Landscapes, plots and games at the National Museum

The 12th Biennial tours Havana.

The 12th Havana Biennial filled the city with images, installations, performances and favoured an explosion of visual arts impossible to get to know in its entirety by the dilated space of representations: La Cabaña, the two buildings of the National Museum, the Wifredo Lam Centre, the Hotel Nacional, the Art Factory, the town of Casablanca, the Malecón, the barrios, the communities…so many sites that it worried us.

We obviously had to choose which exhibits could interest us most, establish a hierarchy of places among the extensive spectrum of the Biennial, always thinking why this dilemma is forced on us and why there isn’t a projection of this level that is more step by step in time.


Though visual arts have made public spaces the object of frequent interventions, this Biennial accentuated this aim; thus, along the Malecón, among many other sites, we could see an installation that looked like a beach; a peculiar sculpture in the shape of a cake; a gigantic glass cube; or an ingenious exhibit of images of the National Prize of Visual Arts, Ernesto Fernández, technologically manipulated by his son by the same name.


One of the Biennial’s notable gains was having increased the presence of Cuban artists resident abroad, about some of whom we had updated information, but with others that had not been the case. They were present in the city’s institutional and public spaces.


Among the institutional ones the curatorships displayed in the building of Cuban art of the National Museum (Museum of Fine Arts) stood out with works by Tomás Sánchez, Gustavo Pérez Monzón and Wilfredo Prieto, because of the wealth of diversity of represented expressive forms. The first two are protagonists of the thematic and expressive revolution of the 1980s and whose names are inscribed in the history and the legend of Cuban visual arts. Also notable was the display of the Bronx Museum (New York) exhibited in the building of universal art of the National Museum.




The landscape work of Tomás Sánchez overflows the critical judgment, aesthetic appreciation, because his pieces occur and flow from the spirituality of the creator seeking the spiritual connection with the receiver, taking into account the very high level of the execution, the technical exquisiteness.


After having appreciated the superb beauty of his landscapes from previous decades, when we were charmed by the serenity that emanated from that conjunction between art and nature, the entrance of that conflicting element that is the garbage dump added an opposition, a breaking of the order, coming from society.


Now, in the eight pieces he is exhibiting in the Museum of Fine Arts, that battle (that is the name of one of his works) is taking place between humans, the spirit, nature, civilisation, order, chaos, creation, and it reminds us of that maxim of the Zen: “its mission [of art and the artist] is to reveal the secret harmony of things and the invisible presence that sustains them.”


Thus, a 250 x 200 acrylic and oil painting shows us a hyper-realistic garbage dump, with hundreds of objects – as many as the murders described by Roberto Bolaño in 2666, where the garbage dumps form part of the crime scene – that reach the sea’s horizon. A dark sky looks from above in that piece from 2015 with the suggestive title of Con la puerta abierta (With the Door Open) because of the role the door object is given in the composition.


It is followed by another work from 1992 where the garbage reaches up to the silhouette of a mountainous horizon, but instead of a door there is a man on a cross: Hombre crucificado en el basurero (Man Crucified on the Garbage Dump). Compared to the previous piece, here the sky is clear. In the following painting, from 2015 (La batalla) [The Battle], the artist shows trees fenced off by the garbage that fades in the horizon and a clear sky.


A symbolic reading of these works refers us to Levi-Straus, to the nature-culture opposition in anthropological studies; and it obviously leads us to the image of the crucifixion in Christian art in a fabric with other symbols like the tree of the world.


Here also we can place the piece Antagonismo (Antagonism; 2015) in which a close-up of a bundle of dark silver colour oilskin is presented disguising something (garbage, evil?); in the background, the forest; further away, the cloudy, semi-dark horizon.


As if to balance off these four pieces, in the other quartet made up by Orilla (River Bank; 1996), Adoración (Adoration; 2005), Aislado (Isolated; 2015) and Entre silencios (Among Silences; 2015) nature is offered in a serene communion with itself, man is integrated into that harmony, and the white and green do not antagonise, but rather the shades change. Man is also there, among those silences, between the horizontalness and the verticality of the composition, in the middle of an island, or in silence, carrying out its karma, hoping to enter the state of pure conscience.




Tramas (Plots), the curatorship of the work of Gustavo Pérez Monzón, is a small jewel. A friend, an art critic, told me that in his opinion it was the best he had seen in Cuba in terms of abstract art. I totally agree.


A significant sample of his work is offered here: a selection of the collection of Ella Fontanals Cisneros and three installations by the artist, where his talent, creativity, imagination is evident, justifying the Pérez Monzón myth. (A myth nourished by his retirement in the Mexican town of Itzamatitlán.) As support of the works, the texts of Ella Fontanals herself, of Corina Matamoros and of Elsa Vega-René Francisco Rodríguez complement the information.




If after having seen the landscapes of Tomás Sánchez on the third floor of the museum and the plot woven by Pérez Monzón on the second the spectators still have time and energy, they can relax with Wilfredo Prieto’s pieces disseminated on the first floor, and bearing a map they can start finding the dissimilar objects placed on the stage mounted for Ping pong cuadrícula (Ping-Pong Squares): two fans, a tyre, a bottle of poison and its antidote, a glass ball, two boxes (one metal the other cardboard), a painted pea, two shoes, two socks, a pile of sand, another of lime, etcetera.


A complete exercise of search, reflection, reasoning, humour, to top off a rich day of art. (2015)

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