A few weeks before Christmas last year, Tania Bruguera was traveling in Italy when she heard about the historic détente between her two homes — the U.S. and Cuba. It was perfect timing. Bruguera, a performance artist, had already planned to return to Cuba later that month to stage the sixth performance of her series Tatlin's Whisper. The dissident Cuban artist decided to use this opportunity to give her countryfolk a voice in the discussions: she wanted to hand participants a microphone for a minute each so they could demand whatever change they desired.
But Bruguera disappeared the day before the event, arrested by Cuban political police under the claim that she was working for the C.I.A. She was released within a few days, but the authorities kept her passport and ordered her to remain on the island indefinitely.
More than six months later, Cuban authorities finally handed Bruguera's passport back to her last week. The next day, the New York Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs announced Bruguera as its first artist-in-residence. The Cuban government have not yet told Bruguera if she will be allowed to return to Cuba and perform in the future if she leaves for New York. As the world watches the U.S. and Cuba re-open their embassies, Bruguera's future hangs in the balance.
Born in Cuba, Bruguera has always taken risks with her art. According to Ismael De Diego, a Cuban documentary filmmaker living in New York, she staged a performance eating dirt and rotten meat at a time when meat was forbidden in Cuba. De Diego says she was the first artist he knew who had an openly confrontational relationship with the government.
At the end of the '90s, she emigrated to the U.S. and received an MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. More recently, she was running a social art project called Immigrant Movement International out of her house in Queens.
Although living in New York, Bruguera still returned to Cuba to perform regularly, she says. But this time she made the mistake of planning to hold Tatlin's Whisper #6 on Havana’s Revolution Plaza, the equivalent of the White House lawn. Cuba's arts council issued a statement on Dec. 30, the day of Bruguera's arrest, saying they would not support the performance of a subversive piece in this politically significant space.
"It was completely offensive," Bruguera says. "Political art should be part of the political event and not just a comment that comes after."
Bruguera, who has pioneered activist art in Cuba for over two decades, is pleased about the conversation she started. "I'm having an extraordinary opportunity to look power in the eyes, which for a political artist is very important," she says. "So I would no doubt do it again."
After her arrest, more than 2,200 artists and intellectuals from around the world sent President Raul Castro a letter demanding her release.
But in the U.S. some feel it was reckless to jeopardize the newly opened relations. "I think she has terrible timing," says Howard Farber, founding collector of the Farber Collection and publisher of Cuban Art News in Miami. "Five days after a 50-year divorce that we had with Cuba. Why, why would you do that?"
Others, like New York-based Cuban painter Armando Mariño, think it was the right move. At a moment when everybody is watching Cuba, "she is putting in evidence the nature of this dictatorship," Mariño says.
Bruguera is pleased to have injected art into the political discussion. "We are living a very important historic moment," she says. "Any decision that is taken today in terms of law, economy and culture will affect the next 20 or 30 years. Everything is in a very subtle balance and a very delicate balance."
It is unclear if renewing diplomatic relations with the U.S. will bring more freedom to people in Cuba. For artists, it is likely that the renewed ties will bring greater wealth though, especially to those in Havana. With weekly charter flights from JFK International to Jose Marti International airport, dealers and curators from New York who are tapped into the Cuban art scene can now access the island easily.
Farber, the collector of Cuban art, has predicted "a stampede of people going to Havana." Farber's blog tripled its readership in the first two months of this year — a sign that opened connections will bring more interest in the art and buyers to the island. Cuban art is no longer the best-kept secret in the art world.
If the rapprochement brings more travel to Cuba, it is possible artists will start moving back to the island. "I think a lot of artists will consider going back to Cuba," says curator Rachel Perera Weingeist. It's the only place in the art world where an artist can answer their doorbell and have direct access to curators, collectors and museums from around the world.
"Right now to live in Cuba is a plus. They are more exotic, it's an extra value and appeal," says Enrique Del Risco, a Cuban lecturer of Spanish and Portuguese at New York University. "But when everything is normal it's going to change the dynamic." While the focus is on artists in Cuba, artists interviewed in New York still choose hustling to make a name for themselves here over returning to Cuba and losing their freedom.
"When you leave Cuba," Mariño says, dealers and curators "don't give a damn about you anymore. They want the 'authentic' Cuban artist who lives in Cuba." Mariño, 46, predicts money will flow to Cuban artists as U.S. travel to the island brings a boom in art sales. As the tables turn, this focus on Cubans on the island might also dissolve. But Mariño won't return. "Who can handle that? That's a crazy country, man."
On her return to New York, Bruguera will be working to bridge communication between the Mayor's office and the city's immigrant populations.
"I have been inspired by Tania Bruguera's vision for art as something that can propose real, tangible solutions for the people involved," Tom Finkelpearl, the city's Cultural Affairs Commissioner said in a statement.
Bruguera's battle isn't over yet: she won't leave Cuba until the government assures her that she will be allowed to return and perform in the future. This may take a few more weeks. If the Cuban authorities won't offer her this reassurance, Bruguera could face the difficult choice of remaining a prisoner on the island or never returning to her homeland again.
Images: motionatny/YouTube (1); Cara McGoogan (3); Bienal de Performace BP15/YouTube (1); Getty Images (2)