Jan Feb 28, The city in which the sex is, is Havana. Populated, at least in the global imaginary, with jineteras, beautiful mulatas and rumberas, Havana has been a locus of erotic desire for centuries.
While sex has always figured prominently in Cuban life and thought, during the grim years of the Special Period, roughly , when the Cuban economy collapsed after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break up of its primary trading partner, the Soviet Union , it took on a heightened importance.
In this era, basic goods and services were lacking in all sectors; in a culture of strict regulation of thought and conduct, sexuality was one of the few options for pleasure and individual expression that was available to ordinary people.
Subsequently, in the newly re-animated economy of tourism particularly sex tourism , the sex trade became a crucial source of income for a significant number of Habaneros and others across the island.
However, this sex was officially heterosexual; gay life on the island was predominantly closeted, and same-sex acts had been illegal in Cuba for centuries albeit prosecuted inconsistently. Since the so-called triumph of the Revolution until the s, Cuban gay men and lesbians lived under persistent social ostracism and the ever-present reality of prison.
Attitudes and policy about same-sex desire have been slowly changing: Students, artists, collectors, cultural critics, celebrities, other art world denizens and the merely curious all gathered to speculate and marvel at the event they were at once witnessing and creating. The crush inside the gallery was overwhelming; the crowd surged through the rooms en masse. The spillover crowd in the street in front of the gallery created an event in itself.
It was a party, a celebration of a moment that had taken a long time, perhaps too long, to arrive: For Sex in the City, Ortega invited twenty six artists not all of whom accepted his invitation self-identified as straight, gay, lesbian and bisexual, both young and established artists, artists from the provinces as well as Havana, to contribute works dealing with the theme of homosexuality to the exhibition.
Ortega visualized the exhibition as an exercise in productive provocation for several reasons: La Acacia is a commercial gallery that shows and sells the work of modern and contemporary Cuban artists to predominantly foreign buyers. Ortega deliberately chose La Acacia as a site for the exhibition specifically because of its high profile as a gallery with a robust track record of exhibitions of contemporary art, and for its reputation as well connected and supported within bureaucratic circles.
As a branch of a governmental enterprise, La Acacia negotiates between the orthodoxy of state cultural policy; the desire, indeed the necessity for cultural, economic and social exchange between artists, collectors and the public at the international level; and the frequently transgressive nature of contemporary art practice. Contemporary art in Cuba plays a complicated role in state politics and national identity.
Since the inception of the Havana biennial in , Cuban art has attracted a lot of attention globally; successful artists are stars in Cuba as they are in few other places, traveling abroad more easily and attracting foreign tourists and art patrons to Cuba, and the sale of Cuban artwork brings much needed revenue into state coffers.
Thus, artists in Cuba enjoy if that is the correct word greater mobility and a degree of latitude in their expressions that few others in the country share. Nevertheless, remaining in Cuba is fraught with limitations of all kinds, and artists must constantly negotiate their commitment to Cuba in relation to the opportunities many have to leave the island. Gay artists, writers and other cultural producers have long been important participants in the highly visible and prestigious demimonde of Cuban culture.
By foregrounding the theme of homoerotics in the exhibition, Ortega and the participating artists set out to test the limits of that tolerance. Escudo, a photograph by Jorge Otero depicting two men nude from the waist up, one white, one darker skinned facing each other, leaning in as if for either a kiss or a confrontation.
Their faces are shielded by a cap held up by of both men; the cap is adorned with the emblem of the police department, and the police wanted it censored as disrespectful to the institution, but in the end it was included anyway. Other than the difference in skin color, they are of similar size, shape and attitude, creating a complex mirroring of vulnerable skin in counterpoint to the regalia of that most macho and institutionalized power structures, the police.
Jorge Otero, Escudo The photos capture the process from start to finish; the group masturbating; ejaculating; a close up of the ejaculation; the cracker being raised to the lips of one of the performers as the others look on reverently; and a close-up of the performer biting the cracker, his lips covered in semen.
The piece is transgressive in its explicit documentation of an illegal sex act; in its explicit recruitment of male prostitutes, a marginalized class; and in its reference to Holy Communion and the homoerotics of liturgy, as religion was, if not outlawed, at least highly discouraged in revolutionary Cuba.
While critical discourses of gender, race and sexuality have been engaged for over three decades in other parts of the world particularly the global north, although in other parts of Latin America great advances have been made in recent years , these discourses are relatively recently in Cuba.
Yet negotiating between imported theory with its baggage of hegemonizing North American and European critical and cultural discourses bearing the brutal legacy of foreign domination along with positive contributions ; emerging critical discourse in Cuba; and the grounded experience of life in Cuba, is a complicated and uneven process.
Indeed, recent US scholarship is preoccupied with the notion of post-queer, decentering homosexual identity in productive and provocative ways. However, the discourse on sexual identity is far from exhausted and the critical stakes in Cuba are not the same; Sex in the City demonstrates the productive potential in centering, or re-centering the discourse. Through contact with artists from the global north, as well as Cuban artists in the diaspora, Cuban artists and intellectuals have become aware of these discourses and the gaps critical, economic, spatial and epistemological where their work is situated.
While Galleta engaged with the state as a test case for the limits of official tolerance of homoerotic art, several key works in the exhibition reflect the hunger for engagement with the wider world in a specifically Cuban context.
The title, La Potagera, comes from the name of a well-known clandestine gay meeting place in Havana, which Castro recreated in the gallery with an enclosure made from tree branches, leaves and detritus brought from the site. While the title and material elements of the piece situate it as specifically Habanero, a video shot at the location intercut with scenes from the classic film Rashomon Kurosawa, and a sound loop of music from Kill Bill Tarantino, expand its semiotics to a global context.
Although Castro does not identify as gay, he visited La Potagera, talked to men who use the space, and shot his video footage with their full permission and participation. While Castro thus engages with the granular specificity of Havana queer life, he does so in a vernacular that reaches out to global contemporary art practice. The sophisticated multi-media piece clearly reflects a powerful command of contemporary art vocabulary, and it uses this fluency to flaunt the gap between the improvised and transgressive acts of desiring bodies within the psychic and physical confines of the state.
One of the events that galvanized the opening was a performance by the artist Humberto Diaz called Paradiso Terrenal. The performance took place on a section of gallery floor separate from spectators only by a boundary demarcated by tape. In the densely crowded gallery it was only visible to those fortunate enough to find a place at the front. The performance consisted of two nude women dancers from the ballet hired by Diaz , their bodies entwined in a 69, wrapped in lavender-tinted shrink-wrap plastic of the type used to wrap luggage for travel to and from the island.
There was enough room in the plastic shell for the actors to shift around minimally and several small openings for them to breathe barely , but over the course of the 45 minutes of the performance, their skin darkened in spots from oxygen deprivation. Resonating with the claustrophobic conditions for many gays and others on the island, the plastic wrapping allowed them just enough space to perform a circumscribed, restricted reiteration of sexual identity in no more than the minimum conditions for survival.
Watching it was excruciating and mesmerizing, voyeuristic and occluded at the same time. Although it was evident that there was a sex act or a simulacrum of one taking place, nothing explicit was visible; the equally evident distress of the performers forced spectators to confront not only prurience but their own complicity in the optics of suffering and deprivation.
The shrink-wrapped bodies, bundled up like a package, suggest the desperate lengths to which people go to get out of Cuba. After the performance was over, no trace remained: The struggle for gay rights has been cautiously advancing at the legislative level, in the public consciousness, and society at large.
Nevertheless, gay activists, theorists, academics and legislators are still working within the context of an isolated, deeply machista society that has officially repudiated blatant homophobia, while sometimes tacitly tolerating it; but the success of the exhibition is evidence of the tentative progress being made.
Tellingly, although the show was widely publicized prior to its opening, neither the spectacular and heterotopic event nor the art exhibited were reviewed or even mentioned in the official press, radio or TV subsequently.
The late, noted Cuban critic Rufo Caballero claims that the great paradox of humanist education in Cuba is that it teaches students to use reason, to think independently and critically, and then forces them to rigidly conform to an authoritarian structure. Her current research focuses on Cuban visual and performative cultures within a framework that drawing from postcolonial theory and theories of identity. She has published on visual culture and film in Cuba, with a particularly interest in the representation and performance of mulataje.
She is currently completing a book manuscript, tentatively titled Mulata Cubana: Works Cited Caballero, Rufo. Narraciones criticas sobre el arte cubano Andres Isaac Santana, ed.