A great event should develop in a small place to reach the peak of its splendor. (Un acontecimiento grande debe desarrollarse en un lugar pequeno, para conseguir su punto de esplendor.)
-Jose Lezama Lima, Playas del arbol
Back in the early nineties, the enthusiasm seemed unstoppable, although it was possible to discern even then that weak arguments sustained it. The group relocation of Cuba's famed eighties generation from Havana to Mexico City and from there to Monterrey, Miami, and New York opened up an extraordinary prospect: the "extraterritorial" manifestation of an artistic phenomenon generated by the historical and political milieu of Cuba. Journalists, critics, and artists themselves entertained the possibility of the continuity of Cuban art outside of Cuba.1 As the critic Peter Plagens wrote in 1992, "Here come the Cubans. Artists from that fading citadel of Soviet-style communism are everywhere these days in the most freebooting of all capitalist enterprises, the Western art world. . . . Like the German and Italian neoexpressionists who took over the scene in the '70s and '8os, the Cuban artists may be on the brink of changing the face of contemporary art."2 Such critics positioned Cuban artists as the figures who would impose on the hierarchical system known as the international art world new perspectives from the periphery, as well as from its dispersion. Yet, these descriptions of the move abroad by the majority of the eighties generation have overlooked both the specificity and the social nature of an artistic movement that developed more as a consequence, rather than in spite, of Cuban cultural policy since the late seventies.
Heralding the end of the so-called Grey Years of the seventies, in which the government's bureaucratic control of culture resulted in the support mostly of propagandistic art and the isolation of many important artists, a new artistic generation began to emerge in the early eighties. The group exhibition "Volumen Uno" (198i), a series of important one-person exhibitions, and the formation of artists' groups such as 4x4 and Hexagono in Havana during this period stimulated aesthetic renewal. Departing from the immediate past, these artists joined Third World socialist imperatives with contemporary Western influences. Artists, critics, and institutions sought to incorporate contemporary Cuban art into an international context (as defined by the artistic centers of the United States and Europe). Accordingly, beginning in 1981, contemporary Cuban art began to return to such cosmopolitan settings as the Venice Biennale and the Sao Paulo Bienal. Just as consequential in this respect was the increasingly influential elaboration of a cultural paradigm by artists, critics, and curators that privileged the peripheries.
The Havana Bienal, founded in 1984 to showcase art from the peripheries, played a crucial role in the coalescence of this paradigm. Identified as the "necessary magnet" through which a dialogue with egalitarian aspirations could be established with Western hegemonies, the Bienal became the undisputed platform from which the international success of the eighties generation could be launched.3 To be sure, the Bienal, which was triennial in 1989, 1994, and 1997, has weathered the same stormy waters navigated by the balseros-the Cubans who emigrated from the island on fragile rafts in increasing numbers in the eighties. These waters include the sharp economic crisis that still faces the island and the painful establishment of a market economy and foreign investment. Yet, amidst the increasingly fragile and unstable status of the visual arts in Cuba, the Bienal has persisted as a well-known reference point by functioning as a space for global dialogue, while still remaining an alternative to the Western culture industry, which continues to devote scant attention to art from the peripheries.
In the years before the Havana Bienal was …