I make art that appropriates the tools of the political and tries to generate political moments, an art through which one speaks directly to power and in its own language.
Tania Bruguera, an internationally celebrated artist whose work challenges the authorities in Cuba, has been branded a counter revolutionary, repeatedly arrested and harassed.
Tania Bruguera is an internationally celebrated artist whose work challenges the authorities in Cuba, using a unique combination of public protest and performance art. For this she has been branded a counter revolutionary, repeatedly arrested and harassed.
Bruguera, who lives both in Cuba and the USA, is described in the Guardian as "one of the world's most well-known performance artists [who] has built her career on often controversial works that examine power and control - often confronting the political mechanics and history of Cuba". Her most famous piece is the performance titled Tatlin's Whisper #6 (a reference to Vladimir Tatlin, a Russian avant garde artist) staged at the Havana Biennial in 2009. In the piece, Bruguera set up a platform where speakers – other artists and activists – were each given "one minute free of censorship". During the event, flanked by figures in uniform, speaker after speaker took to the stage to read out statements, often to cheers from the audience, and a white dove was freed after each speech. Interestingly, given the strength of the opinions aired during the 40-minute event, it was staged without incident.
In 2002, Bruguera founded the Cátedra Arte de Conducta (Behaviour Art School) in Havana, and in 2011 she established the Asociación de Arte Útil (Useful Art Association) as meeting places and platforms for the execution of her projects.
In December 2014, Bruguera was once again in Havana, and, on hearing the announcement of the renewal of relations between Cuba and the USA, she declared that on 31 December she would restage Tatlin's Whisper #6, this time as #YoTambienExijo (#IAlsoDemand) in Havana's Revolution Square. In addition, she published an open letter to Raúl Castro, President Obama and Pope Francis that went viral.
Like the earlier performance, people would be invited to step onto a simple stage with a microphone and respond freely to the news. However, the night before, police came to Bruguera's home, arrested her and warned her against staging the event. She was briefly detained on at least two occasions after that, and her passport was seized. She was told that it would only be given back to her if she promised never to return to Cuba.
Facing charges of incitement to public disorder, Bruguera continued to stage protests and to work on new pieces. In May 2015 she was briefly arrested after staging a 100-hour reading of philosopher Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism at her home. Warned by police that she would not be licensed to make a street performance, Bruguera, calling their bluff, obtained a licence as a private teacher, giving her permission to give readings indoors. She performed the reading with her doors open and using a speaker so as to be heard outside. Cuban art critic Gerardo Mosquera, an eyewitness to this event, wrote on the Walker Art website of how, almost comically, a gang of street workers arrived outside her home and started drilling as part of supposedly unscheduled street maintenance, drowning out the reading. In June 2015 Bruguera reported on her #YoTambienExijo Facebook page of how she had been arrested and manhandled by police as she and others were removed from a Ladies in White protest, an event that is staged by families of political prisoners each Sunday in Havana. She says she was at the demonstration as part of her research for a project on freedom of expression in public spaces.
As the date for the resumption of relations between Cuba and the USA neared, in July 2015 Bruguera's passport was returned. In August she was told that the charges against her had been dropped and she was assured that she would be allowed to return to Cuba. Bruguera then left for New York to take up an unusual residency with the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, where she will help with recruitment of undocumented immigrants for the city's new municipal identification card system, IDNYC, a project that brings artists' perspectives into city decision making.
Bruguera continues to be provocative in her perspectives and artistic endeavours, always seeking to open new channels for freedom of expression on the island. In fact, in November 2016 she announced she would run as a candidate for Cuba's presidency in 2018, and she invited all Cubans to run for office.
Her strong activism continues to bring intimidation and detentions. In January 2017 Bruguera was once again detained and interrogated in Cuba as she was travelling from Havana to the city of Baracoa on a humanitarian mission to deliver rice and mattresses to victims of Hurricane Matthew. The mission was being conducted under the auspices of the Instituto del Artivismo Hannah Arendt (the Hannah Arendt Artivism Institute - a play on words between art and activism), an organization founded by Bruguera.