On November 3, 2016, University of San Francisco’s museum studies program welcomed Jorge Fernandez, Director of the Museo de Bellas Artes in Havana, Cuba and former director of the Havana Bienal. With the lifting of the embargo between the US and Cuba, we were all curious to learn more about the art scene in Cuba. Jorge was quick to point out that there has been artistic exchange and vigorous dialog in his country for decades. What is different is that US citizens have more access to it. Nonetheless the city is changing with the influx of tourists and global influences. Jorge spoke with our students about his vision for integrating the museum with a community that is living through these changes.
The museum was founded in 1913 and moved to its present, opulent colonial-style building in 1954. That was a time, Jorge explained, before the Revolution when wealthy Cubans were buying art. Thus the museum holds an outstanding ceramics collection as well as a collection of colonial-era landscapes. “This kind of art made sense when it was acquired, but what does it mean to people now?” This is the question that guides Jorge’s work.
Perhaps, he suggested, the success of Havana’s 2015 Bienal can inspire the change and connections to art he is trying to implement for the museum. For the Bienal, Jorge worked with over eighty contemporary artists and “stretched” the standard format we have come to expect from bienals. Instead of presenting the “expected and predictable art stars” in a central exhibition hall targeted mostly to foreign tourists, Jorge wanted to bring the art to interact with people who live in Havana, in the homes, in libraries, bars, shopping areas and even local tattoo parlors. Thus he worked in “interstitial spaces,” curating exhibitions and artwork throughout the city. The artists he worked with came from all over the world and included — not without controversy — Cuban artists who had been living in exile since the Revolution. As Jorge told us, “we unleashed the artists into the streets and watched what happened.”
The Argentine artist, Dolores Caceres, for example installed a neon sculpture on a street populated with shops catering to tourists. “No Vendo Nada” [We sell nothing], was a blaring commentary on the heavily commercial overtones of the typical bienal economy. Another Argentine artist, Adrian Villar Rojas addressed the issue of globalism and the environment with interpretations of birds’ nests that he placed in various parts of the city.
The Indian artist Shilpa Gupta’s installation was titled “Someone Else.” Set in the library, it explored the history of women who published anonymously or under a man’s name. The Oaxacan artist Dr. Lakra exhibited his work in a tattoo parlor, and also gave tattoos as part of his practice. Would these kinds of artistic interventions be possible in a traditional museum? “I am not sure,” Jorge admitted, “But I am willing to try. The question I am wrestling with is how to connect the museum to people’s lives today. I want to evolve the museum from a fortress to a format for the community. I invite everyone to visit us in Havana and see how we are doing.”
We especially thank Professor Sergio de la Torre for introducing us to Jorge and working with us to bring him to USF.
To learn more about the University of San Francisco’s graduate museum studies program click here.