The art of rapprochement: what the Havana Biennale reveals about thawing Cuba-US relations

How symbolism and happiness are captured in joint American-Cuban cultural endeavours.

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We are warned of monsoon weather as the plane descends towards La Habana, Cuba’s sprawling capital. No sign of it today though. The sunny airport car park is full of paquets, package tour buses, whose annual numbers have multiplied since the US and communist Cuba’s relaxation of trade and tourism restrictions in December 2014.

The taxi driver sings along to the salsa on the radio as we overtake the horsedrawn transport on the motorway. Things are looking up for him. Foreigners mean fares. Even the new South American Pope is planning to come in September. Te gusta la música? asks the driver. Music is why I am here. The opening event of the 12th Havana Biennale is Cubanacan, a new opera by a Cuban composer and American librettist, symbolic of the historic rapprochement.

The story of the opera is that of art in communist Cuba. Act 1 scene 1 is set in Havana Country Club, in the year 1959. It sees Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, beaming with victory  surrounded by empty houses whose middle-class owners have fled the revolution  stride on to the 18th tee of the golf course and announce that they are going to build the world’s first University of the Arts on it.

Fidel, Elegguá. Photo: Ricky Opaterny

The symbolism and happiness of the moment is captured by the photographer Korda. The appointed architect, Ricardo Porro, delivers Gaudi-style buildings inspired by the female form, which the Soviets dislike and force Castro to abandon. Porro leaves the country with the University of the Arts incomplete, but students and teachers move in anyway to fulfil the promise of the early ideal – the arts in concert, music, drama, dance, desgn, cohesive but competitive, as in opera.

Porro in exile. Photo: Ricky Opaterny

Cubanacan is performed in the eponymous western suburb, at the selfsame Country Club, further out than most tourists usually venture. I visit the site in daylight to see the undulating fairways beneath the palms and what is left of the buildings. Porro’s music block suffered most, so the Music Faculty occupied the old main building.

I am drawn to it by the sound of scales, arpeggios and complex modern sonatas. In a room where the ceiling has fallen in, wind and string players are being auditioned. There is little to choose between the teenagers of both sexes and all complexions, as they step up with 20-minute programmes to demonstrate brilliance of tone, smoothness of legato and precision at speed in different pieces, their accompanists with skills to match.

They may not play such difficult pieces again when they become session musicians, but their skills are what the industry buys. Salsa is big business and its instruments those of classical music. Their players command great respect in Cuban society.

Historically the Bienal de La Habana, which dates back to 1992 when the Soviets left, has focused mainly on the plastic arts. The conquistador fortress on the otherwise barren eastern side of Havana Bay is the main display space, but paintings also hang in shop fronts in the old quarter while sculptures run the length of the Malecón, the crescent promenade looking out across the Atlantic towards Miami. Only one is signed, Rachel Pejota’s Cubo Azul, whose ten-foot square sheets of blue glass are a different shade to the sea or sky.

The arts are high on the education agenda. Few have had more success in the dance world than the London-based Cuban Carlos Acosta who has stated his ambition to return and head the dance school at the University of the Arts. The Biennale’s day programme features learned symposia in Spanish on the nature of art during the day.

Most events are free. Fringe events occupy the FAC, Fabrica de Arte Cubana, a converted factory beneath a cigar-like chimney, the rendezvous of choice. Cuban bands blaze their high-class salsa till 2am.

The performance of Cubanacan is staged outdoors on a makeshift stage in front of the funnels and domes of the Faculty of Plastic Arts. Composer Roberto Valera hunches a steady beat to the Cuban rhythms, shapes the pentatonic melodies with his hand, and digs with his stick at the acerbic modernist harmonies. His colleague, writer Charles Koppelman looks after the subtitles at the back.

A monsoon shower interrupts the flow of scenes just as Porro’s muse delivers his epitaph. "You have created beauty where there was none before" flashes up on the digital display.