You enter a dark military vault. The cold rounded concrete walls frame the bodies of four nude male performers perched atop mounds of milled sugarcane. Between them, a video plays, depicting a smiling Fidel Castro, unbuttoning his military uniform to reveal his bare, unprotected chest. Suddenly, the lights shut off, leaving only you and the performers in complete darkness, with only a lingering sense of awe to remind you of what you have just witnessed.
Shown without permission at the 7th Havana Biennial, Cuban artist Tania Bruguera’s piece, Untitled (Havana, 2000), was essentially censored because of its implicit criticism of Fidel Castro’s regime. Bruguera’s projected video of Castro was not shown until the Biennial’s opening, which shocked the exhibition’s organizers and prompted them to shut off the power completely. Despite censorship and heavy critique in Cuba, Untitled (Havana, 2000) was later exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and remains relevant today.
Born in 1968 in Havana, Cuba, dissident artist and activist Tania Bruguera uses her mind and body to challenge social and political injustice. Bruguera’s exposure to the aftermath of the Cuban revolution, particularly abuses of power in the Cuban government and their insidious impact on socioeconomic and cultural life on the island, has pushed her to employ social critique in her art. At age twelve, Bruguera enrolled at the Escuela Elemental de Artes Plásticas in Havana, kickstarting her journey as an artist. From then on, Bruguera’s craft developed rapidly as she produced a vast array of performance art, installations, and interactive works.
Much of Bruguera’s early work used her body as a canvas, pushing herself to physical limits to draw attention to the hardships of Cuban people. In her 1997 piece entitled The Burden of Guilt, Bruguera stood naked with a lamb carcass hanging from her neck as she consumed soil mixed with water and salt. This piece examined and reinterpreted an ancient story of the indigenous people of Cuba, who ate dirt as a “weapon of resistance” in an attempt at suicide to free themselves from Spanish captivity. Tania Bruguera does not shy away from controversy. Rather, she harnesses its power and redirects it toward substantive political change.
In addition to her artistic practice, Bruguera is renowned for building programs, communities, and civil society projects that engage and make space for the same dialogues she embodies in her work. In 2010, Bruguera began her ongoing project Immigrant Movement International, founding a community space in Corona, Queens, where “art and education are used to empower immigrants personally and politically.” The project not only provides a space for immigrants to come together and explore art but offers English language and art education resources. Immigrant Movement International is one of many community-based initiatives that Bruguera has undertaken, including her Arte de Conducta (Behavior Art) program (2002-09) in Havana, and the Migrant People Party (2010-15), created as a new form of mass political organization. In 2016, Bruguera founded INSTAR (The Institute of Artivism Hannah Arendt), a program aimed at transforming audiences into active citizens through three main mediums. First, the Think Tank provides a space for individuals to “rethink policy and constitutional change,” working within the context of Cuban history and ongoing social and political evolution. Second, the Do Tank consists of workshops that culminate in public performances that work toward “developing a common language towards freedom of expression and social responsibility.” Lastly, the Wish Tank offers residencies for artists, activists, political scientists, economists, urban planners, and more. Participants in the Wish Tank work with assistants on personal research projects and public events focusing on political development in Cuba.
Throughout her life, Tania Bruguera has been on the frontlines of political protest in Cuba, and in recent months, she has played a key role in movements defending artistic freedom. Following the unjust detention and sentencing of Cuban rapper Denis Solís González and consecutive arrests of other members of the dissident artist-led San Isidro Movement, Bruguera and other artists convened for a rare dialogue with officials from the Ministry of Culture. Soon after the meeting, Bruguera was arrested by plainclothes police and held overnight. This was not Bruguera’s first time facing police harassment or arbitrary detention. She has been arrested numerous times in the past five years for her work mobilizing artists and activists in defense of freedom of expression in Cuba.
Bruguera’s arrests are part of a larger trend of artist persecution in Cuba, particularly in the wake of Decree 349, a 2018 regulation that gives the Cuban government unchecked control over the cultural sphere. In March of 2019, ARC issued Art Under Pressure, a white paper documenting the increasing number of artists who are being harassed following the enactment of Decree 349 and raising awareness about threatened artists and the state of artistic freedom in Cuba. Many artists who, like Bruguera, defend the right to make and share dissident art have come together under the aegis of the 27N Movement, which has met harsh backlash from the government since its inception in November 2020.
Despite ongoing threats and harassment, including near-constant police surveillance, intimidation, kidnapping and mass arrests, and countless broken promises for reconciliation from the government, Bruguera has remained an undaunted leader, an international icon at the vanguard of her country’s unflagging fight for the right to express themselves freely and without fear of reprisal. She is a member of ARC’s advisory committee, and ARC is honored to regularly work with her on initiatives and cases related to artistic freedom in Cuba. She was a key conceiver of ARC’s Safety Guide for Artists and shared her story in an in-depth interview for the guide.
By Piper Morrison, April 2021. Piper is currently pursuing a B.A. at Oberlin College, concentrating on American Studies and Arts Management.