Tania Bruguera – Cuban artist fights for free expression
Tania Bruguera: Cuban artist fights for free expression
How the internationally renowned dissident artist turned a performance
piece into a fight for freedom of expression.
by Carlos Manuel Alvarez
Carlos Manuel Alvarez is a Cuban journalist.
Havana, Cuba – It is December 17, 2014 and the Cuban artist Tania
Bruguera is at Pope Francis’ weekly public mass at the Vatican.
As a political artist, Bruguera has developed one of the most powerful
bodies of work in installation and performance art in Latin America. She
has come to Rome to present the pope with elements from her campaign,
Dignity has no Nationality. It is part of her new project – a public
political platform called the International Immigrants’ Movement.
On the train to Venice, where she’ll be participating in a performance
art festival, Bruguera gets the news: after more than a year of secret
negotiations, Cuba and the United States have announced the restoration
of diplomatic relations.
“I became very anxious … fearful, hopeful, all at once,” she says. “An
event like this marks a separation between the present and the past. You
wonder, what’s to be done now?”
She continues: “In a way, something like this means everyone has a new
role, as if the parts are being reshuffled; the old metaphors suddenly
acquiring new meaning. Everything becomes re-contextualised.”
Two days later, she publishes an open letter to Raul Castro on Facebook.
It is the first action of Yo Tambien Exijo (YTE), which means I Also
Demand, a civic platform made up of a group of friends and colleagues,
with Bruguera as its main spokeswoman.
“I found it suspicious that the government would try to sell an image to
the world that portrayed everyone in Cuba as being happy with the
agreement with the US. The government has always felt entitled to the
feelings of its citizens, and thus acted as Cubans’ only legitimate
spokesperson. In my interpretation, people weren’t happy. People were
shocked. They felt a certain hope, a hope that they hadn’t felt for
years, the hope that something might change. But that’s not the same as
happiness…,” Bruguera says.
“Cuba’s president simply informs us. He dictates new resolutions without
us knowing what sort of external pressures or intentions lie behind
them. That’s because in Cuba, there is no institutional transparency.
“A president should navigate with its people through a political process
like this, because it is also an emotional one. I find it as much an act
of violence to say something can’t be done as to say now everyone is
obliged to do it.”
Bruguera announces on social media that she intends to restage her
performance on free speech, Tatlin’s Whisper.
In the piece, which was last performed in Havana at the 2009
Biennial, participants are given a microphone and one minute to speak
about anything they choose.
In a country where many believe the only microphone belongs to the
state, the 2009 performance was an unprecedented event where even
dissidents had a platform.
This time, however, Bruguera says she wants to bring the performance to
a public space, preferably Plaza de la Revolucion or Revolution Square –
the government’s symbolic bastion.
Revolution Square or ‘Censorship Square’?
But it soon becomes evident that Bruguera’s proposal isn’t welcomed by
Various government-run blogs, magazines and online newspapers begin
to portray her as a peon serving those pushing for the US annexation of
Cuba or as attempting to destabilise the government.
Raul Capote, a former state security agent turned blogger, writes (link
in Spanish): “They’re not interested in peace or freedom of expression,
but in sparking confrontation, provoking confusion and instability, at a
time when the fascist right in Miami is shaking before the end of its
hegemony of terror.”
Her attempt at political intervention is framed as an act of political
In such moments, one lives in the present, Bruguera says.
“You enter this state, this state in which you are very much alert,
trying to understand the semantic consequences of your actions, and how
they are interpreted,” she says. “You are trying to keep them from
sequestering your own story.”
A symptom, which will dictate the events to come, begins to emerge.
Pablo Helguera, the director of adult academic programmes at New York’s
Museum of Modern Art, MoMA, describes it on Facebook (link in
Spanish): “It is impossible to think of a relevant artistic action in
the second decade of the 21st century that hasn’t been mediatised – or
in which such mediatisation isn’t part of the work itself.
“Tania’s work is precisely that – a campaign – and whatever occurs or
doesn’t occur within it is part of the work. It’s no surprise that the
government stumbled into it like one stumbles into a black hole.”
Others criticise Bruguera, saying she has allowed political dissident
groups to usurp her performance.
Bruguera says that both government and dissident forces seized upon her
work at some point, mostly without really understanding it, after
discovering an element worth exploiting for their own political goals.
But, she tells herself, she has worked with dissidents and activists in
Europe and the United States who have used her work for various ends, so
why not let those in her own country do so?
Over the next few days, a struggle ensues between Bruguera and Cuba’s
She visits the Havana police and the national police to ask about the
permits she needs for her performance. But no one knows the answer; a
regulatory limbo is imposed.
She has two meetings with Ruben del Valle, the president of the National
Council of Plastic Arts (CNAP), who suggests alternative venues, like
the National Museum of Fine Arts. For Bruguera, Revolution Square is
vital to the performance, but she nevertheless accepts del Valle’s
alternative and agrees to a reduced performance of 90 minutes.
But before they finalise a deal, del Valle says the museum must choose
the show’s participants.
For Bruguera, this amounts to killing the performance.
She decides that the performance belongs in Revolution Square.
Revolution Square has become Censorship Square, she argues.
A first act of political rebellion
Forty-eight-year-old Bruguera grew up in the upmarket Havana
neighbourhood of El Vedado. Her father, Miguel Brugueras, was an
underground militant during the Batista dictatorship and became a
diplomat after 1959. He was a trusted ally of the revolution’s senior
Miguel Brugueras’ family never knew what he did on his trips abroad.
According to Bruguera, he rarely spoke. At 18, in reaction to her
father, Bruguera dropped the last letter of her surname and along with
it lost any possible inheritance, either material or symbolic. It was
her first act of political rebellion.
Between 1980 and 1983, she studied at the Elementary School of Plastic
Arts in Havana and later attended the San Alejandro Fine Arts
School, where she was a student until 1987. In 1992 she graduated with a
degree in painting from Cuba’s prestigious arts university,
the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA).
It was a time of upheaval in Cuban art.
As Cuban essayist and intellectual Rafael Rojas argues (link in
Spanish), “Between the 80s and 90s, a generation of plastic artists
carried out a renovation of Cuba’s cultural life. This was a generation
that, while pertaining to the Soviet bloc, was aware of the most
groundbreaking movements taking place in Western art, and attempted to
assimilate and adapt them into the Cuban context. Among the most
emblematic artists in that transition was Tania Bruguera.”
Over the next two decades, Bruguera would maintain an influential
presence in Cuba, mostly as a teacher at the ISA through her renowned
Behaviour Art programme, which she established in 2002.
She simultaneously built a powerful international career. She has dealt
with subjects such as migrants’ rights, the use and proliferation of
weapons, drugs in Colombia and violence on the Mexican border. She
taught at the University of Chicago, as well as at the National School
of Fine Arts in Paris, and won distinctions like the Guggenheim
Fellowship (1998) and the Prince Claus Award (2008).
But around Christmas of 2014, things began to crumble.
“It was the first time Tania was doing a specifically political project
in direct reference to Cuba,” Clara Astiasaran, an art critic, curator
and YTE member, explains.
“Her work has always been political, but this time she was directly
addressing the nation’s president regarding a foreign policy decision
that was key to Cuba’s nation-building efforts over the past 60 years –
the idea of anti-imperialism.”
On the evening of December 29, Bruguera feels scared for the first time.
She goes for a walk, feeling confused. The performance has been
announced for 3pm the next day, but friends have warned her that she
won’t be allowed to attend.
She contemplates her options: she could sleep at someone else’s house,
dress up as a homeless person and show up unannounced at the square,
or she could wander around town until the show starts.
Instead, she walks to her mother’s house in Vedado and starts making
phone calls, inviting artists and friends, trying her best to make the
situation appear as ordinary as possible.
The next morning at 5.30am there’s a knock on the door.
From her balcony, Bruguera can see the political police surround her
building. Certain of what’s about to happen, she sits down with her
mother and 94-year-old aunt and asks them to stay calm, no matter what.
It’s not until noon – after picturing the reaction at Revolution
Square when people realise that she’s not there and fearing a breakout
of violence – that Bruguera takes off her glasses and jewellery and
opens the door.
She doesn’t see anyone so she calls out and a couple of officers appear.
Bruguera has already tried contacting her sister in Italy to ask her to
announce the performance’s cancellation, but ETECSA, the state-run
telecommunications company, has cut off her landline and mobile phone.
She is charged with incitement to break the law, inciting public unrest
and resisting the authorities, which is later dropped when it becomes
apparent that she never resisted. Her Cuban passport is confiscated.
Bruguera is driven to the first of more than 30 interrogations she will
be subjected to.
Detention and interrogation
At 3pm, a calm hangs over Revolution Square. It is hard to believe that
it is at the centre of such turbulent events.
There are some international reporters, carrying their credentials, and
a few cameras on tripods, along with the usual symbols: the statue of
Jose Marti, the silhouette sculpture of Che Guevara on the facade of the
Ministry of Interior building and of Camilo Cienfuegos on the
Communications Ministry building, the Jose Marti National Library and
the National Theatre.
There are also dozens of curious bystanders, standing in groups waiting
for Bruguera to arrive. They watch the side streets and try to divine
who among them is an undercover agent. Cars and buses drive up and down
Boyeros Avenue, just as on any other afternoon. An hour later, people
start to leave.
A few days earlier, graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado Machado, known as
El Sexto, had spray painted the names of Fidel and Raul on two pigs. He
was arrested as he tried to release them on to the street and sent to
As Bruguera is driven to a police station, several other activists and
well known political dissidents are arrested. Some weren’t even planning
on participating in Bruguera’s performance.
Earlier that day, CNAP had issued an official statement: “In light of
the circumstances, it is unacceptable to carry out the performance in
the symbolic venue of Plaza de la Revolucion, particularly given the
widespread coverage and manipulation the counterrevolutionary media have
been doing of this.”
At the police station, Bruguera is given an inmate’s uniform to wear.
She is locked in a cell with another woman, who, she concludes, must be
a government informant because of all the questions she asks about
“It was at that moment,” Bruguera says, “I learned that injustice has a
way of manifesting itself physically and isn’t just a concept. I stopped
eating, not out of courage, but because I thought what was being done to
me was unfair, and I had no other way of making that clear.”
A few officers interrogate her. Some are persuasive; others just shout.
She is then handed over to a psychologist who asks questions such as:
“What kind of television shows do you watch?”
She can’t tell whether this is supposed to push her to the point of
desperation or to help pass the time.
Back in her windowless cell, exhausted from so much conversation, she
tries to get some sleep. The next day she is released.
Having learned that other dissidents are still in prison, she heads to
El Maine monument, on Havana’s Malecon, where she makes a public appeal
for people to return to Revolution Square. She is again detained.
This time, she has another female cellmate.
“[She] looked like an undercover informant that had been planted there
to watch me,” Bruguera says.
“I didn’t want to speak with anyone, and she stayed relatively quiet and
polite. We didn’t talk about anything, other than her asking me whether
I was planning on eating, and me telling her, No, I’m not. At some
point, she started doing her hair and I ended up helping braid her hair
Three national security officers take turns to interrogate her: Agents
Andrea, Javier and Kenia, the lead investigator in her case. Bruguera
doesn’t know whether these are their real names.
Andrea is younger and the least experienced. Javier seems more seasoned.
He knows a lot about Cuban art in the 1980s, Bruguera’s career and even
tries to play mind games with her by reminding her about her father.
With Kenia, whose interrogation technique involves giving revolutionary
spiels while mixing in talk about personal things, she establishes a
more systematic interaction.
“There’s something interesting about Kenia; she seems like an honest
person,” Bruguera says. “I don’t know whether she is truly honest.
Things are not what they appear to be during interrogations.”
On New Year’s Eve, Bruguera is again released.
She welcomes 2015 with a court case against her, no passport, and unable
to leave town.
“The performance turned out to be not so much what didn’t happen at
Plaza de la Revolucion,” wrote Helguera (link in Spanish), “but the
display of hysteria and arrogance that ensued on the part of the Cuban
authorities … Cuba lives in a perpetual state of hysterical
manipulation, and any person – whether an artist or not – who manages to
break that balance will of course be viewed with terror and indignation.”
The line between empowerment and disengagement
In one of the few instances in which a Cuban artist or critic publicly
criticised Bruguera’s work, National Plastic Arts Award laureate Lazaro
Saavedra wrote in an essay(link in Spanish), “Just like with Tatlin’s
Whisper, in 2009, Tania will be leaving Cuba having scored yet another
‘goal’ for her artistic resume and amassed thousands of anecdotes.
“She will be criticised, and also celebrated for her braveness and
rebellious spirit in social media – both real and digital – and some
curator or critic will fittingly mention her in their writings about
contemporary art, etc. When she goes, she will be leaving behind her
thousands of Cubans fighting for our civil rights, and as always there
will be hundreds or thousands abroad pushing them. He who pushes doesn’t
According to him, “There is more provocation in Tania Bruguera’s YTE
than success or progress in regards to civil rights beyond what’s
obvious and has been said over and over: the government will not allow
open microphones or all voices to be heard.”
That is precisely the point some scholars might have made without the
risk of arrest: What happens when political art works within a society
but then gets recognition outside of it? What’s the line between
empowerment and disengagement?
Though many critics I spoke to disagreed with Bruguera’s work, they
would not publicly debate it, partly out of concern that they might be
seen as condoning the government’s actions.
Some critics say that had Bruguera carried out her performance inside a
museum she would have managed to mount a challenge to the high
bureaucrats of Cuban culture. But by taking it outside, she left culture
unchallenged and undisturbed, while her work was insubstantial from a
political standpoint, receiving scant public attention.
“As a creator,” Saavedra wrote, “Tania should have found an intelligent
way to circumvent censorship and formal structures of social control and
created a temporary autonomous zone where it would be possible to ‘open
microphones’ and let ‘all voices’ be heard. But she failed, and the
voices are still waiting to be heard.”
The performance continues
In early January 2015, more than 2,000 figures in the international art
scene begin demanding that Bruguera’s documents be returned to her after
her third arrest in 72 hours. On January 5, Bruguera returns her
National Culture Award and renounces her membership of the national
union of writers and artists. Two weeks later, she receives a case
number: No 25 for the year 2015.
Over the next month, police interrogations and citations
follow. Bruguera has to show up at the police station in Vedado, from
where she is driven around the city to various “interrogation sites”.
Some question why she always seems so willing to go and be interrogated.
“In order for it to work, the performance had to stick to the law,” she
says. “Since it’s dealing with the issue of tolerance, the work had to
show the control mechanisms the system has and all the legal
contradictions which exist in Cuba.”
At the end of January, YTE sends a letter to Raul Castro and Maria
Esther Reus Gonzalez, the justice minister, demanding they decriminalise
free expression and remove all charges against Bruguera.
In response, Kenia, the investigator, tells Bruguera that the prosecutor
hasn’t yet made a decision about her case and she will have to wait for
another 60 days.
Over the following months, the wave of international solidarity grows.
Renowned artists such as Anish Kapoor and Jeremy Deller sign an open
letter published in The Guardian.
She chronicles her experiences on social media. In one piece called The
Eyes of Power, she writes: “I have looked into the eyes of power for
four months now and throughout this time, I held my gaze, beginning a
journey into another Cuba, a Cuba that belongs to those fighting for
their right to free expression.
“Today, I’m in a Cuba that neither the tourists nor the businesspeople
calculating the risks of their investments on the island will see, nor
will the artists attending the Havana Biennial, because they will be
safely inside the bubble of the art world.”
On May 20, just before the Havana Biennial opens, Bruguera begins an
open-studio performance, a 100-hour reading of Hannah Arendt’s The
Origins of Totalitarianism at her home in Old Havana.
This reading is the first undertaking of the Institute of Artivism
Hannah Arendt (INSTAR), founded by Bruguera.
Although Bruguera thinks her performance has several endings and may not
yet have ended, the reading could be considered the culmination of her
work: what began as Tatlin’s Whisper and has continued with everything
that has happened since, the performance she has now titled
#YoTambienExijo, also the name of the platform, YTE, which she considers
part of the work.
“I think this work was quite a success, because I was able to try out
different theories I had about political art, which I had written about,
discussed at conferences, carried out separately in one or another work,
but here managed to lay out in a very clear way,” she says. “For
instance, one of the concepts that is present is what I call ‘doing work
for a specific political moment’. That is, when works don’t emerge out
of the artist’s personal, intimate desire but rather the political
conditions where they will be developed. That was very clearly the case.
“The other thing that was at play was the investigation I have been
doing for over 20 years about the limits between art and life, the
creation of moments during which those limits force you to ask a very
fruitful question – is that art you are being exposed to?
“Finally, I was able to experiment with the concept of behavioural art
in which the work becomes complete through the reaction of the audience
– their behaviour generates new content and meaning. This means there
are no right or wrong answers to the work, just honest answers.”
Astiasaran, the art critic and YTE member, believes the project was
successful at the time for two reasons. “It brought alliances from the
art world into politics,” she says, “and showed the path for different
agendas to become sovereign as well as politically and ideologically
On June 29, 2015, after a lengthy bureaucratic feud, the public
prosecutor’s office dictates that the case against her be
discontinued. Bruguera gets her passport back and on August 21, after
taking part in several marches with the dissident group the Ladies in
White, she flies out of Cuba.
Following months of organisation overseas through YTE, and after a
successful Kickstarter campaign raising more than $100,000, INSTAR is
formally launched on April 8, 2016.
In May, Bruguera returns to Cuba.
Her house now serves as INSTAR’s headquarters.
“This time of polarised feelings, of the lack of citizens’ resources to
change the course of things, calls for us to reclaim public space as a
civic space rather than a venue for propaganda where above all there is
a lack of transparency and institutional tolerance. Since the
government likes to simplify things into right or wrong, I would like to
share with others the construction of complex concepts or emotions, like
forgiveness,” she says.
Translated from Spanish to English by Alvaro Guzman Bastida.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not
necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
Source: Al Jazeera
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