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Havana Biennial Art Exhibition: The story of more than 30 years of art reaching out from Cuba

The Havana Biennial Art Exhibition, which started in 1984, takes place every two years. It shows off the art of what's seen as a politically repressive society, where there's a fine line to walk when it comes to making a statement.

Stuart Ashman, head of Long Beach's Museum of Latin American Art, has been attending the Havana Biennial since 1997. His parents were Cuban immigrants, taking him to the United States two years after Fidel Castro's Cuban Revolution.

Ashman says that Cuba continues to change and evolve — in the '60s and '70s, "all of the art that was coming out of Cuba had either something to do with the Revolution or had to be in support of what was going on there," Ashman says.

"In 1980, a group of artists got together. These were artists that were well-known in Cuba, and they had been doing abstract art and photography, and things like that that had nothing to do with those themes, and they created an exhibit called 'Volumen Uno,' 'Volume One.' And it was in an alternative space, and the interest was so big that the Ministry of Culture came in and said 'OK, you guys are doing something that everybody cares about, so what should we do?' And that's when they instituted the Havana Biennial," Ashman says.

The Biennial started a few years after "Volumen Uno." It's known as the biennial of the developing world, but it also includes the United States, England, France, Portugal, Brazil and more. Despite the issues around freedom of expression in Cuba, Ashman says that most artists feel they can say whatever they want. One example: Esterio Segura.

"He did a series on Pinocchio. And Pinocchio, as you know, the more he lies, the longer his nose gets. And so Pinocchio is standing on a stack of books, and his nose is actually a rope, and the rope has gotten so long that it's tied him up, and the books that he's standing on are the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, USSR, etcetera. And so here's something he's saying that is criticizing that philosophy, in a sense, and it's perfectly fine and totally acceptable. Now, what is not acceptable may be a depiction of Fidel doing something weird, or in an unflattering way," Ashman says.

One artist who has faced opposition from the Cuban government is Tania Bruguera, whose work promotes democracy. She's had her passport seized and has been detained.

"She's the sand in the oyster. That's her work. I think the Cuban position is that she really wasn't doing a performance piece, that she was actually fomenting some kind of dissent. And it was really an unfortunate moment for her to be doing that, because it was when the negotiations were starting. And it was delicate. You didn't really want something that was going to further upset the opponents of opening on both sides. So, I wouldn't necessarily characterize her piece as an artistic expression that was squelched. I would actually say that what was squelched was her attempt at a political demonstration," Ashman says.

Ashman says that, with relations warming between the U.S. and Cuba, it's become relatively easy to stage shows with Cuban artists.

"The U.S. Immigration Service has been giving artists who have proven themselves five-year multiple-entry visas. What makes it difficult is the transportation, because there's not enough big airplanes. I did a show in New Mexico when I was there, and we shipped the stuff from Cuba, to Paris; from Paris, to Mexico City; and then by truck from Mexico City to Albuquerque," Ashman says. "And occasionally you get a U.S. Customs officer that you have to recite the rules to, that art is exempt from the embargo."

The normalizing of relations with Cuba has been long awaited.

"To be honest, I didn't think it was going to happen in my lifetime. So, I think it's going to change everything in a very positive way for both sides. I mean, the impact of Cuba on the United States maybe is less than the impact of the United States in Cuba, certainly economically. Culturally, I think, it might be equal, because there's a lot of stuff that we think of as Latino that comes really from Cuba — music, food, dance," Ashman says.

Ashman says that Cubans love Americans.

"If you ask a Cuban, 'who are you most like,' they say 'USA man, USA.' That's who they want to be. And that doesn't mean McDonald's on every corner. I think there's going to be some adjustment that they're going to have to make, but they're eager," Ashman says.

When it comes to what Ashman is looking forward to at this year's Biennial, he cited Juanito Delgado, who does a project called "Detrás del Muro."

"What he does is he commandeers the Malecón, the sea wall, and he does installations there. And some of them have a real political viewpoint. On the sea wall, he'll put up a chain link fence, and enough links were removed to make it look like a 747. So you're looking through an airplane to the ocean, and what's to the north is Miami. However, there was another guy who did a virtual installation of a runway on the water, and that wasn't allowed," Ashman says.

Ashman added that the people making these decisions aren't necessarily that well-informed about the art.

"The other is an artist who does mirror images of words, and in Spanish, the word 'exito' is 'success,' so he put the word 'exit, exito.' So he implied that leaving was a success. That wasn't allowed. It's in the [Biennial] catalog, it's published in the book, and nobody took him to jail, but he couldn't do it as a public piece," Ashman says.

The 12th Havana Biennial takes place May 22 through June 22. The theme: "Between the Idea and Experience."