Biennial art festival transforms the streets of Cuba’s capital

HAVANA: Giant ants swarm the facade of an aging theater. White-clad, face-painted dancers and circus performers frolic on a central boulevard. Cuban and U.S. chefs serve gourmet meals from a shipping container-cum-kitchen.

Havana’s always-bustling streets are even more colorful than usual these days, with the kickoff of Bienal de La Habana art festival.

Crews installed sculptures along the city’s famous seawall, galleries hung paintings and citywide performance pieces delighted art lovers, tourists and residents.

One Cuban artist laid out a wax dummy of Osama bin Laden on a Persian rug and, shortly after the one-year anniversary of the Al-Qaeda leader’s killing by U.S. forces, questioned whether there’s more to the story. “Is he dead or is he alive? Where is he? Who knows?” Julio Lorent said. “Only through art can we answer these uncertainties.”

This year’s theme is “Artistic Practices and Social Insertion,” and organizers said they were placing particular emphasis on bringing art to the streets in addition to traditional gallery spaces.

“Art is an instrument of inquiry and questioning,” said Ruben del Valle, one of the Bienal’s lead organizers, “not just a pastime of the elite.”

Officials said 180 artists from 43 – mostly Latin American – countries and thousands of art aficionados are taking part in the Bienal.

Created in 1984, the biennial – which at times has been held every three years instead of two due to economic difficulties – is one of the main artistic forums oriented toward the developing world and has gradually been catching the eye of artists in the U.S.

More than 1,300 U.S. citizens, including artists, curators, critics, collectors and aficionados, applied for accreditation to take part, said organizer Jorge Fernandez.

Cuban-American artist Jose Parla painted large, imposing portraits of senior citizens on buildings around the city.

“The murals and we artists have been well received,” Parla said, “because everybody has something very poetic to say, very deep and beautiful.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 14, 2012, on page 16.




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