Upon entering “Sin Autorización” (Without Authorization), an exhibition at Columbia University’s Wallach Gallery, one encountered a large free-standing wall covered with screenshots of Facebook messages in Spanish railing against Cuban authorities, calling for more protests, and demanding freedom for political prisoners: “HAVANA IS IN THE STREET, EVERYONE HIT THE STREET”; “Today is a beautiful day to scream: RESIGN NOW DAMn IT!”; “ENOUGH LIES, ABUSES, AND ARROGANCE, CUBA IS NOT THE GOVERNMENT, THE FATHERLAND IS NOT A POLITICAL PARTY.” The Houston-based artist Reynier Leyva Novo began collecting these posts on July 11, 2021, when tens of thousands of Cubans took to the streets in what became the largest protest on the island in the past century. Collaging the screenshots together, he created a portrait of a pivotal moment in Cuban history, when the island’s citizenry asserted itself as a political entity distinct from the state’s rhetorical invocation of “the people.”
“Sin Autorización,” a survey of Cuban art from the past ten years curated by Abel González Fernández and Gwen A. Unger, charted the rise of public protest against state control of culture and civic life. Access to social media—mainly Facebook, which most Cubans didn’t have until the Internet became available on their cell phones in 2018—unleashed the widespread discontent expressed in the mural and in all the artworks in the exhibition. Facebook quickly became an alternative public square where Cubans could expose everything that state media suppressed: ordinary people used it to complain about police violence, frequent blackouts, and shortages; activists called for expanded civil liberties; independent journalists posted reports about government malfeasance; and dissident artists and musicians circulated their work in defiance of state censorship. The sentiments that for decades had been expressed only behind closed doors or published abroad were now out in the open.
The most vocal critics today are young adults who grew up in the post-Communist era and view the “revolution” as an ossified ideology imposed on them by octogenarian leaders clinging to power. Their political skepticism is vividly expressed in Laziness in Cuba (Vagancia en Cuba, 2021–2022), a short documentary by the director Kevin Ávila included in the exhibition, in which sharp-tongued artists, designers, and writers speak about their rejection of revolutionary certitudes and their ironic views on daily life. The writer Orlando Hernández describes their sensibility as “this other face, this other cynical, questioning glance constantly laying itself out before the grand narrative.”
The documentary shares its title with the underground magazine Vagancia en Cuba (Laziness in Cuba), which the artist Julio Llópiz-Casal and the writer Santiago Díaz M. published between 2015 and 2019; titles of published and purportedly forthcoming texts in the magazine include “Let’s Burn the Bookstores in Havana” and “Confessions of a Midget Who Spent Too Much Time on Tiptoe.” What is lost in translation is the history of the term vagancia, which in Cuba is associated with colonial-era laws against vagrancy as well as legislation from the 1970s that is still used against anyone considered insufficiently productive or thought to be engaged in politically undesirable activity.*
Ávila also contributed to an installation in the exhibition titled Biblioteca para lomo-lectores (Library for Spine Readers, 2018–2022). The piece consists of a large bookshelf filled with volumes bearing sarcastic titles, some of which playfully revisit classic Cuban texts, such as Julio García Espinosa’s manifesto from 1969, For an Imperfect Cinema, which here becomes For an Imperfect Surveillance. Other volumes twist the grandiloquence of official state rhetoric by making scatological jokes: the artists change the word nacional in a series of titles to nacionalga (from national to nation–rear end): Nacionalga Prize, Nacionalga Sport, Nacionalga Ballet, Nacionalga Heroes, and so on. The tenor vacillates between caustic humor and sadness: on one shelf is a three-volume work entitled The Past Is Missing, conjuring a vision of a society marked by censorship, forced expulsion, and mass migration, together with other titles—such as The Fatigue of the Tourist Guide and In the Pimp’s Clutches—that allude to Cubans’ submission to exploitative relations with foreigners.
Cuban youth feel especially disaffected with their government because President Obama’s 2016 visit to Cuba had inspired hopes that a new era of liberalization was on the horizon. What arrived instead with the appointment in 2018 of Miguel Díaz-Canel as president was the opposite—a series of laws that tightened state control over independent cultural and economic activity and that penalized the use of social media to criticize the government. One of the first laws that alarmed Cuban artists was Decree 349, which was enacted that December and effectively criminalized any independently produced cultural endeavor made public without state authorization. Penalties range from hefty fines to the confiscation of equipment and property.
Even before the law had gone into effect, the rapper Maykel Osorbo was imprisoned for ten months in 2018 for performing a song protesting the decree at a state-run cultural center; his music video “¿De qué me van a hablar?” (What Will They Talk to Me About?, 2020), cocreated with DJ Funky, is included in the exhibition. In the video, several artists and activists gaze into the camera while Osorbo and Funky call for the release of political prisoners and chant the refrain, “I’m suffering because of the enslavement of my country by you [i.e., the authorities] and repressors I don’t understand.” After cowriting the Grammy Award–winning song “Patria y Vida,” Osorbo was arrested again in 2021 and sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment.
Censorship has existed in Cuba since the beginning of the revolution, but in recent decades the tactics of the state had been limited to targeting individuals considered to be ideological opponents. Decree 349 cast a shadow over everyone, even the graduates of Cuba’s highly regarded University of the Arts, who had not openly criticized the regime before and were accustomed to assiduous promotion by the Ministry of Culture. The island’s younger and more critically minded artists, together with the renegade rockers, rappers, and reggaetoneros who produce their music at home, were concerned about this legislation and banded together. They had operated for several years in a legal gray area, circulating their work without state support and reaching audiences via the Internet and a network of privately owned venues that were more attractive to Cuban youth than most state-run cultural centers. The photographer Leandro Feal’s luscious black-and-white video Hotel Roma (2017), a fifty-two-minute jet stream of still images edited to the pulsating rhythms of Cuban rumba, son, and cha cha cha, gave visitors at the Wallach a glimpse of what once was Cuba’s only nightspot devoted to electronic music, a semi-clandestine rooftop bar managed by a hipster DJ where the island’s artistic cognoscenti cavorted with intoxicating energy.
One of the artworks in the exhibition refers to Decree 349 directly: in her 2018 installation Todas las intrusas (All the Intruders), Celia González ironically labels herself an intruder, the word used by the government to refer to those not officially considered artists. The piece consists of sixteen photocopies of passages from Decree 349 that are reproduced in varying degrees of readability, arranged around a small video projection of the artist holding up a screen showing an exchange of erotic text messages between herself and her lover, which could, in accordance with the law, be censored.
Several other pieces in the show documented the activism of the San Isidro Movement, a collective of self-taught artists, poets, and musicians that first challenged the legitimacy of the decree. Throughout the second half of 2018, the movement’s members created performative street actions and antigovernment rap songs and organized online discussions about the lack of civil rights in Cuba.
One of the group’s cofounders, the charismatic performance artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, used Facebook Live to urge fellow Cubans to challenge state authority, and drew a notably large following. His boldness and popularity alarmed the authorities, leading to his being arrested fifty times between 2018 and 2021. In 2021 he was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, ostensibly for desecrating national symbols in a 2019 piece, documented on video, in which he performed everyday activities draped in a Cuban flag. A video of one of his arrests in 2018, recorded on someone’s cell phone and originally posted to social media, was included in “Sin Autorización.” The show also displayed a poem by Amaury Pacheco—another member of the San Isidro Movement—titled “Without Being Able to Escape the Poem,” which questions what poetry can do in the face of political violence:
A policeman hits a government opponent with his baton
blood runs, bathing his face.
And with an immobilization technique
He fractures his shoulder, and chokes him until he turns blue
Can I write a poem?
Make of this act a double astral,
an attached file for future visualizations?
While the San Isidro Movement chose to be openly confrontational with its criticism of mounting state repression, graduates of the art school opted for a more discreet approach at first, privately trying to persuade culture-ministry officials to rescind Decree 349. But when they realized that no one in power cared to listen to them, they began to air their grievances in the online opposition press and eventually allied themselves with the San Isidro Movement. Although Decree 349 went into effect in December 2018, the international outcry sparked by the Cuban artists’ protests forced government officials to go on record claiming that the law was “under review.” During the next two years, the artists became “artivists”—a term many of them explicitly embraced in this period—using eye-catching graphic design and adroitly phrased antigovernment slogans to call on their compatriots to reject unjust laws and to be critical of the mounting state propaganda against them.
A decisive moment came in November 2020, when the San Isidro Movement headquarters was raided by police while several members were carrying out a hunger strike to protest the unjust imprisonment of the rapper Denis Solís. The live stream of the violent arrest of the hunger strikers incited the largest-ever sit-in by artists in front of the Ministry of Culture, on November 27, 2020. Estimates of the size of the crowd are in the hundreds—numbers that were unprecedented in Cuba. After a fourteen-hour standoff, the ministers met with several of the protesters, including the internationally celebrated artist Tania Bruguera and the dramatist Yunior García Aguilera. These events also led to the formation of 27N, an artists’ initiative calling for greater creative autonomy and civil liberties for the general population.
The posters in the exhibition created by the designer Claudia Patricia for the Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt (INSTAR) testify to crucial moments in the escalating tensions between artists and the state, as well as the institute’s ongoing effort to provide a forum for civic education and engagement. The brightly colored graphic design combines bold images and phrases, such as “Once, they created brigades for teaching LITERACY/now they are created to REPRESS.” A poster about one of the arrests of Otero Alcántara proclaims, “THIS IS NOT A PERFORMANCE.” Other posters detail INSTAR’s public programs featuring dissident artists and intellectuals.
While many of the artworks in “Sin Autorización” responded directly to the recent tensions between artists and the state, there were a few notable pieces that reflected on politically sensitive aspects of the revolution’s past. They are part of a growing body of cultural production in Cuba that compensates for decades of restricted access to government records by imagining archival materials that probably exist somewhere or by expanding on accessible fragments that refer to forbidden histories.
A notable example, not included in the exhibition, is The Padilla Affair (2022), a recent documentary by Pavel Giroud that examines the story of the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla, whose forced confession of being a counterrevolutionary in 1971 caused an international uproar. The government suppressed the film of Padilla condemning himself, his wife, and several friends as counterrevolutionaries, leading to five decades of unceasing speculation about the sincerity of the poet’s profession of guilt. Giroud managed to secure a copy of the infamous confession—his source remains unknown—restored it, and supplemented it with commentaries by Julio Cortázar and Carlos Fuentes, among other Latin American literary giants who came to Padilla’s defense and parted company with the Cuban Revolution.
The artists in “Sin Autorización” are less faithful than Giroud to facts in their appropriation and speculative invention of historical documents. A series of twelve small-scale, delicately rendered watercolors by Lester Álvarez Meno, titled La noche en Cuba (The Night in Cuba, 2018–2022; see illustration on page 35), show scenes from various banned literary works, including Huber Matos’s memoir of his twenty years as a political prisoner and the exiled writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers, an experimental novel full of wordplay and puns whose story takes place in steamy Havana bars and clubs on the eve of the Cuban Revolution.
Julio Llópiz-Casal’s Archivo I and Archivo II (2013) consist of two framed floppy disks in black sleeves, one labeled “Ana Mendieta: Letters to the UN About Cuba (1978)” and the other “Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Letters to His Family in Cuba (1979–1982).” The labels refer to Mendieta’s involvement in the negotiations between Cuba and the US—which included Cuban exiles as well as politicians, and which were televised in Cuba, becoming a powerful form of political theater there—that led to the release of thousands of political prisoners in 1979 and family reunification flights that allowed many Cuban exiles to visit relatives, and to Gonzalez-Torres’s extended separation from his parents and siblings, who did not receive permission to emigrate when he departed Cuba in 1970. The vintage digital format of the piece and its typed labels scattered with stains give the impression that it’s been pilfered from Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior and that it documents the state’s surveillance of two exiled artists who are widely admired by younger generations on the island.
The artist who has developed the most sustained exploration of Cuban political propaganda and the iconography of the repressive state apparatus is Hamlet Lavastida, a member of 27N who was detained for three months in 2021 at State Security headquarters, accused of inciting others to commit a crime because he had proposed in a private online chat to make an artwork by designing an ink stamper with which he could mark Cuban currency with opposition group logos. He was represented in “Sin Autorización” by one version of his ongoing project Cultura profiláctica (Prophylactic Culture, 2014–2022), a wall-sized grid of die-cut graphic posters that recast the images of the Cuban Revolution’s early years to analyze the ways in which the government normalized violent repression. Whereas the iconography was originally devised to communicate state power, Lavastida’s grids bring the symbols together to reveal how they function as a rhetorical system. Using the heroic imagery of citizen militias, valiant security agents, and triumphalist slogans, Lavastida’s work underscores state strategies for separating insider from outsider, in order to forge a collective identity and codify revolutionary conduct.
While it is undeniable that the artwork in “Sin Autorización” charts the emergence of a group of creatively resourceful Cuban artists who have broken the state’s monopoly on public discourse, it is also true that the artists paid a heavy price for their defiance. Two artists in the exhibition remain in prison on trumped-up charges, several have been expelled from the island, and others have chosen to leave rather than submit to constant harassment from police, loss of employment, and demonization in the state media. The country whose authoritarian exercise of power united them behind a single movement has also pulled them apart.
Though many of these artists are now geographically dispersed, they persist in their activism, with some important successes: they continue to create effective visual campaigns in support of Cuba’s 1,034 political prisoners, most of whom were arrested during the July 2021 protests; Bruguera’s INSTAR project last summer, which brilliantly showcased dozens of independent artists, musicians, writers, and performers, was one of the highlights of Documenta 15. The Wallach Gallery exhibition was a testament to the fighting spirit of the first wave of artists in sixty years to have had the temerity and technological ability to rise up against the Cuban government. That government denies the legitimacy of their dissent but has nonetheless been forced to contend with their symbolic power on the world stage, which is no small triumph.