H A M L E T L A V A S T I D A
November 10 – December 23, 2023
Tue – Fri, 11am – 6pm
We are delighted to announce the first solo exhibition of Cuban artist Hamlet Lavastida in our Vienna gallery. Under the title Internal Order, Lavastida is showing large-scale wall installations, delicate paper cuttings, and a video work in which he examines the repressive methods of totalitarian states and the rebellion strategies of oppositional peace and freedom movements.
In search of signs in which the oppressive mechanisms of a totalitarian state are revealed, Lavastida collects “aesthetic disobedience” in an archive. He meticulously collects images, symbols, and slogans to document and expose the iconography of the Cuban revolution. Through recontextualization, juxtaposition, reenactments, and, not least, the mere display of stereotypical propaganda images, their effect is undermined and a critical examination of history—and the historical narrative—is set in motion.
For a long time, the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) was able to dominate public discourse in the country largely without restriction thanks to its propaganda machinery. Without wide-ranging platforms, voices critical of the regime, if they dared to manifest themselves at all in an atmosphere characterized by fear of repression, public humiliation, imprisonment, and torture, were almost completely isolated. Alongside television, radio, and the press, art also served the party’s narratives. Artists were faced with the choice between partial loyalty to the party or marginalization. They were either promoted as officially registered artists or, if the Ministry of Culture deemed an artistic position to be “anti-revolutionary,” they were systematically deprived of exhibition opportunities, defamed in the media, or imprisoned.
In view of the economic pressure that had built up as a result of tighter sanctions and a destabilized Venezuelan partner, Cuba opened up the internet for mobile devices on the island in 2018. Although the network of the state telecommunications company, ETECSA, is also subject to censorship, a press independent of the PCC has been able to establish itself in recent years and form critical opposition via social networks. This enabled the biggest protests on the island in 30 years in 2021.
The flip side of these developments are hundreds of political prisoners. The fear of draconian punishment further perpetuates a culture of constant self-censorship. As a consequence of a population that is now largely connected to the internet, including an artistic community that was offered an alternative to marginalized independence or state art, freedom of expression and artistic freedom were further curtailed in 2018–19 with Decrees 349 and 370. In addition to the laws themselves, it is above all the openness with which they are formulated that makes Cuba one big prison, with walls whose foundations are not made of stone but of doubt, and prisoners who discipline themselves independently (but not of their own accord). Those whose thoughts do not conform to this order run the risk of finding themselves in a real prison, no longer just in front of their own controls, but in front of the inquisitors of the state. For Hamlet Lavastida, Cuba’s cultural climate is therefore characterized by a peculiarity of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon: prevention—profilaxis—as a disciplinary force.
The motifs that Lavastida has compiled in his cuttings all serve this culture of prevention in one way or another. In addition to relatively unambiguous motifs, such as the depiction of armed military personnel, the content of the images is often coded. However, behind the logos, acronyms, slogans, and number combinations there are always references to manifestations of violence. They are taken from the propaganda of the state security and media apparatus or are used to publicly discredit individuals. It should be emphasized that this is always the state speaking, using the language of the regime. It shows its face in the appropriation of this language.
Within this corpus compiled using investigative archaeological methods, the collection of floor plans of Cuban prisons in Lavastida’s archive is of particular importance. The plans had been present in his work for some time, but when he was arrested by state security in 2021 as a result of his work and held captive for months in Villa Marista prison, the work caught up with him, so to speak. Not only do the graphic representations of the prisons convey such individual fates, they also exemplify the teleological orientation of an indoctrinated mindset that is geared toward a rigid, non-transparent order deprived of all freedom. The cautionary culture culminates in them. Although largely invisible in the discourse and depriving the prisoners of visibility, they are the templates from which the "homo paenitentis" derives.
Ultimately, all prisons, prisoners, and legal texts are not only an expression of an oppressive regime, but also of an expectation of resistance. But it is precisely in this expectation, to conclude with the words of Iván de la Nuez, that the seeds of its downfall lie.
Hamlet Lavastida was born in Havana in 1983 and is one of the best-known representatives of a new, young generation of artists in Cuba who openly oppose the communist regime. Following his participation in protests by the 27-N democracy movement and imprisonment in Havana's most notorious prison, Villa Marista, he has been living in forced exile in Berlin since early 2022. Last year, he took part in Documenta in Kassel and a comprehensive survey exhibition of Latin American art at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid. His works are currently being shown at the Albertinum Dresden and at the Kyiv Biennale in Vienna’s Augarten (which had to be partially relocated due to the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine).