With the XIII Bienal de La Habana underway, Galleria Continua co-director Lorenzo Fiaschi reflects on his projects Havana, including the Arte Continua space in Barrio Chino and the proposed cultural and community center, El País del Arte. In an email interview just before the Biennial’s opening (edited for length), Fiaschi outlined the vision behind El País del Arte and the place of Arte Continua in the Havana art scene.

How would you describe El País del Arte? What sort of activities will take place there? 

El País del Arte is intended as a multifunctional public space, devoted to artistic creation and social sustainability. It will be a new place for Cuba and especially for Havana, with the goal of encouraging exchanges among diverse people, creating new synergies, and offering a place where creativity, innovation, and respect are keywords and fundamental values.

We see this space as a center for the production of exhibitions to enhance the local art scene and to make the international scene visible and tangible for Cuban people. Other projects at El País del Arte will include performances, gastronomy, artist residencies, and modular co-working spaces.

The El País building, site of the proposed El País de Arte community center
Photo: Lorenzo Fiaschi, courtesy Galleria Continua

In addition, given the history of the place, which is so related to knowledge and literature, we would like to set up a participatory library of art and sociology that, taking advantage of new technologies, can be connected to libraries of the world that specialize in art.

Tell us more about the building. From what we’ve read online, it was built in 1941 as the headquarters for the newspaper El País, and it’s an example of Art Deco style adapted to Cuban architecture.

One day a Cuban architect, a dear friend of mine, showed me the facade of this building. I found it splendid, atypical, and strong. I asked him what was inside, and he replied that it was an abandoned building with a glorious history. I immediately felt the desire to find an idea, a solution, that could give life back to this fabulous abounded place.

El País is a historical and very important institution for Cuban national culture. In this building, the first editions (millions of copies) of the great novel Don Quijote by Cervantes were printed. It was the first book intended for the people, which contributed to the process of literacy of the entire country.

This historical place must continue being a place of culture. In fact, this project aims to contribute to the effort that Cuba has made in the last decades to bring education and culture to everyone. IndexMundi data shows that the rate of literacy in Cuba, 99.8%, is higher than in Spain, which is 98.3%. And according to UNESCO’s records, Cuba has also the highest rate of schooling in Latin America and the highest number of doctors per inhabitant in the world.

The crowd outside Arte Continua for its Biennial opening
Photo: Cuban Art News

What’s the relationship of El País del Arte to Arte Continua, the Galleria Continua space in Havana?

El País del Arte and Arte Continua are two distinct and independent projects.

Arte Continua has been open for four years now, in a very populated and lively district of Havana, the Barrio Chino. Between conferences, performances, workshops, and exhibitions, Arte Continua has realized 114 events. This dynamic space aspires to raise awareness in the art community and to bring the “art world” closer to this local audience, through exhibitions of Cuban and international artists.

The interior of Arte Continua, with a partial view of the exhibition by Ukrainian artist Zhanna Kadyrova
Photo: Cuban Art News

El País del Arte aims to be a cultural and community center, created for a sustainable artistic and social development, where many realities of both the art scene and of society can meet and collaborate to combine past and present, to innovate and to give birth to a future where sensitivity and respect come before superficiality and vanity.

This project, if permitted, will not be a second Arte Continua in Cuba, and it will not depend on us. Our desire, if the government gives us this chance, is to create a place animated by different cultural actors, both local and international.

What do you have planned for Arte Continua during the Biennial? 

We are working on several projects that will be part of the official collateral program of the Biennial. These include an exhibition of a young Ukrainian artist, Zhanna Kadyrova, in our exhibition space Arte Continua, and an exhibition, with large installations, of [Cuban artist] José Yaque in the UNAICC (Unión nacional de arquitectos e ingenieros). And a collaboration with [French artist] JR in a public space.

A partial view of JR, «Giants, peeking at the city,» 2019, installed on the side wall of the Arte Continua building
Photo: Cuban Art News

In the central program of the Biennial, many important projects include artists we work with, such as Leila Alaoui at the Fototeca de Cuba; Moataz Nasr at the Pabellón Cuba; Carlos Garaicoa at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes; Alejandro Campins at the Biblioteca Nacional; José Mesías at the Centro de Desarrollo de las Artes Visuales; Susana Pilar on the Malecón, etc. We will not be bored! We are excited to see and work on such strong and ambitious projects.

A closer view of JR, «Giants, peeking at the city,» taken during installation
Photo: Yamil Lage/AFP

Will El País del Arte be open for the Biennial?

Our intention during the Biennal is not to inaugurate the space with an exhibition (it would be premature), but rather to clean the building and show where El País printed the newspaper, and to make a presentation about the story of the place and this new project of rebirth.

Do you have an opening date yet for El País del Arte?

El País del Arte is an important and ambitious project that we presented to the Ministry of Culture, which has shown interest and attention. It is a project that needs a broad consensus, and therefore must be considered by many stakeholders in order to be accepted and supported.

Unfortunately, because of the very unfortunate weather events that have recently afflicted Cuba, and because of the commitment of all members of the Government working on a historical transition for the country—which is to say, the new Cuban constitution—they have rightly created an agenda with other priorities.

Lorenzo Fiaschi, center, and JR, right, with the boy in «Giants, peeking at the city» and his father
Photo: Cuban Art News

In a recent article in the Financial Times, you mentioned other participants in the project, including the Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto and a private collector.

Yes, everyone is already very implicated in the cultural scene of the country.

A work by José Yaque, who is presenting a solo exhibition during the Biennial
Courtesy Galleria Continua

Michelangelo Pistoletto has been working in Cuba steadily since 2014, together with Laura Salas Redondo, a Cuban curator who coordinates, with a team of Cuban people, the numerous activities of the Third Paradise embassy in Cuba. The private collector in question is, in addition to a great lover of art, a great friend of Cuba. The project also involves the participation of a public museum institution. All together, if we are permitted to carry out this project, we will work in close collaboration to bring our skills to the service of a great artistic and social cause.

A work by José Yaque in his solo exhibition at the UNAICC building, Havana
Photo: Cuban Art News

Is there anything else you’d like to add? Any last thoughts?

There is so much to say, but I want to mention an anecdote of the Havana Biennial 2015, that made me open my eyes to Cuba.

An installation by José Yaque in his solo show at the UNAICC, Havana. The bottles contain fruit-infused liquor; a similar bottle was opened and served at the inaugural event.
Photo: Cuban Art News

I was in the Plaza de Armas in front of Nikhil Chopra’s cage—where, for some days, without ever living the cage, Nikhil made an incredible performance. Next to me a young woman was passing by with her daughter, who was about ten years old.

This woman, after watching Nikhil and carefully observing what was happening, turned to her distracted daughter, and said: «Listen to me! I cannot explain what is happening” (—a sign of humility to admit you don’t know) “but it is important for you to understand the if the artist is doing so he has his good reasons!” The girl smiled broadly and sat on the ground, doubling her attention on what was happening. She had decided she wanted to understand.

What a delicate lesson. This is Cuba for me.