Havana provides occasion for inspiration

Written by Suneet Chopra | Updated: Jan 6 2002, 05:30am hrs
It was with a feeling of joy that I received a communication from the Cuban Embassy of the principles that are to regulate the Eighth Havana Biennale of art in November 2002, being organised by the Wilfredo Lam Centre for Contemporary Art in Havana. I hope Indias artists will come forward to participate in strength.

I had occasion to visit the Wilfredo Lam Centre and spent about a week there in 1994, interacting with artists and printmakers. At the time, I carried some 30 prints and drawings donated by different artistsa wide range from Anupam Sud to Jatin Das, Arpana Caur, Sobha Broota, Usha Biswas and Atul Sinha, to name only a fewwho dared to break the US blockade as only artists can by sending their works there. Later, many more artists such as Sohan Qadri, P N Mago, Kanchan Chander, Santo Dutta and others joined them during the time of the Sixth Biennale.

Indeed, it was a glowing example of how art and life flow together. Just when the artists broke the infamous US blockade by sending their works to Cuba, the Indian people sent a shipload of grain to the Cuban people. And it is interesting that M A Baby of Swaralaya, dancer Sonal Mansingh and artist Vivan Sundaram were also involved in that effort, which was later followed up by shipments of medicines to break the embargo.

The inspiration that Cuba provides for Indian life and Indian art is evident from the sculpture of Jose Marti by the sculptor Radha Krishnan that stares the US Consulate in the face in Kolkata; another one by Manish Kansara has just been installed in a school named after him in Delhi; and Rahul Arya has donated a drawing of his for a Marti book. Atul Sinhas portrait of Che Guevara was gifted to his daughter by the artist and is in a museum dedicated to Che in Cuba. Cuban life is an inspiration to creative people in India, as it is to those all over the world.

Indeed, I am in deep agreement with the organisers when they say, We consider that in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean, there are material and cultural conditions different from those of other regions, which condition a type of expression whose codes and values are capable of allowing a constructive dialogue with other people and contexts for a better understanding of our particular realities. Our art is not just a take-off from the West. It has an expression and history of its own.

Also, our aesthetic expression is very much a part of our daily life. Moreover, it is part and parcel of the life of communities, encompassing everything from polities to religion, ritual or festivities. But it is evident also that this deep connection between art and life in our region is being broken by market relations that separate commodities from the lives of lives of those who produce them, while those who consume them have little or no idea of how they came into being.

This disintegration is being sought to be stemmed in Havana, which has been the ideal frame to go deeper into the improvement of the relationship among citizens between the citizen and his habitat and to promote reflection on the integration of the artistic fact into life in a certain specific space.

Indeed, it is possible to experiment with these things more easily in a socialist state than here, where the market, consumerism and the institution of private property can even distort and trivialise the creation of works of art. But I would like to remind my Cuban friends that not all is bad in the art market.

It is better to consume, or even hoard, good art than to go in for drink, drugs and debauchery. Also, art produced by individuals and marketed, by and large, by small enterprises is a far more civilised investment than stocks and shares, especially of arms producers of the military industrial complex. The market is not all bad. It is a force that functions differently in different systems. And artists have learnt to cope with its variations. The art market is unacceptable in Cuba, but the Indian artists live by it.

Artists who gift their works to Cuba, or for a hundred solidarity or charity shows, also play a vital role in diverting investment towards creative, even if conspicuous, consumption from that which can only be described as exploitative, as in the case of the arms dealings of Nobel being used for awards to honour people in different streams of progress.

And today, art is a better investment than shares, reflecting its need even for the propertied class, faced with a bleak future for the existing society in most parts of the world. As such, the art market brings a gust of humanity to the predatory world of finance capital and helps divest funds that might otherwise be used for far worse purposes. It should be approached with a sense of realism then and not just rejection.

While the building of a more just and better society is incentive enough in Cuba or other socialist countries, the successful art market is equally important in capitalist countries in giving a momentum to art that provides as good a critique of the prevailing state of affairs as any. So, it should be better understood by the organisers of the Biennale and not be dismissed out of hand, as it is a reality the majority of the artists in the world are constrained to compromise with if they are to survive. And if they do, the realism of the Biennale will be appreciated and the event will be truly broad-based and successful, as it should be.