Sex in the City

Sex in the City. Galería La Acacia, Av. San José 114, Havana, Cuba. Jan 18-Feb 28, 2013

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 1990-1999, 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 1990s, 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: in a striking recent example of this gradual opening, for the first time in Cuban history an art exhibit dealing explicitly with the theme of homosexual sex and love opened earlier this month at Galería La Acacia.

Sex in the City, dedicated to the “homoerotic in art”, according to curator Píter Ortega, was publicized heavily in the Cuban press and on television in the weeks leading up to the opening, and the opening drew a crowd of more than 2,500 people—the gallery usually counts between 100-300 attendees at openings—far more than the gallery could contain. 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. The street was so full that traffic couldn’t pass, and busses and cars had to stop for the exuberant mass. It was a party, a celebration of a moment that had taken a long time, perhaps too long, to arrive: the emergence, into the light, of gay art and culture in Cuba. It was, in Ortega’s vision, “a gift to the gay community.”

Píter Ortega is a young, highly visible Cuban art writer, TV presenter and public intellectual; throughout his career, he has deployed controversy as a strategy of self-promotion and to stimulate interest in the stakes of contemporary art: his curatorial and critical practice is itself performative. Indeed, the show’s title (and possibly inspiration) was taken from a US TV show (HBO, 1998-2004), that was iconic in its glossy style, sophistication and celebration of ephemeral pleasure; not surprisingly, these are revered qualities in camp and queer cultures. 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: in his the choice of a commercial, not experimental gallery as a site for the show; in testing the limits of increased tolerance for homosexuality; in testing the limits of artistic freedom; and in provoking artists to confront prevailing mythologies of political correctness and to question their own attitudes. (“Do I have the right to represent a community I do not belong to?” “Can I ‘speak’ for the ‘other’”?).

The gallery in which this celebration took place, La Acacia, is part of an official entity, Empresa Génesis, which is itself under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture. 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 1989, 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. Although La Acacia’s director José (Pepe) Fernando Fernandez Gomez (who is himself openly gay) was receptive to Ortega’s proposal, bureaucratic protocol required that the exhibition be reviewed prior to approval. It was approved at the first official level, Empresa Génesis, and at the next level (Ministerio de Cultura), but the important government ministry, Poder Popular objected to one piece, Escudo (Emblem). 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.

Figure 1. Jorge Otero, Escudo 2012. (Photo courtesy of Galería La Acacia)
Figure 1. Jorge Otero, Escudo 2012. Photo courtesy of Galería la acacia

Gallery director Fernandez Gómez and Ortega sought the endorsement of Ramón del Valle, president of the Consejo Nacional de Artes Plásticas, (the highest governmental authority dealing with the promotion and exhibition of art) who was able to get approval from the Ministerio del Estado, the most powerful government ministry, and the show was on.

One proposed piece, however, was censored; a performance entitled Galleta (Cracker) by the artist collective Stainless (Jose Capaz, Alejandro Piñeiro and Fabelo Hung), for which the artists hired a group of young male prostitutes for $50 each to masturbate onto a cracker in a “circle jerk” (the performance proposal then called for the cracker to be eaten).

Figure 2. Stainless  Galleta, 2012. (Photo courtesy of Galeria La Acacia)
Figure 2. Stainless Galleta, 2012. Photo courtesy of Galería la acacia

Although the piece could not be performed at the gallery, a prior off-site enactment was documented by a series of sixe large photographs that were included in the exhibition. 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. There is an obvious critical gap between these zones; contemporary queer theory and critical studies are overwhelmingly focused on North American and to lesser extent European contexts; while the North/South gap is presently being addressed in the work of scholars both within the metropolis and in places like Cuba, the writing of this history is just now circulating. 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.Especially significant in this exchange is Tania Bruguera, whose Cátedra Arte de Conducta (Behavioral Art School), a counter-discursive art school run by the Cuban-American artist Bruguera from 2002-2009 in Havana; the Cátedra introduced young Cuban artists to discourses and practices not addressed in the curriculum of the national art school, el Instituto Superior de Arte, (ISA), and a significant number of young and by now established Cuban artists were students. Yet these issues, while impossible to ignore, are secondary to artists’ hunger to engage with the world beyond the island’s shores and LGBT peoples’ hunger to be legally and socially visible, recognized and accepted in contemporary Cuban society.

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. La Potagera (The Soup Tureen), by Javier Castro (a Cátedra alum) was a complex installation that included video, sound and a physical environment.

Figure 3, “La Potagera” Javier Castro, 2012. (Photo courtesy of Galeria La Acacia)
Figure 3, “La Potagera” Javier Castro, 2012. Photo courtesy of Galería la acacia

In his work, Castro fluidly moves between objects, images, installations, conceptual, and performance work; working on both solo and collaborative projects undertaken with a group of artists, all former classmates in art school.

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, 1950) and a sound loop of music from Kill Bill (Tarantino, 2003) expand its semiotics to a global context. The branches that surround the enclosure are too tightly spaced to permit entry; the spectator is interpellated into the scene as a participant/voyeur, complicit in the uneasy and highly charged encounters between the men who are La Potagera’s habitués. 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.

Figure 4 Humberto Diaz, Paradiso Terrenal January 18, 2013. (Photo courtesy of Galeria La Acacia)
Figure 4 Humberto Diaz, Paradiso Terrenal January 18, 2013. Photo courtesy of Galería la acacia

The name of the piece signals internal/external hybridity and lingual play- the Spanish word for paradise is paraiso, hence Paradiso is a conflation of Spanish and English: recognizable in either language, but belonging to neither. 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: no photo or video documentation was exhibited, no wall label: rather, like refugees, like illegal immigrants, like balseros, the bodies and the stories they bear just disappeared.

The extraordinary success of the show signals the social changes that have begun to take place in Cuba; this is due in part to the success of Mariela Castro’s (a lesbian who is the daughter of Raul Castro, the President of Cuba) efforts to promote LGBT rights in Cuban society through CENESEX, (Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual), the organization that she created and directs. CENESEX’s work in raising awareness of LGBT issues has helped to foreground the discourse around sexuality and citizenship in Cuba and abroad. 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. Discourse about the show is alive on the Internet (although the cyber-world is tragically off-limits to the vast majority of Cubans today) and through “radio bemba”—word of mouth, the unofficial and vital route of communication on the island—provides a necessary counter-discourse to the silence of the state.

This multi-generational show reflects artists’ rejection of the politics and poetics of the national allegory model of Cuban art in favor of a defiantly if somewhat paradoxically personal expression. 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.(Rufo 2007) Sex in the City adroitly demonstrates artist’s deep capacity for such cultural critique, mapping out variously subjective, imaginary and collective lengths Cubans must travel in order to reach a space of vital freedom, however contingent or ephemeral.

Alison Fraunhar is Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Design at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, where she teaches courses in Modern and Contemporary Art History and Film and Media Studies, with an emphasis on Latin America. 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: to represent and perform the nation. Future projects include a study of Los Angeles in the 1980s, at the intersection of art and punk rock.

Works Cited

Caballero, Rufo. 2007. “Paradoja del humanismo” in Nosotros, los mas infieles. Narraciones criticas sobre el arte cubano (1993-2005) Andres Isaac Santana, ed. Palma de Mallorca: Fundación Cajamarca p.24