Biennial Conga in Havana

ArticleNicole FranchyComment
Photo by Ignacio Barros Courtesy of Galeria Fortes Vilaça.

Photo by Ignacio Barros Courtesy of Galeria Fortes Vilaça.

Cuba, a long time desired trip was finally a reality this past May when I was invited to participate at the 11th Havana Biennial. I had always wanted to get to know and experience first hand my close family’s hometown.

On arrival at Marti International Airport, the customs agent asked what my nationality was and all of a sudden I was involved in a conversation about our national liquors. Pisco and rum were discussed as if they were some sort of identity card exchange.

Roma, my uncle’s Cuban wife, picked up my fiancée Fernando and I from the Airport. On our way to her 18th floor apartment at the Vedado district, we drove by La Plaza de la Revolución, the image of Che Guevara, the José Martí memorial – all iconic places we knew from the media and lived in our imaginary. She had warned us about the elevator not working all the time. The thought of us climbing 18 floors prompted my aunt to come up with a plan B.

We pushed the black button in anticipation, heard a distant sound, peaked through a small window and saw the elevator belts moving. A few seconds later, a sudden bounce made us realize we had finally arrived at my aunt’s floor. Once up there I walked towards the balcony, taking in a huge scoop of air while scanning the view all the way to the end of the old city and back along the malecón.

Once settled, I went to the Wilfredo Lam Contemporary Art Center, the Biennial’s center of operation. One could sense the hype of the Biennial; we were all rushing to get things done. Logistics and technical aspects for setting up the show demanded adapting to particular local ways and context difficulties. Getting a high capacity external hard drive or adapting artists’ video technology to fit available software on the island was a challenge. One of the organizers said to me:  In Cuba, if you think things are going wrong, it´s only about to get fixed. And at the end of the day, it was.

The Biennial was hosted among 50 venues and collateral events with artists from 43 different countries. This years edition theme was the relationship between visual productions and the social imaginary, spanning from intimate approaches to those reverberating on wider social issues.

The group show I participated in was, “You and Eye, Existential Cartographies  &  Urban itineraries,”  curated by Wendy Navarro and Ada Azor.  Among other artists were Pedro Barateiro (Portugal), Itziar Barrio (Spain), Marcelo Cidade (Brasil), Humberto Diaz, (Cuba), Daniel García Andújar (Spain), Deborah Nofret (Cuba), Anne Lorenz (Switzerland), Avelino Sala (Spain).

Taking the Art out of institutions and galleries and into the streets to interact with the people was one of the Biennial’s goals: site specific installations, urban interventions, performances and outdoor projects took over the city. Visiting the Biennial scattered throughout La Havana was an atypical experience. We were mostly walking around and riding on Almendrones, (literally, big almonds), 50´s American Chevrolets, Buicks, Cadillacs used as “colectivos,” shared cab rides with an established route. These brands and the old Russian Ladas are still the most seen in Havana.

Walking around with curators and artist friends while melting in the tropical weather, we headed to Paseo del Prado to see “Conga Irreversible”, the fabulous performance by “Los Carpinteros”, an artistic Cuban duet that presented a conga backwards in reverse in a parade through the historic Paseo del Prado,  a comparsa all dressed in black was twirling and dancing to the beat of drums and metals by a live band. Local people mixed in with the international biennial crowd followed along, cheering and dancing.  We kept bumping into friends and people from the art world.

Craving a daiquiri, we stopped by La Floridita, a charming XIX century bar located at Habana Vieja, cradle of the daiquiri and one of Hemingway’s favorite watering holes. The place was hopping with other thirsty conga followers, like our curator friend Christian, whom we met at the bar.  Daiquiris kept coming, one after the other; first lemon then strawberry, guayaba…, my glass was swinging, looking like a pool someone had just jumped into, sticky arms but going for the next flavor, chatting away while another live band played in the background.

We rode a “bici taxi” into the Havana night.  Fading away facades under the yellow lights, contrasting silence as the wheels kept spinning fueled by the strength of a 60 year old man named Enrique, as vigorous as a teenager. He told us stories about the times he had docked at the port of Callao in Peru, with a Cuban crew back in the early seventies.

Later that night, we drove along the endless malecón, one of the city’s main meeting spots hosting biennial artwork, now attracting local and International visitors. We were heading to Miramar, a residential area where Carlos Garaicoa, a Cuban artist was hosting a Rum-fueled party. Curators, artists and Biennial groupies all came together, dancing to D.J Enrique Maresma´s crossover beats from salsa to house to electro-rock, till the break of dawn.

Mother’s day was my farewell to this awe-inspiring city. Fernando and I took Roma to celebrate at the Café Laurent, the decor dated back to a 60s vintage style paladar located at a Vedado penthouse overlooking the iconic FOCSA building, the second tallest in Havana. The paladar is a phenomenon that started 10 years ago by homeowners transforming part of their houses or apartments into restaurants that allow up to 16 guests. There was a surge a year ago, when a new law passed that increased the number of guests and allowed the owners of paladares to buy most of the goods directly from the “guajiros” or farmers.

I ventured into the kitchen and met Chef Victor Ramón, who kindly welcomed me into his kitchen and described the dishes he was preparing, like the creamy meatballs with onions and peppers garnished with crunchy boniato, a white sweet potato I had never seen before. Next to him, Sous Chef Pepe shared with me the ingredients of their home Salsas for the fish dishes we were about to taste: Verde (parsley, jerez, garlic, olive oil), Marinera (roasted tomatoes, cognac and fish fumet) and Tuboize (olives, fish fumet, honey).

Back at the table, Roma was very excited to tell us that “Pablito” was sitting at the next table: The “Pablito” she was referring to, was the famous musician Pablo Milanés, one of the founders of Cuban Nueva Trova.  Enjoying the wonderful meal paired with fascinating conversation, like many others we had during breakfast when Roma would unearth episodes of Cuban history and reminiss about her life and family experiences on the island, was a great ending to a visit beyond my expectations.