It might have been the estimable Andrew Mueller, often of this parish, who described Cuba as “North Korea with palm trees”, but I’d beg to differ. Do they dance in Pyongyang like they do in Havana? Where are North Korea’s good-time exports? Exactly: I’ll bet a barrel of Havana Club’s oak-aged best and a box of Cohiba Siglo VIs that no-one can name a desirable thing rolled on the thighs of a desirable thing that comes out of the fun-free, speed-marching not-so-superpower.
But hey, I was lucky to see the fun side of Fidel’s fiefdom; I was there for the Havana Biennial. It’s the 11th such celebration of art in Cuba’s capital – would you believe it? – and it represented a sunny city with some dark problems making the best of what art and artists and talking and international attention can do. They call it a “session” in psychotherapy, but it’s a “dialogue” in the art world: going back a bit to move forward and considering what the hell’s happening around you as an artist. And when you’re a Cuban artist, you have a lot of bones to pick with your government, maybe, or how the rest of the world seems to pity you , certainly, and about all the rest of the things that a sensitive soul with a blank canvas can tell us about where he comes from and what it can teach us about ourselves.
The Biennial showed shows by Cuban artists and the rest of the world (with a few guess-who omissions) all over Havana, from the Gran Teatro de la Habana on Parque Central to La Cabana Fortaleza, the castle and arsenal across the water. The Pabellon Cuba, a giant, elegant concrete roof, shielded more projects from South American artists, from the elements. Witty video, striking installations, genre-bending sculpture, not much painting: mixed media about the mixed blessings of being from that most misunderstood island.
Conga lines of international journalists queued for their dialogue with the Biennial under the 34 degree winter sun. Critics and curators squinted at catalogues and notebooks, cameras overheated and photographers endured cramp in their trigger fingers as they competed to shoot the shot that defined showing cutting-edge contemporary art under a Communist flag. Water was drunk, but mostly rum. People went back to the hotel for a lie-down after lunch, such was the power of Cuban art.
I soldiered on manfully through daiquiris at Hemingway’s beloved Floridita, more mojitos at collectors’ colonial pads, ice-cold Cristals (that’s the native lager) on the way to galleries and parks where artists worked with tradesmen on creating houses to put art in. Great big structural things made of clay and brick and wire and net and wood and steel, some like gazebos, some like tree-houses, others like pepper-pots, still more like dwellable snakes of fabric and mesh, all like tagines, though, in which you’d bake in if you dwelt too long. They looked like art, or houses made with the imagination of artists rather than the stricture of architects and they looked like the cityscape itself: a thing of beautiful ruin, vivid paint, intricate detail, noble rot.
Go and see it. Sail to it or fly. Buy a painting if you can resist not nicking a bit of a ¡Viva la Revolucion! mural from some roadside or other. Vive la North Korea with palm trees, if you really must.