The Havana Biennial Art Exhibition takes place in Havana every two years, promoting contemporary art from developing nations around the world especially highlighting works from Latin American and Caribbean artists.
Perhaps it was not quite 100 bare naked ladies but the parade down Prado of naked bodies painted by artist Manuel Mendive was a great way to kick off Havana’s 11th Art Biennale which has sought to integrate the art with the streets…and there is nothing like naked flesh to bring out the crowds in Havana…
Born in Havana in 1944 and a graduate of San Alejandro Academy of Arts in 1963, Manuel Mendive has become one of the most important figures of contemporary Cuban visual art. One year after his graduation, Mendive held his first exhibition and since then, he has continued to delve into the world of cultural syncretism that characterizes his work–a combination of elements from African religions with local landscapes and techniques that include oil, as well as performances, such as the one that took place this past May 10, 2012 in the streets of Havana
Mendive’s art-work has positioned him as one of the most internationally renowned Cuban living artists whose works can be found in museums and galleries all over the world as well as in private collections. Following his visit to Africa in 1982, where he traveled for a whole year, his pictorial concept changed and he began to portray images connected with the natural environment and Afro-Cuban culture. He also began to stage performances through body art, his human canvases usually involving dancers and actors.
His most recent performance, Las Cabezas–The Heads–is a large-scale example of the particular characteristics of this artist’s pictorial narratives, which included the use of canvas, wood, animal skins and the naked body. Nudity as a motif for the creation of mythological figures, references to life and death and religion are part of an aesthetics that may be called “Mendiviesque”. Las Cabezas sums up in an integral manner Mendive’s unique style, which expresses a profound religious feeling born out of his African roots.
One of the city’s main thoroughfares, Paseo del Prado in Old Havana, became an interactive gallery which hosted an action that went beyond the bounds of the merely pictorial to also include theater, dance, music and pantomime. The performance incorporated elements that have become characteristic to the Cuban urban landscape, such as the “bicitaxi,” which symbolically carried as passengers three future mothers, and the wheelbarrows pushed by street vendors who tour the streets day by day with their loads of fruits and vegetables.
Prior to the performance, over 100 actors, dancers and models assembled at the lobby of the Garcia Lorca where Mendive turned their bodies into his canvases. From there, they set out down Prado to the Malecón and then returned along the same avenue up to the Capitolio. There, a platform had been raised with the representation of a “bohío”–typical Cuban rural dwelling made of palm tree boards and thatched roof of “yagua,” the dried royal palm leaf–in which a small theater action took place giving way to pianist Frank Fernandez, whose performance marked the end of Mendive’s action.
As is customary in him, Mendive used various techniques and resorted to the African roots in a search for all things primitive. On this occasion, the artist made an imaginative display that recreates the unusual world of magical realism, with human heads that were intermixed with sculpted heads, and the naked or half-naked bodies were altered with signs painted on the skin in contrasting and bright colors, giving it a particular texture. The entranced crowds, sometimes as active participants and sometimes as mere onlookers, became part of Mendive’s performance.
With this action, the artist sought to make a tribute to variety and diversity, calling for a return to the natural, equality for all mankind and human betterment.