Artist’s Voice is a collaboration between Freemuse and Shouts – Music from the Rooftops! The collaboration aims to provide a platform for artists to share their stories, in their own words, brought to light through interviews published on a shared blog. The blog is available on Shouts and Freemuse websites as well as on corresponding social media channels.
Interviews are undertaken by Shouts managing editor Halldór H. Kristínarson. All interviews will be published in the artists own words. Freemuse and Shouts believe that the right to freedom of artistic expression is a right for all and will work together to create a platform for these expressions.
Freemuse and Shouts cooperated on the below interview of Cuban visual artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara. Luis is repeatedly arbitrary detained for his activism.
This interview was translated from Spanish to English.
Halldór H. Kristínarson: The authorities in Havana have detained you several times because of your art. Can you explain how these encounters with the police have affected you?
Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara: First of all, over the course of two years, I have been arrested more than 20 times. This, undeniably, poses a huge psychological and creative burden on me. It affects the way you live your life, you cannot plan ahead, you cannot have a true family life, even a normal couple; because in the blink of an eye you can get arrested and disappear, you can have your house seized, you may be having dinner with friends, having fun and then you leave through that door and get arrested… so you will never truly enjoy. You live part of your life in prison, in that you do not know what the next minute will bring.
The same applies to creativity. Your head drifts away and into a different dimension; you begin to ask yourself other questions as a result of the pressure, the round-the-clock surveillance; those jobs that require peace, lack of pressure cannot prosper. Your attitude is a canvas that mirrors the pervasive psychological pressure posed by dungeons and jails. All this is portrayed in the artwork; it is really hard, both physically and intellectually. And then, there are the collectives you relate with; you begin to gather with friends who are also afraid of going to jail, and then people give you a strange look and begin to fear hanging out with you. If at that point you are not able to keep a cool head and focus on your objectives, be chill, then you will cave in.
I think the Cuban government is afraid of my art; it is afraid of whatever makes people think. The Cuban government controls absolutely everything, inside and outside of the island. The government exerts control over the collective imagination, it is not an economic control such as that of capitalist regimes which decide who/what is bought or sold. The Cuban government is not interested in people thriving and therefore exerts control through starvation, deprivation, misery, queues; through trying to see who the enemy is; and all that is in the domain of ideas, the collective imagination, the minds.
When an artist shows people a new benchmark, then everything becomes binary: good and evil. They are the good guys and the enemy, basically, anyone becomes the bad guy —be they dissidents, artists, activists for the rights of women or any other rights, even Americans, when 80% of Cubans have never been in the USA. The USA has become the enemy, thanks to the information broadcast on Cuban television and political propaganda. This is how the Cuban government has the minds of the population on a tight grip. When an artist instils new models into the minds of the people —who are in despair, who are hungry, who realize that the regime is bad, but who lack intellectual role models or leaders other than those the regime broadcasts on TV— through social media, and so on… when you begin to give people solutions and tools through aesthetics, thought out solutions, people begin to have hope, and this is inadmissible for the regime; the regime does not want the people to be hopeful, to know how to organize themselves, to protest; the regime fears all of this.
I, as an individual, am a great performer, I am a game-changer, you put me in jail, and I break free, I am brave, and what defines me is that I am fearless, I am not afraid of the regime, and I want people to see that it is possible. And when the regime sees you are hopeful and have the means to change things, it targets you, constantly; plus, art is a powerful tool, because it works through aesthetics. When you are able to have a visual impact on millions of people; you wear a sweatshirt, and you have millions wear it as well, or you are able to speak a blunt truth through a photograph and people don’t need to read through hundreds of pages to understand the message —they watch my photo they can tell what I wanted to convey— you scare the regime, they are afraid of that.
When the revolution succeeded, the regime made vast use of art, Fidel Castro did when he built his revolutionary image, his ethics and so on; they know art has this strength, and they fear art giving people a way out in times of despair. Cubans are willing to protest, to take to the streets, but they do not know how; the how has been deconstructed.
Halldór H. Kristínarson: Are there a lot of artists in Cuba currently oppressed for their art?
Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara: There are more oppressed artists. I believe that in Cuba, everything is oppressed. This morning, I was watching artist Luis Gómez say in an interview that art was not undergoing a crisis, that art is and has always been a response to reality. Art is beyond a doubt, a response to reality. When an anthropologist or an art historian come and see the phenomenon we are going through now, they will be able to interpret what is going on right now by the lack of brightness, the lack of substance in contemporary art. Cuban art is being suppressed. Everyone in Cuba knows what we are allowed and not allowed to say. Few artists are able to decry and overcome this; the Cuban regime has long bought artists through patronage, money, perks, trips, scholarships, and thus artists choose to silence their legitimate voice. Therefore, many artists in Cuba are being repressed.
There’s artists, there’s culture, and there are those artists who decide to speak their minds and make their voices heard. For example, the regime has created a sort of independence, simulated cultural independence, and it has been trying to do so for a long time; but that independence is fake. Those are spaces that the regime gives to certain artists who are afforded certain perks and benefits within the regime, so they create those spaces, but they know very well where, how, what, and when. Those artists also feel the frustration, and repression and they have to bet on a particular friend or artist, even when they would rather vouch for another artist.
The other negative thing in Cuba is that only those spaces exist. Anywhere in the world, an art gallery may pick one artist or the other, but in here once you’ve been chosen —and there are only three to five galleries, five to six distribution media— you also need to deal with the political machinery, the military machinery, and then you ask yourself: “Am I a criminal, a military officer that I have all the military intelligence on me?” Finally, you figure out that it is a huge totalitarian government and the ministry of culture, instead of helping artists, promoting culture, and vouching for artists before the government, is another control arm of the totalitarian government.
Thus many artists are expelled from institutions or universities, and there’s fear on the one hand and manipulation by the regime on the other, that if you report “this” they will be nicer to you, and so you are politicized, marginalized, and people stay away from you… People simply prefer to be obsequious and stay in university, in a gallery and not “say” anything and, eventually, walk away without speaking up. This is why artists like me or like Movimiento San Isidro are able to speak up, see things. But there is too much repression, censorship, and persecution.
During the June 30th march, many artists got persecuted. Tania Bruguera is another example, the people from the INSTAR collective. The problem is that people have no role models in Cuba. Since they believe this is not going to change, they prefer to remain quiet, to emigrate or pursue studies elsewhere. The regime uses culture as a censorship and control mechanism for people not to thrive; they want people to dance to their tune, much like zombies who do not think or challenge civic or political structures. Artists are being persecuted everywhere, also in the province. There are no psychological or personal tools for people to protest. They say to themselves “I will protest because, at least, if I remain silent, in 15 days they will forget I protested, or I did anything.”
Now we are faced with an interesting situation, thanks to the MSI and other spaces, several artists are setting the bar for other artists, so that they can flourish, decry, and spread their worldview. I can mention different groups, such as DIVERSO, groups in the provinces, musical groups such as Maikel Osorbo and other artists that are being severely repressed. In their case, repression is not even concealed in the form of institutional repression or repression to prevent people from speaking up.
Halldór H. Kristínarson: Has your art always been political? Do you think there should be a separation between art and activism or do the two go hand in hand?
Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara: To me, there is a fine line between art and activism; art and politics. I have always thought that art carries a civic and political responsibility. I do not believe in apolitical art; it does not exist. If as an artist you are able to paint a purely retinal landscape, for the mere contemplation of “beauty”, and I get to see it, then I need to hear that voice that every artist has, because art is not about the landscape, that is the object; art is what you, as an intellectual, convey through the landscape.
When you create a landscape, you say to yourself: “I want it to be a dream landscape, so people will see the beauty in ugliness.” And that is a political statement. So, for me, there is no apolitical art; art is not detached from social interests or activism. When you take your picture out of your house and on to the street or up in a gallery, you are activating a political link. There is, no doubt, a group of artists that bear more responsibility than those who prefer to wash their hands and turn the blind eye. There are artists who bear more responsibility —as human beings, as artists— and overtly put their art at the service of people. I dislike the term artivist, but at least I can agree that there is a category, an acknowledgement, a path for this type of artists.
On the other hand, governments disqualify you; they claim you are not an artist because your art is political or you are politicized, and so you are forced to define yourself. And this is the definition that powers have historically sought —this applies to Gauguin, to the socialists— governments have always wanted artists to define themselves, and, in fact, the world has changed thanks to their own definition or lack of definition. Therefore, at this point, if you manage to intellectually define “artivism”, it means a lot to me. Because this serves as an umbrella term for those artists who put more at stake than an artist who paints a purely retinal landscape. We, the activist artists who risk our necks, need to decodify that, so people understand and acknowledge the difference.
In Cuba, when you decide to do political art, the regime disqualifies you and defines you as politicized. So to have events, museums, theoreticians write about us, to have political art exhibitions curated, and thought about this type of artivist art is super important because people will continue to dismember reality and will say: “well activists, artists, came to be because…” Each activist plays a role in contemporary society.
Those who fight for the rights of animals need to codify me, because I may be an activist but I may not know about the rights of animals, or why it is important for animals to have rights; for women to have rights and reach higher, and to fight for equality… all this feminist speech… as a machist western male I need someone to decodify all that for me. The same applies to activists for racial rights; they need to decodify all that and make the world understand. This is built from the bottom up, and each and everyone of us contribute a grain of sand. Therefore, those artists whose work is based on reflecting and questioning, challenging, accepting, from an aesthetic and artistic standpoint, also need their own space, and that space was called artivism. I do not particularly like the term, because we should then refer to animalism, blackism, and every group would have its own “ism”, and we would have to go back to the XIX, XX nomenclatures: surrealism, impressionism… However, until we find another term…
Art also likes relational aesthetics and all that is good because it makes us part of 2000 years or more of art tradition. We are not alone because we all need to find our way into the world of art, and commit politically, aesthetically, ideologically. And then we have Cuba, a dictatorship with its dreadful political machinery. So, all this tradition is useful and helps us release some oppression.
Halldór H. Kristínarson: What is your opinion of current cultural environment in Cuba? Specifically relating to your experience dressing up in a dress (typically worn by women)?
Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara: I think that, at this point in time, the Cuban culture is being permeated by how we move, the way we see the world, how art influences all of that, the Cuban culture is in its worst possible moment, because, to me, culture is inherent to the people. Culture is not a stand-alone element, although it may somehow be, it grows like an animal, but it needs to be underpinned by power, governments, otherwise it becomes a culture of resistance, and when it becomes a culture of resistance the impact on the majority is singled out, flagged.
In Cuba, all culture is culture of resistance. The culture promoted by the regime resists what the regime does not promote and criticizes. So there emerges a huge contradiction and conflict of which culture is always the victim. The regime, through decrees and laws affecting creators —key drivers of culture and cultural connections— causes artists to waste time figuring out how they will survive imprisonment, persecution, and here I’m referring to all creators; from the reggaeton musician, or the painter of a retinal picture, to that person who has a seventh sense to deal with a regime that doesn’t allow you to thrive financially. If you write the lyrics, you must be cautious with your words. We are constantly living in a sort of hole, a rabbit hole and thus it is exceedingly difficult for culture to stay alive when artists are constantly resisting and struggling to survive.
For instance: in Haiti if you want to go the corner shop and buy cheap paint and paint with it, you are allowed to. In here, a creator who needs to buy paint cannot find it, whether cheap or expensive. There is none. So, the scarcity of materials reinforces the intention and will of the government, and the power of government affects culture. This translates into lack of funding and resources to support cultural projects in Cuba, because the government lacks the political will to favor inclusion with and for the people. And then comes the endurance that cultural stakeholders need to have in order to survive and exercise creativity. This is why I believe culture is going through its worst moment.
If all social definitions such as homophobia or racism are cultural structures that cannot be removed or installed by decree or law, if all of this is permeated by political repression, then an artist who wants to talk about racism, feminism, femicide, machism and so on, must inevitably refer to poor governance, poor administration of government institutions.
Now, if you decide to speak up or remain silent, but do not go through the government enabling apparatus, then you are labeled as counterrevolutionary, so you end up being considered a counterrevolutionary, you are against the system, people don’t listen to what you say and therefore reality does not change. Homophobia, machism, racism are soaring because the institutions of the regime are increasingly pathetic and there is lack of creativity. So, the few who work and resist the regime need to figure out how to survive the regime, repression and get to do a ridiculously small percentage of the cultural work they should be doing inside the Cuban society.
Even if you work against government and you criticize government, many curators and institutions coming to Cuba or otherwise don’t want to work with you or with any artist censored by government, because at the end of the day they want to arrive in Cuba and be given a warm welcome, they want to network, and exhibit in Cuban institutions. So, if you are censored you are stigmatized inside and outside of Cuba. And we need to fight this because we want our work to transcend, to grow, to connect with other realities and to make the world think beyond the Cubans for the Cubans. It is absolutely complex and difficult.
Halldór H. Kristínarson: Do you experience fear for your own security?
Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara: I live one day at a time in Cuba. It is an endless rebirth. I live in a state of war, I can get arrested by a police officer round the corner, any time, fall off a balcony or get killed. And as I was saying, it is difficult to plan ahead in Cuba, to live in peace and quiet. I, therefore, live in a state of war and in the words of Michel Matos “we create a kind of mortgaged territory”. I do not feel safe in Cuba, I am talking about security —life or death—, not just about being arrested.
Cuba lacks political opposition, so if you progress, you have more followers, or if an artist or individual, an activist of any kind becomes visible because people crave a leader, someone to guide them, initially it works for you because you gain visibility, but it is also a sort of drawback because the regime fears those who the people follow. Osvaldo Payá Sardiñas had an accident and got killed. Then you realize that the regime is capable of killing you, so you decide to live on the edge, in a sort of limbo between a bit of faith, lack of fear and the incapacity to leave the struggle behind because if you do you become a living dead.
Halldór H. Kristínarson: If you would want to leave Cuba, could you?
Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara: I cannot leave Cuba. You can only leave Cuba if the regime says so. They decide whether you leave, you enter —not in times of COVID, of course. Last time, I was not allowed to leave Cuba. The regime also decides whether you go to jail, or to trial… in short, they decide your short- and long-term future. You are a leaf on the wind, where the powers of the regime, of the people or the international community, either rescue you or drown you, so you are a piece in the gear of the Cuban and universal reality.
Halldór H. Kristínarson: What do you hope to achieve and produce with your art?
Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara: When I discovered the world of art I wanted my art to have a direct connection with reality, to drive actual change, I wanted to go beyond the picture on a wall or the sculpture on a beautiful pedestal for a millionaire or any person to contemplate and purchase; and mind you, I’m not against that. But I was driven by art pieces which had a stronger, direct, concise and to the point impact on Cuban reality. Back in the day, I liked to go out on the streets, I wanted the artwork to connect directly with the spectator and the specific reality.
My art is alive. Now the regime has a dilemma; they want to kill my art. In fact, I remember one of my many encounters with law enforcement authorities during which they gave me the example of many Cuban artists, and they said: “Why aren’t you like so and so who is now exhibiting in this venue, who has prizes, money and many other things?” And I replied: “if I am an artist just like them, why don’t you give me the same opportunities?” They said: “because you provoke” and then I replied: “Can you think of an unprovocative art?” That is a dead art.
My art is about resistance, and I cannot have it any other way. Even if you simply talk about flowers, the moon, racism, or love in socialist Cuba, when you are faced with a dictatorship such as the Cuban, it will always become resistance, because dictatorship is utterly rigid. In that stiffness, love and the simplest freedoms are curtailed, threatened, by the ego and the interests of two or three families that wish to retain control over everything. So, if love and freedom thrive, they will be seen as enemies. Mi art resists dictatorship, and so the regime will always see it as a dreadful enemy.
I want my art to become an instrument of freedom in Cuba. I know it is possible, art is a wonderful tool to connect people and provide solutions, to unite people, to contribute to the true changes needed in a dictatorship and beyond, we don’t know whether we will still be alive but what we do know is that art is and will be necessary to restore many fractured pieces and that dictatorship has come to encrypt the Cuban society, as did racism and homophobia.
My production is a form of resistance. Luckily, we now have social media, the Internet and those are the tools I use. To me, there is not a single tool or a single way. Thanks to the Internet, there are distribution media because I do want to be famous and exhibit my artwork in big galleries and museums and use all that for the benefit of the people. There is all this dichotomy “you like mainstream, and the art world, and you are linked to the banality and frivolity of that world, but you also care for people, and activism…” Well, I want to prove them wrong; you can have a name in the art world, be known by galleries, museums, biennials and still cause your artwork to have a real, concrete and visible impact beyond aesthetics, to have a concrete impact on our contemporary reality. So, there is not a single way.
I believe my way of doing things has derived from resistance, from not being able to exhibit, from being silenced and not being able to drive change in people through my work, the love I feel for people makes me constantly redefine the ways and means of having my work connect with people and help people have a future and see that future.
Halldór H. Kristínarson: What is on the horizon for you, what projects are you working on?
Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara: In the near future, I want to keep working; if luck is on my side, then we will be able to participate in an international project so that my work transcends Cuban borders because it is important for artwork to breathe, to have different viewpoints and for people to discover our work and that of the artists from the collective, Movimiento San Isidro. One of my goals is for independent Cuban art to become known overseas because most big museums and curators, when they come to Cuba, they go through the institutional sieve and it’s really hard for them to discover independent art. Thanks to the work of Coco Fusco and other artists, together with Tania Bruguera, we get some curators to make the work of those artists more visible, internationally.
We are now working on several projects. The most imminent is “La causa N.° 1 del 2019”. It is a series of photographs which translate into performances. We aesthetically and creatively depict the way the Cuban Judiciary works without detaching too much from the way the Cuban Judiciary actually works. It is a scanner to showcase to the world how vulnerable we are before Cuban laws and the fact that we lack protection.
We are like leaves on the wind, and there is no rule of law. We are vulnerable, we can be imprisoned in a year, in five or in ten years, based on the decision of a single person, on whether he/she likes you or not, instead of based on a legal framework or an institution. The series is comprised of 4 videos, one performance and 4 photographs which will accompany another series of photographs. We are also working on a series on how to develop a cultural protest, how to design a protest in Cuba through design and fashion.
Halldór H. Kristínarson: Is there anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?
Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara: The world would like to cry that Cuba is suffering, even when it comes across on magazines as a beautiful destination with paradise beaches, as an allegedly happy country, with people laughing, drinking rum and partying; Cuba is a nation in pain, a country that’s being killed softly. Culture is being smothered, people are dying spiritually and physically.
The regime has been shrewd by managing to instil the rhetoric of free education, health care and social security into the world… when in fact, Cuba is dying, regardless of its infinite cultural resources and strength. The totalitarian regime seeks to linger even when it lacks creativity and legitimacy; it is entrenched, trying to retrieve the little money left of this dying animal; they want to see the nation dead. I believe culture is a tool that will survive and rebrand itself. I think Cubans are brave, strong, and I hope this leap into democracy will leave us something positive, not just the death of a precious country.
We are connected!