The Havana Biennial  (Bienal de la Habana)—founded in 1984 and hosted every two years to promote Cuban and "Third World" contemporary art—is always superb, thrilling gallery-goers with avant-garde art of international caliber.
The just-completed 11th biennial (held May 11 through June 11, 2012) was nothing short of spectacular, not least because it purposely brought Cuban art into the open-air to share with the public under the slogan of “Artistic Practices and Social Imaginations.”
For example, the curving Malecón  that sweeps along Havana ’s seaboard, was the setting for works that explored the subject of migration and flight. My favorite, “Fly Away” by Arlés del Río, showed a wire-mesh fence cut with the silhouette of an airplane bursting through.
However, my biggest thrill was witnessing a one-of-a-kind artistic performance project that literally spun into reverse the traditional Cuban comparsa (a conga group that originated with black slave festivities and has ever since been an integral element of Cuban carnivals).
You could call Conga Irreversible an “anticonga.”
I watched, mesmerized, as performers dressed in shades of black and gray (as opposed to a normal comparsa’s traditional bright colors) danced backwards down the historic Paseo del Prado  boulevard. Even the music and lyrics (an original score by composer Yosvany Terry) were played and sung in reverse to the beat of cornets and drums!
And, Wow!, the costumes!
The backwards conga was the brainchild of artistic duo Dagoberto Rodríguez Sánchez and Marco Antonio Castillo Valdes (known as Los Carpinteros), who specialize in creating humorous installations and, now performance art pieces. Their quirky, unforgettable imprint was visible in the design of the surreal costumes, which like the backward comparsa itself played a Dada -like visual trick, hinting at a hidden social or political critique.
“Where is Los Carpinteros conga headed to? Does anyone know why they march happily into the unknown? Is the austerity of color, which denies the traditional comparsa, an allusion to a return to nothingness, which is death? Could there be a veiled reference to the concept of irreversibility so frequent in the language of politicians and the Cuban press?” asked journalist Silvia Gómez in Cuba Absolutely .
The conga put me in mind, as Gómez herself correctly suggested, of Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier ’s brilliant short story, Viaje a la semilla (Journey to the Seed), in which time flows backward from the moment of death to birth.
I’ve often said that I never want to sleep in Havana for fear of missing a surreal experience.
Alas, I missed another unique live performance art-piece—Las cabezas—that kicked off the Biennial, when more than 100 male and female dancers, many of them naked—that’s a first in Cuba !—paraded down the Prado to the rhythm of a conga accompanied by a medley of vocals that included those of the National Opera.
Actually, the performers had been painted by internationally acclaimed artist Manuel Mendive , who has long made his name by using human bodies as canvases that portray the mythical universe of Afro-Cuban religion and heritage.
You can never call Cuba boring!
Thanks to loosening of the travel restrictions by President Obama , more than 1,300 U.S. curators, collectors, and other art aficionados registered for this year’s biennial.
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Disclosure: I occasionally accept free or discounted travel when it coincides with my editorial goals. However, my opinion is never for sale. The opinions you see in Cuba & Costa Rica Journal are my unbiased reflection of the good, the bad, and the ugly
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