The artist Tania Bruguera who was detained last week with fellow artists in Cuba for protesting against Decree 349, an artistic censorship law, has written an open letter explaining why she will not attend Kochi biennial at a time that is crucial for freedom of expression in Cuba and beyond.
Bruguera who was due to attend Kochi states in the letter:
“At this moment I do not feel comfortable traveling to participate in an international art event when the future of the arts and artists in Cuba is at risk… As an artist I feel my duty today is not to exhibit my work at an international exhibition and further my personal artistic career but to expose the vulnerability of Cuban artists today.”
Bruguera feels it is important to highlight the situation in Cuba and also to see it as part of a global phenomenon of repression of artists and freedom of expression. Recent cases such as Shahidul Alam, the photographer imprisoned by the government of Bangladesh (who Bruguera campaigned for by hosting two protest shows at Tate Modern in October), the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi killed in the Saudi embassy in Turkey, and photographer Lu Guang who has gone missing in China, demonstrate that governments feel emboldened to openly attack high profile figures, moving beyond internal state repression which used to happen behind closed doors.
On Wednesday 5 December supporters of Bruguera held a protest exhibition at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, where participants spoke on a microphone about Decree 349 and the abuse of artists around the world. Alistair Hudson, director of the Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery spoke at the event via live phone in. Tate director Maria Balshaw, also spoke out on the BBC news broadcast of the Turner Prize whilst Tate Modern director Frances Morris made a statement on Tate twitter. A speech by HRH Prince Constantijn on the occasion of the 2018 Prince Claus Awards at the Royal Palace, Amsterdam on 6 December 2018 also spoke about the situation with reference to Tania Bruguera, Shahidul Alam and Lu Guang. Many other cultural institutions around the world have also made public statements, whilst others are showing signs that they will follow.
The hope is that art institutions and events around the world, such as Kochi biennial, follow suit and show open solidarity to defend the artists’ space.
The full wording of Bruguera’s letter is as follows:
OPEN LETTER BY TANIA BRUGUERA TO THE DIRECTOR OF KOCHI BIENNALE ON DECREE 349
At this moment I do not feel comfortable traveling to participate in an international art event when the future of the arts and artists in Cuba is at risk. The Cuban government with Decree 349 is legalizing censorship, saying that art must be created to suit their ethic and cultural values (which are not actually defined). The government is creating a `cultural police´ in the figure of the inspectors, turning what was until now, subjective and debatable into crime.
Cuban artists have united for the first time in many decades to be heard, each with their own points of view. They had meetings with bureaucrats from the Ministry of Culture who promised them that they would meet again to give them answers. Instead, the Minister and other bureaucrats appeared on TV and made comments such as “[those who oppose Decree 349] want the dissolution of the institution” and “the alternative they are proposing is the commercialisation of art.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. If this were true, the artists would not have written to the institutions and sought dialogue with them.
But, a public opinion campaign by the government against the artists, with the intention to divide between “good ones” and “bad ones”, has started. This is even more concerning when under this decree the law restricts but provides no guarantee of whether an artist will or will not be criminalized or not at any time.. Moreover, the decree states that all `artistic services´ must be authorized by the Ministry of Culture and its correspondent institutions, making independent art impossible.
The last time a decree of this sort was enacted was the no. 226 from November 29 of 1997, which is evidence of the long life that such a decree could have and its long term impact on our culture.
As an artist I feel my duty today is not to exhibit my work at an international exhibition and further my personal artistic career but to be with my fellow Cuban artists and to expose the vulnerability of Cuban artists today.
We are all waiting for the regulations and norms the Ministry of Culture will put forward to implement Decree 349 in the hope that they include the suggestions and demands so many artists shared with them. I would like to add that the instructor from the Ministry of Interior who is in charge of my case menaced me yesterday, saying that if I didn’t leave Cuba and if I did `something´, I would not be able to leave in the future.
Injustice exists because previous injustices were not challenged.
Ironically, I’m sending you this text on December 10th the International Day of Human Rights.