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The woman trying to change Cuba’s cultural landscape – and stay out of jail

The woman trying to change Cuba’s cultural landscape – and stay out of jail
Tania raised more than $100,000 to open the Institute of Art
Activism in Havana, where Pussy Riot are the first artists-in-residence
Hannah Ellis-Petersen
Sunday 10 April 2016 15.09 BST Last modified on Monday 11 April 2016

In the past decade, few have been more of a thorn in the side of the
Cuban government than Tania Bruguera. The Havana-born artist’s staging
of provocative works condemning repression and championing of
in her troubled home country has repeatedly landed her in
jail – including as recently as last year; in custody she has been the
subject of both physical and psychological interrogation at the hands of
the Cuban authorities.

But nothing, it seems, can keep Bruguera down. She is about to embark on
her most politically agitative project yet – one which she hopes will
change the cultural landscape of Cuba for ever.

Following an online fundraising campaign that raised more than $100,000
(£70,000), the artist is to open the Institute of Art Activism in
Havana, the first “safe haven for freedom of expression” in Cuba. From
September, the first artists-in-residence will be the Russian feminist
punk collective Pussy Riot, who are no strangers to using art as a way
to challenge government censorship.

With Cuba opening up to the world through restored diplomatic relations
with the US and welcoming foreign corporations into the country,
Bruguera said it was essential that Cubans had a place they could freely
deliberate over the direction their country was heading.

“This is the moment of change in Cuba, when we have a moment as
activists and artists in to challenge what is being proposed for our
country,” she told the Guardian. “I do believe in the power of art to
change society but I know this cannot be done alone, and it takes a long
time. It is now or never, and that goes beyond my personal safety, my
personal quality of life.”

For security reasons Bruguera would not confirm any of the programme,
but she said the projects would bring together art and politics to
engage and provoke a Cuban audience who had become conditioned into
political apathy – and self censorship – by 57 years of cultural and
political repression. In practical terms, she also wants the institute
to generate jobs and help eliminate systemic political .

Pussy Riot said they were not going to the institute to have their own
voices heard, but “to see if we can assist others in making theirs heard”.

“Artists around the world are increasingly waking up to their
potentialities in terms influencing social change, and power centres can
often be intimidated by that – both Tania and we have experienced what
that looks like,” the group said.

The idea to open a permanent art institute in Cuba’s capital first came
to Bruguera as she was staging a political artwork in her home in Havana
in 2015, where she encouraged people from her neighbourhood to read
pages from Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism – a book that
spoke directly to Cuba’s own repressive regime.

“My neighbours were calling me crazy because the book was so clearly so
critical of the Cuban government, but that moment I saw that they
understood. I knew then that this was exactly what I should be doing in
a sustainable and long term way. A one day performance doesn’t change
anything – I want to do it all the time,” said Bruguera.

Yet Bruguera acknowledges it will not be an easy opening an institute in
direct opposition to the government’s own agenda. The Cuban authorities
retain strict control over the cultural landscape, banning all art and
film that is “detrimental” to the image of Cuba. In the case of
Bruguera, and Cuban graffiti artist El Sexto, breaking these cultural
laws leads directly to . Obama’s first visit to the country in
March prompted the arrest of about 60 pro-democracy protesters, many of
whom were artists and musicians.

Bruguera said a smear campaign against her had already begun: days after
she launched the online fundraiser an anonymous letter was sent to
Havana’s artistic community that cast doubt on her motivations for the

The artist says she expects such intimidation tactics are “just the

However, Bruguera believes the biggest challenge is to convince Cubans
from all walks of life – not just artists and intellectuals – to come
through the doors of the institute without fear of retribution from
government or .

She hopes she will be able to convince one person in particular: “I
would like my interrogator to come to the institute, she will be
welcome,” said Bruguera. “But as soon as she steps inside the institute,
she is not entering as a repressor or an agent of the government or as
an interrogator – she enters as a Cuban, and, just like us all, will
have to respect the institute’s rules of respect, transparency and

Source: The woman trying to change Cuba’s cultural landscape – and stay
out of jail | World news | The Guardian –

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