I am going to Cuba to attend the 11th Havana Biennial (o mejor dicho, La Ocena Bienal de la Habana 2012). Frankly, it’s been a dream of mine to travel to Cuba since I learned how to speak Spanish twenty years ago in Barcelona, Spain.
Going to Cuba has always had less to do with Spain, and more to do with using the language in a context that was closer to home, culturally speaking. I double majored in Spanish Lit and Art History at Wesleyan. I figured that I could combine my seemingly disparate passions for the Spanish language and the myriad cultures of the African diaspora with art. I found that I could do so most poignantly by studying Cuba. I’d read novels like Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban. I dabbled in the study of the visual manifestations of African culture in Santeria, focusing primarily on the orisha, Changó, and his Catholic correlation of Santa Barbara. Eventually, however, I pursued African American art history, studying Harlem Renaissance artist, Aaron Douglas instead. Cuba has remained on my mind ever since.
So, how is that I am going to Cuba with only 2-1/2 weeks notice? First, I sat next to Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons at the dinner reception for Radcliffe Bailey’s exhibition opening at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College in February of this year. She had just returned from her inaugural performance at the Casa de las Americas for the exhibition, 1475 MB in Havana. Campos-Pons is an internationally-recognized visual artist, and she teaches at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She often uses performance and photography to highlight the roots of African culture, the resultant racism, and the role of women, not only within the context of Afro-Cuba, but also in the United States, and the entire African Diaspora. She embodies exactly what I attempt to critically examine and articulate in writing. She encouraged me at that dinner to think about going to Cuba for the biennial this May.
Then, I got the final push last week when my colleague, Salem Merkuria, a filmmaker and Wellesley prof in the Art and Women & Gender Studies departments, outright insisted, “Come to Cuba!” Thanks to the Obama administration’s change in Cuban travel policy, as an educator, I was able to secure a plane ticket and a visa within days through an accredited travel agency–not weeks or months. On May 13th, I land in Havana.
Of course, I am aware that I have “dreamy,” romantic notions of the island. Notwithstanding, I am eager to take in the mestizaje of Spanish and African cultures in this Caribbean context through the food, music, dance, and, of course, visual culture and fine art. I recognize that I must stay attuned to the reality of Cuba for those who live there, and the many others who no longer do (or who have never lived there), but still call it home. I plan to see Cuba, in part, through the eyes of the 114 invited artists from 45 different countries included in this year’s biennial (that’s what I do for a living!), paying particular attention to the Cuban artists, like Antonio Gomez Margolles, Alexis Leiva Machado, Carlos Garaicao, Esterio Segura, Los Carpinteros, among many others.
My week in Cuba is going to change something within me. I will strive to find the write words to express the transformation. In the meantime, I nervously await this excursion, knowing that soon I must no longer dream in Cuban, but rather be.