Havana Biennial: Everything You Need to Know about Cuba’s Most-Anticipated Art Festival

The Havana Biennial is back! For the first time since 2015, the world renown, month-long art exhibition will be held this April in Cuba. If the countdown clock on biennialhavana.org is any indication, the world is eagerly awaiting its return.

Considering this event is nearly four years in the making and will help celebrate the 500th anniversary of the city of Havana, there is truly no better time to explore Cuba. Here’s everything you need to know about the highly-anticipated biennial festival, including a local’s perspective (quotations throughout) from Dayron Gonzalez, Discover Corps’ Cuban partner and Havana resident for 40 years:

The Festival is Held April 12-May 12

Mark your cellphone calendars for April 12th, the first day of the festival. Excitement is already building now for the spring when people from all over the world will converge on the island of Cuba – but this year’s event is different. The impact of Hurricane Irma in September of 2017 resulted in the cancellation of the 2018 exhibition, so artists and travelers alike are eager to renew the tradition. Busy during the month of April? Not to worry. The biennial continues until May 12th, so thousands of visitors have the opportunity to enjoy world-class art.

“I wish it was the biennial all year. The vibe, everything changes. The city turns into art. It’s incredible how many people go to see the artwork.”

Biennial History

The first Bienal de La Habana, as it is known in Spanish, was held in 1984 provided a needed outlet for a vibrant art scene in Cuba. Various other festivals were mainstays in the country, but the missing piece was a celebration of art. For the inaugural event, the response was astonishing, as roughly 800 artists agreed to participate. Initially, the event was created solely for Latin American and Caribbean artists, but today welcomes artist from more than 40 countries. Interestingly, the exhibition is technically not a biennial. The government of Cuba selects the event dates, which means 3 or more years can pass between “biennials,” only amplifying the anticipation of event goers. 

Havana Biennial
Street art displays are popular year-round in Havana / photo credit: maracca

The Art is Unlike Anywhere Else

A refreshing aspect of the art displayed during the biennial comes from the source of this creativity. While the thought-provoking artwork comes from all over the planet, many non-traditional artists are spotlighted. The event intentionally brings local and community-focused artwork to the forefront. Regions with lesser-known artists are regular participants, as the Middle East and Africa have a strong presence in Havana, which is rare at other international art exhibits. Additionally, event organizers display art in a way that can be appreciated by all, instead of confined by the walls of a gallery. This warm and welcoming approach permeates throughout the exhibition.

“Artists there show some of their best work. A lot of people go to buy the art. It’s not just a display. It is a great way for the artist to make themselves known.”

Havana Biennial
A unique display of art at the 2015 Havana Biennial / photo credit: cubaholidays.co.uk

This Year’s Theme: The Construction of the Possible

This 13th edition of the Havana Biennial has the theme “The Construction of the Possible”, which some consider a nod to the challenges overcome in making this latest iteration a reality. Public demand is also pushing the exhibition beyond its normal boundaries. For the first time ever, the biennial will extend past the city limits into other provinces. A few of this year’s highlights will include:

  • Mar Adentro, an above water artistic space on an old dock in Cieñfuegos, which requires the work of a team of visual artists and architects to assemble
  • Cuban American Artist Magdalena Campos will design Ríos intermitentes (Intermittent Rivers) in the province of Matanzas
  • The International Video Art Festival, an annual event, will join the biennial with a video-focused exhibition in Camagüey
  • Artist Wilfredo Prieto will collaborate with artists from Central and South America, and Europe, in a former shipyard for a project known as Taller Chullima
  • Not to be forgotten, the Malecón, Havana’s iconic boardwalk, will again be a hub of activity with a favorite from years past, the Detrás del muro (Behind the Wall). The elaborate exhibition is expected to feature more than 70 artists and stretch on for almost four miles along Havana’s beautiful seaside

“Cuban’s love the event. Everybody loves it. Go and walk around the Malecón. Explore the small places in the city. The people are very easy going.”

Havana Biennial
Picturesque at sunset, the Malecón is a hotspot any time of day

The Message

The official event announcement (translated from Spanish) offers more insight into the motivation behind the biennial. The full text can be read here, but below is an excerpt:

“The 13th Havana Biennial 2019, to be held from April 12 to May 12, proposes to encourage the interaction between creators, curators, experts and institutions, in a variety of way that contribute to sustainable variants, without departing from the propositive nature that all work or artistic project represents. We aspire that art point out new paths of collective reasoning and that their achievements offer, from the confrontation of different creative models of circulation, a greater rapprochement between the levels of viewers, locations and experience. Along with the idea of responding to the present, these practices outline possible notions of the future that, at least in the poetic or symbolic level, correspond with some needs of social transformation.”

“A great many of them [the artists] are on hand most of the time and they enjoy a certain level of political discourse. Not in an offensive way, but in a direct way. They talk about things like freedom of speech.”

Not Only for Artists – All are Welcome

It goes without saying the biennial is a valuable showcase for aspiring and established artists alike, but it’s important to know the festival is open to all. The art reflects this inclusive belief. Bold and inspiring pieces appeal to a wide range of audiences – often in very different, personal ways. One need not be an art aficionado to appreciate the artistic creativity on hand. A children’s art center in Pinar del Rio, demonstrates the biennial’s intention to appeal to families as well. Regardless of your affinity for art, the energy and life pulsing from every corner of Havana is worth the journey.   

How to Experience the Havana Biennial

Discover Corps recognizes the importance and uniqueness of the Havana Biennial and wants travelers to experience the event for themselves. To learn more about visiting Cuba, review the five itineraries below – each vacation offers trips to Havana during the dates of the exhibition, with an expert guide there to walk you through this iconic event:

Cuba: Building Bridges
Cuba: Celebration of Arts & Culture
Cuba: Family Island Exploration
Cuba: Havana Weekend Getaway
Cuba: Preserving Nature’s Wonders


Feature image photo credit: maracca

One response to “Havana Biennial: Everything You Need to Know about Cuba’s Most-Anticipated Art Festival

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