “third world countries”, when no one in the international art events world was doing that.
It was a great and important step in order to dignify and promote a large number of artistic expressions in the international world of art. It never happened before, though the Venice Biennial, Sidney Biennial, Documenta of Kassel, and San Pablo Biennial did a good job to invite a lot of artists, mostly form the developing countries. They never looked to our regions, to our cultural manifestations: actually they held prejudices about our artistic forces, sense of beauty, freedom and richness in cultural fields. They were more interested in music, dance, and folk art. That’s why our artists were always considered as näif artists and not real and valuable contemporary artists
In this sense, and in an effort to strike back all these prejudices and this kind of marginalization, the Havana Biennial opened several doors to artists that never were recognized in the global artistic scene.
The goal of our curatorial staff has always been in search of unknown artists, most of them very young, and they offer new ways to express deep ideas in terms of social and individual behaviors, political matters, racism, ecological subjects, violence, etc.
The Habana Biennial is very inclusive because we occupy a big part of the city, many neighborhoods, social and cultural institutions, large and small communities of people. If you want to see everything in this Biennial you will take a ride around this historical and modern city that, by the way, next year is going to celebrate its 500 years of existence.
Can you describe the energy and atmosphere in Havana during the Biennale?
It is powerful because many people and artists are involved in Biennial, even official and cultural institutions. At the same time, we include several private and alternative galleries, in home of artists, paladares, hostals, and others places where visitors can find music, dance and audiovisuals expressions.
One of the main sites where you can find some of the new visual expressions of art during the Biennial is the traditional malecón, the famous seawall in old Havana, because we are inviting more tan 40 international artists to show there their works there on the sidewalk, small squares, big pubic walls, balconies of ruined houses, etc.
For the first time there will be an architectural and cultural project to modify the 3km Linea Street in the Vedado neighborhood. In this project, people, visitors, will see changes in facades of theaters, small parks, galleries, coffee shops, restaurants… and in the urban furniture, public lightings, trees. It will be a new Cultural Corridor lead by a group of architects, graphic and industrial designers, social experts, and artists of course.
With sites all over the city, how does the Biennale encourage participation by locals?
Different neighborhoods will take part in Biennial. Some of them will be part of artistic projects lead by artists. So, students, neighbors, aged people, dancers, will be involved in a kind of collaborative projects thanks to the individual experiences of some artists, including Cuba, in many countries. The Habana Biennial will show art works outside cultural institutions, in public venues we are coordinating now and its take into account people of every social area.
For instance, we intend to have the participation of a very famous chef will cook his new plates at a kitchen in a big workshop of Cuban food. The Biennal will include people from all of Cuban society, from musicians to bartenders to kids, and it will be accessible to handicapped people and serve outdoors communities as well.
Do you expect many international visitors, including Americans?
Of course. We received a lot of personal and institutional questions from many countries asking for timing, locations, performances, different activities of Biennial.
But, visitors are always a kind of surprise. I remember more than three thousand Americans came to Havana in 2000. More than five thousand Americans came for the next one. It was exciting.
Every Biennial is extremely fascinating for people interested in art everywhere, especially United States. We are ready to receive a large amount of Americans in 2019.
Is there one exhibit or event from a past Biennale that sticks out in your mind?
I remember many exhibits and events from the past Biennial 2015: a performance of Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto at Paula’s Church in Old Havana, some installations at traditional Malecon (a modest scale of an artificial beach, a big pot crossed by thousands of forks, old doors at Centro Habana re-painted by French artist Daniel Buren, and the solo exhibition of Indian British artist Anish Kapoor at Chinatown, etc.
For me is impossible to remember everyone but I felt impressed by other art works in past Biennials, since 1994 till the last one. Artists from South Africa, Colombia, México, Brazil, Philipines, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Senegal, Tunis, Dominican Republic, Chili, Egypt, Nigeria, among others, left in my mind amazing remembers that I never forget. They are part of my hard disk of visual art that always accompanied me.
How has the event changed over the years and what will make the 2019 Biennale different?
Every Biennial is different from the previous one. We intend for this to happen.
Every time, we push the Biennial against the wall in search of new ways to show art. We try to go in search of more and more people who never deal with art. Our main goal is to extend the perception of art, especially the new artistic trends that comes from new technologies, medias, collaborative projects, and mappings, video-installations, net art, etc. It means not only paintings, photography, engraving, drawing, sculpture that are very well known of everybody in the entire world.
The difference of this upcoming Biennial consists in that will bring art to people in other cities in Cuba, not only Havana. We will spread out the Biennial in other cities like Pinar del Río, Matanzas, Cienfuegos and Camagüey, for first time in our history. These cities will host several artistic projects with kids and young people, the opening of a Cultural Coffee, art works on the seashore… and a small sample of an International Video Festival. And, last but not least, a construction of a 1 kilometer of way in the countryside, close to the National Highway in the center of the Island (almost 300 kilometers away from Havana) for enjoy forest, agricultural fields, and exchange talks and conversations in a kind of huge ride inside Cuban nature.
As you see, we will try to make Biennial as part of other cities and audiences, not only Havana. It is a big challenge, of course. But we feel that this special experience in terms of a new appreciation of art is a good way to be closer with more and more people.
That is why we propose some kind of changes in every edition of Biennial. So, it is not a static or inflexible art event. We take a lot of risks all the time, mainly, of course, when we invite young and unknown artists. Every year, we add a portion of more risk, in other words, we add a little more fire to the oven.
Some artists have said this year’s Biennale is needed more than ever, what’s your interpretation of that statement?
Well, I guess we are living hard times in term of economy, material infrastructure, and public transportation in Havana. But, every Biennial happens in the middle of a sort of turmoil, and the next one is no exception. We are used to dealing with a lot of bureaucracy, a lack of goods, articles, equipment, tools, art supplies. Nothing like that is new for us.
But, I love to say that we are supported by the National Council of Fine Arts, the Ministry of Culture and the Office of Historian of City. And we appreciate that. They take care of our basic needs to preserve Biennial and go ahead every time. I think this art event would be unfeasible, a dream, without the help of all of them.
Yes, we need any kind of help, probably more than ever. That’s is why we appeal to everybody that hopes to collaborate and help us. Many people outside Cuba trust in us. Many people think it is a way to maintain the strength and force of Cuban social project. Visual arts and culture in general are a kind of columns that withstand in all of our lives.
We are here, in this art world, to face any kind of bad conditions. Obstacles and hard battles are always welcome because, believe or not, they are ways to prove our imagination and strong spirit. Art will not save the world but, of course, but it can improve a lot of people’s lives a little bit.
Do you have to be an artist or an art lover to enjoy the event?
Definitely not! We try to make every Biennial more accessible for everyone. I know it is hard because contemporary art is not easy to understand. Sometimes it becomes cryptic or enigmatic, mainly when artists love to use new artistic languages, very different to the traditional painting, drawing, sculpture we are used to dealing with.
You must be open to a new era in art. You must make an effort in to understand not just traditional art, but also different and new art forms that have been created in the 21st century.
Art Biennial is a new context, a new kind of environment to show art. You must be more open to changes because life, in general, is a constant change everywhere and all the time. Look around you in streets: people using cell phones, tablets, electric cars, calling Ubers, drones, using big digital screens, it is so different from even 10 years ago.
And people need to change too. We have immense change in technology everyday. Why it is not possible in art as well?
So, we need to show new kinds of art in the Biennial. We believe this is one way to show people how art is changing and how much you need to change your appreciations of visual culture, your feelings and emotions, and to reflect about your mind and your inner life. Life is not only what you find in street or inside your house. You must approach to new experiences in films, literature, dance, music, architecture….and art.
I am optimistic the 2019 Biennial will help people to understand their life and life in general better.
The 2019 Havana Biennial is happening April 12-May 12, 2019 in Havana and all over Cuba. It will feature hundreds of artists from over 40 countries and interactive exhibits across the island. Interested in backstage access? Sign up for CET's Biennial trip here.