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Miami collector to exhibit in Havana

By Celeste Fraser Delgado
Special to The Miami Herald

Approval from the U.S. Department of the Treasury might be required to see the next exhibit of works from the collection of Ella Fontanal-Cisneros. That’s because the Miami-based collector will be presenting an official exhibition at the 11th Havana Biennial, which runs from May 11 through June 11.

U.S. citizens are not legally permitted to travel to Cuba simply to see an art exhibit, or to participate in any other tourist activities. So a number of art aficionados will make the trek from Miami under a special provision for “people-to-people exchange.” While they’re there, they may also happen to see the first exhibit at the Havana Biennial sponsored by an American collector.

Make that a Cuban-American collector. Cisneros left her native Cuba for Venezuela at age 14, before settling in Miami. She began collecting art in the 1970s and has amassed one of the largest and most respected collections of contemporary art in the world. In 2002, she established the Cisneros Fontanal Art Foundation. CIFO regularly presents contemporary art at the foundation’s exhibit space in downtown Miami. The Havana Biennial will be the first time CIFO has shown any work outside of South Florida.

Titled Miradas Cruzadas (Exchanging Glances), the exhibit will show works by more than 60 of the world’s most important contemporary artists, including John Baldessari, Damien Hirst, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger and Shirin Neshat. Miradas Cruzadas will be given pride of place at the Biennial’s central venue, occupying two salons and the lobby of the Museo de Bellas Artes.

“I’ve been preparing for over a year,” Cisneros said over a crackling connection from Havana. “Apart from the logistics of bringing over all the artwork, which is complicated, there is the curating and mounting of the exhibit, with a thousand little details. Then there is a big group of friends coming, so that takes a lot of time to plan.”

Why is Cisneros going to all the trouble? Especially after spending most of her adult life in Miami, where the idea of returning to the island under Castro has been anathema to many in the exile community?

“It’s a historic moment in Cuba,” Cisneros observes. “Things have changed. Things are changing. We have to see in a new way, with a new vision. Most important, the art in this country is incredible.”

Things may have changed in Miami, as well. Though Cisneros’ participation in the Havana Biennial is highlighted in the official event website, and an article on the exhibit appeared in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, there has so far been no public outcry by anti-Castro protestors. That’s not surprising to Susan Caraballo, artistic director of Art Center South Florida, who presented a project with artist Julie Kahn as an official activity during the 2006 Havana Biennial.

There was no political reaction in Miami to the artists’ participation. “At that point, people were sort of done with the whole Cuba issue,” Caraballo recalls, remembering how in 1999 there were protests against Cuban musicians performing in Miami. “We had gone past Los Van Van and all the outrages of that time.” Now, Caraballo observes, artists based on the island regularly exhibit at fairs and galleries in Miami, “and nobody’s batting an eye about it.”

Yet the artwork in the Cisneros’ exhibit is certainly eye popping. Curator Osbel Suarez explained some of his choices over the phone from Istanbul, where he was working with another collector. Born in Cuba, where he completed a degree in art history before leaving for a career in Spain, Suarez remembers the years after a transportation crisis when the streets of Havana were flooded with the Chinese-made brand, Forever Bicycles. So he decided to place a massive installation in the central hallway of the Museum of Bellas Artes called Forever Bicycles, made up of 1,200 of those bicycles stacked together, by Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei.

“The piece reveals all the tensions between tradition and modernity,” Suarez explains. “The bicycle in China is being replaced by the automobile, in an imitation of the Western model of progress.”

Viewers might also mull over the fact that Ai Wei Wei is a dissident artist who has been forbidden to travel by another communist state.

In another section of the exhibit, called “Outside Cuba,” those Cuban viewers who have never had the chance to leave the island will be given a first opportunity to see work by many prominent Cuban-born artists who made their names in the United States, including Jorge Pardo, Ana Mendieta and Felix Torres-Gonzalez.

Getting permission from the Cuban authorities to allow CIFO to participate in the Biennial took a long time. Still Suarez insists there was no interference with his curatorial decisions. “There were no conditions,” he says. “I had absolute liberty, as much from CIFO as from Cuba. There was not the slightest intrusion.”

Certainly, the funding that Cisneros brought with her exhibit was more than welcome. The Cuban government does not have the same resources as, say, the organizers of the annual Art Basel Miami fair or the many other biennials on the global art circuit, in more prosperous places like Venice and Shanghai. In fact, the Havana Biennial might better be called the Havana Triennial, since financial difficulties have frequently required the event to be held every three years.

Nevertheless, Cisneros predicts, “Even practically scraped together by their fingernails, the Biennial in Cuba this year will be wonderful. They’ve done marvels with what they have. I hope lots of people from Miami will come.”

A recent change in U.S. policy regarding travel to Cuba makes it more likely that more people will. Though travel to Cuba has been restricted for U.S. citizens for nearly 50 years, during the Clinton administration, allowances were made for “people-to-people exchanges” — travel to the island where U.S. citizens engage in what is considered “meaningful exchanges” with regular Cuban people, meaning Cubans who are not Communist Party members or government officials. Those exchanges were prohibited by the Bush administration in 2003. Then in January 2011 the White House restored people-to-people exchanges, a change that was implemented by the U.S. Treasury in April 2011.

Since then, roughly 130 organizations have obtained the travel licenses, which are good for unlimited trips over the course of one year. But, according to Jeff Braunger, manager of the Cuba Travel Licensing Program for the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, that doesn’t mean Americans can just up and go to the Havana Biennial.

“We don’t license people to go down just to attend an event. We don’t license tourism,” Braunger clarifies. “We license people-to-people exchanges that involve a full-time schedule of meaningful interaction with the Cuban people. The full-time schedule may involve an activity at an art exhibit or event, as long as it involves meaningful interaction with the Cuban people.”

That may be why Geo Darder insists that when he takes a group to Havana from May 10 through 17, “It’s not going to the Biennial. These are people-to-people programs that deal with artists.”

A Cuban American, Darder first traveled to the island in 1994, when a film he made was screened at the Havana Film Festival. For the past 10 years, he has lead groups on cultural tours to many countries in Latin America, including Cuba. The May trip will be the first to Havana led by his newly formed Copperbridge Foundation.

Offered by invitation only, the Copperbridge trips cost roughly $3,500 to $4,000 per person for the seven-day trip, including a Cuban visa, meals, lodging and health insurance. According to the group’s itinerary, Day three is dedicated to the Havana Biennial, including the opening of the Cisneros Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts. On other days, the group will also tour the Wilfredo Lam Center of Contemporary Art, which hosts the Biennial, and will visit the studios of Cuban artists, as well as exploring what Darder calls “community projects” such as an exhibit called “Atras del Muro” (Behind the Wall) that will be set up along the Malécon, Havana’s historic sea wall.

Unlike Darder, Beth Boone has no qualms about saying that she is traveling to the Havana Biennial with what she calls “an eclectic group of cultural people.” She is the artistic and executive director of the Miami Light Project, a nonprofit organization that presents live performances in South Florida. Last August, soon after the travel restrictions eased, Miami Light sponsored a trip by local Cuban American choreographer Rosie Herrera. For the Biennial, they’ll be sponsoring a trip by another Cuban American choreographer, Ana Mendez, who will accompany a group of the organization’s supporters and board members, who will be paying their own way.

“The artists we’ve traveled with to Cuba and brought from Havana to here have had extraordinary opportunities to know first hand and form their own opinions of the thoughts and experiences of artists in the other communities,” Boone explains.

During Miami Light’s first trip to the Havana Biennial, the group will visit independent artists as well. Boone says, “We will go to artists’ studios, which are in their very modest homes, and have a meal with them and see what it’s like to live in a place where it’s a challenge to get the materials they need.”

The Miami Light trip has been arranged by Puentes Cubanas (Cuban Bridges), a licensed organization that began offering such exchanges before the program was suspended in 2003 and resumed them in the past year. Puentes Cubanas led the trip in 2002 that introduced independent curator Elizabeth Cerejido to artists living on the island. Born in Cuba and raised in Miami, Cerejido has since become an authority on Cuban and Cuban American art. She also serves on the CIFO advisory board.

Surveying the work included in Cisneros’ exhibit, Cerejido notes, “the presence of Cuban artists living outside of Cuba in this Biennial marks a shift in attitude [in the Cuban art world].” But she says that the relationship among different generations of Cuban artists inside and outside Cuba is still misunderstood. Cerejido is also skeptical about reading too much into the prominence of Forever Bicycles in the show. “It’s a game that both artists and the government play,” she explains. “In the case of the Wei Wei installation, the government appears to be saying ‘See, we have no problem exhibiting art by a dissident artist.’ By doing so the power of its intended message is lessened.”

This year, the people who attend the Biennial may be as meaningful as the art. At the Tenth Havana Biennial, in 2009, Cerejido recalls, she saw only a handful of Miami-based artists, collectors and museum representatives. The change in U.S. policy may allow more American art aficionados to attend this year.

Yet Cerejido says Cisneros’ exhibition in Havana has significance that goes beyond people-to-people exchange. “To the best of my knowledge,” she says of CIFO’s participation in the Biennial, “this is the first time an institution in Miami has cultivated a working professional relationship with another institution in Cuba.”

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