Heterogénesis - Magazine of Visual Arts - 2006 nr 55-56

PHOTO: Ximena Narea


Nelson Herrera Ysla


As one walks by the city of Havana, one senses a process of change of its traditional appearance, in its best known zones - the Historic Center and the great Republican area - as well as in certain neighborhoods and residential areas built in the very beginning of the second half of the 20th Century. The city changes day by day in front of our very eyes, it transforms itself. The citizens place protective railings on their balconies, or enclose with fences of steel wire the small gardens at the entry of their houses to convert them into garages or just to isolate themselves from the sidewalk and the street traffic. Others build walls on the beautiful porches in order to get new space (a room, a hall, a kitchen or a dining room) for those houses that get smaller as the family grows larger.

There are those who decide to set up a small shop to sell coffee, cakes, biscuits, cold drinks, milkshakes or pizzas of various sorts in front of their homes or in the common space in the apartment buildings, and usually place an improvised wooden table on top of which they put a blender, a big thermos flask, a display case, trays and hand made signs with the offered products and their prices. Others advertise some repair services — shoes, fans, watches — or special services such as barbering, plumbing, masonry or jewelry without noticing the consequences of this graphic paraphernalia for the ‘image’ or the culture of the city.

Over the last years people, in an informal way and without hardly any control, people have been transforming the fronts of their houses and buildings, or re-shaping corners and empty lots through processes of free intervention on the public spaces that the city had preserved since its foundation. Urban laws, norms and regulations, devised to organize any kind of expansion or transformation are continually being circumvented, not only by ordinary citizens, but also, though to a lesser extent, by state companies and ins-titutions. Thus, the city of Havana have started to blur its architectural outline and features, making the image that still characterizes it in the eyes of its own citizens and of lots of visitors from all over the world fade away.

This is not exclusive for Havana: it happens to the barrios of Bogota, San Jose, Mexico City, São Paulo, Manila, Jakarta, Istanbul, Alexandria, Port-of-Spain, Santo Domingo, Luanda, Harare, and hundreds of other big and small metropolises in our regions of the southern hemisphere. Since the so-called progress and development — to some, the well-known ‘modernity’ — are still to be introduced (from the outside) or to emerge (from the inside) of our difficult, unstable and feeble economies, people face in their own ways the challenge of the present and of the future, and to that end they ‘make’ the decisions they estimate to be the correct ones, they ‘organize’ their lives individually and set out to ‘improve’ their material parcels, their habitats, in a prodigious attempt to gain time — from time.

Bilbao - PHOTO: Ximena Narea

On the one hand, ads, colors, symbols and signs, tents, umbrellas, light roofs, lights, bars, fencings of bricks, stone or cement, trees, bushes, flowers, horns, television antennae and lamps, are some of the elements with which the citizens of our ‘developing’ countries design their everyday environment, the one of their barrios and by extension, that of their cities. Most of the time this takes place with little creative power, although in some cases occasional traits of humor and popular wisdom blossom and amuses us making us feel a little bit more at home, entertained.

On the other hand, the exaggerated and uncontrolled growth of the urban populations in each country in our regions, due to the phenomenon of migration and its corresponding informal economy, contributes to the generalization of a hardly interesting image — sometimes chaotic, entangled and anarchic — of the city and the milieu in which thousands and millions of people live. In those urban spaces, however, a remarkable visual-formal counter-weight becomes apparent in the more or less ‘attractive’ design of big warehouses, stores and shopping centers, coffee shops, clubs and hotels with the corresponding network of graphic information associated with these buildings, plus a wide range of habitation, banking, judiciary, educational, entrepreneurial and all sorts of beaurocratic facilities whose architectural materialization obeys to a standardized ‘global’ typology. Added to the former, the paraphernalia of commercial, cultural and political propaganda advertisements causes the visual culture of our cities to be superior in impact, quantity and variety to that of the role played by art institutions, whose purpose is the aesthetic ‘education’ and the shaping of a taste, a way of thinking and a culture legitimized by the official histories of each community and nation.

Santiago de Compostella - PHOTO: Ximena Narea
At first sight, it looks like a fight between a lion and a monkey, since the total sum of museums, galleries, cultural centers and some specialized institution is insufficient to counter such a visual impact, because it represents a tiny percentage in comparison with the omnipresence of all those other ‘institutions’ that today are necessary and essential, practically indispen-sable elements of the urban mesh.
As a complement of this specific and variegated visual landscape undergoing constant growth, one can hear musical groups on the sidewalks, parks, gardens or squares. However, the majority of those sounds don’t come from live music, but from cafeterias, shops, bars, taxis and buses, which makes the urban environment even more complex and crowded. Although this could seem like something very characteristic for cities in the Caribbean region, we can also find it on the ‘continent’: Lima, Panama City, Caracas, São Paulo, Bogota, Bahia, Fortaleza, Managua. For that reason, the everyday life in the open spaces of many of our cities resembles a kind of carnival, a festival of images and sounds, a spectacle not always subject to norms of organization and design, which in the end alters our states of mind in a silent, subtle and imperceptible way, our habits, our social beha-vior, and our ways of ‘seeing the world’.

In Old Delhi, for example, one can inhale the intense and penetrating smell of spices that immediately would make one recognize the place one is walking on, added to the also unforgettable amazement occasioned by the unrestricted access of cows on the public streets. If we add the world’s only bird hospital to this, we could shift from wonderment to delirium in an ins-tant. About the smells, the same thing happens in some markets in the Golden Horn, in Istanbul’s historic area, and in the harbor of Valparaiso, where some of them mix with those produced by salts, birds and old pieces of metal. In Addis Ababa, I remember a street in the beginning of the 80’s christened by some foreigners to The Wall, not for being a construction made with bricks, cement or steel: it was because of the very strong and sharp and not so pleasant odor which literally impeded traffic. One was forced to give up and take another route in order to continue. Something similar occurs in the depressed alley, popularly known as ‘El cartucho’ in down town Bogota, although here one should add a touch of local violence never imagined in the peaceful African city.

In the Casbah in Algiers, one of the fascinating sites of the Islamic architecture and urbanism, it is not re-commended to enter alone if one is a foreigner, given the real possibility of getting lost and never being able to get out, or given the risk of falling into the hands of local malefactors looking for an easy prey. The same recommendation is made by the inhabitants of some barrios in Rio de Janeiro, Medellin, Caracas (no way, pana, your friends will tell you): all that belongs doubtlessly to the ‘image’ of the city.

Taking cabs and small buses in Santo Domingo, Port of Spain or Fort de France is a unique experience in the Caribbean due to the shock of the frantic music inside each vehicle, from which it is only possible to recover a few minutes after having left the car. In order to move from one place to another in Cairo, it is better not to be in a hurry: more that 2 million taxis and urban buses traverse the city day and night in the planet’s least signalized city, and probably the noisiest one, where hardly 20 or 30 semaphores are in working condition because of the fine dust from the nearby Sahara desert. All this causes a generally accepted traffic chaos in which every driver thinks he’s right.

Patio interior de un edificio en La Habana Vieja
PHOTO: Ximena Narea

We live, then, in a state of environmental alteration, sometimes of nice, ‘surreal’ or crazy, other times, of more dramatic, confusing and exasperating appearance. Both warn us that we are moving within a complex and difficult universe of violent contrasts that are dynamic in more than one sense, dominated by hidden forces of order and, sometimes, of disorder. We have gotten ‘accustomed’ to both. It is the world where we are born and educated, and it is also a source of a vast and wealthy cultural diversity that we feel proud of in spite of the extreme economic conditions in which it develops. Those urban cultures have given countless signs of vitality, imagination, talent and energy, not always acknowledged in other instances and scenes of the world, although in the last decades an approaching to them has been taking place. The bridges raised to and from our regions seem today strong enough as to share that information, know-ledge and emotions in both senses, and thus give birth to a new era of universal understanding after hundreds of years of distance. Good fortune is never too late, says one of our popular proverbs.


In Berlin, streets could be considered perfect for tra-veling in vehicles: there are signalized footpaths, cro-ssings, turns and circulations, and signs where the routes to be followed are specified, as well as faraway and nearby towns, important places, parking lots, dangerous passages and obstacles. The sidewalks show clearly where the pedestrians should walk and where the bicycles should transit, what places are for functionally impaired persons, and where to find trash bins or public phones. Each sign and symbol has been designed by professionals who treat each and every one of these messages rigorously, whether that might be for commercial establishments, diners, coffee shops or places where one can listen to music. Nothing is left to chance, spontaneity or improvisation.

In many other cities of Central and Eastern Europe the same happens: their citizens move every day within an order determined by laws and regulations, whose graphic expression in formal terms corresponds to a universe of high economic development. The commercial advertisement signs reach astonishing dimensions, in some cases occupying the facades of buildings of many stories and are efficiently adapted to the codes of today’s graphic design: good photographies, efficient typography, simplicity and precision in the selected images, and high resolution prints. The same thing happens with posters and mural ads for culture and entertainment, though these are of smaller dimensions.

In these European cities, there are norms forbidding landlords and shop owners to surpass a certain level of decibel if they wish to listen to music or produce any kind of sound. No one is allowed to spontaneously transform the windows, doors and balconies of their homes, or to intervene in the public space as they please. On the other hand, squares, parks and green areas in the city show countless sculptures, paintings, objects, interventions and urban paraphernalia of remarkable beauty. The same happens with the show windows in shops, bus and train stations and airports, whose level of design surpasses that of other countries. The public space in which millions of citizens circulate every day, from or towards their homes, it is designed with the aim to guarantee their safety, comfort and an efficient level of information.

Helsinki, Oslo, Stockholm, Copenhagen or Rejkavik, are notorious examples of this integral environmental design. To some this can seem exaggerated and dull, since not even the smallest architectonic or urban detail escapes from the municipal authorities. Nothing is ‘put out of place,’ or dislocated in this little perhaps radically cold and rational environment. The ‘perfection’ of this visual universe is such that, by contrast, many citizens in these latitudes travel to our regions to enjoy ‘the other,’ that which could be called ‘the real-marvelous’ (a literary way of pondering the juxtaposition and superimposition of codes and visual signs, music, noise, chaos and poverty) that inhabits our cities and regions, whose materialization, with local variations characteristic of the context, can be found in Havana.

Basilea / PHOTO: Ximena Narea


The question does not lie in elucidating what form of inhabiting and living together is the best or the most pleasant, because they respond to different socio-economic formations: something that is so tangible and evident that we sometimes do not perceive in its true dimension. Each one of these forms expresses the world that created and upholds them. It is risky to affirm on which side ‘happiness’ or ‘life’ is. The millions of inhabitants inserted in these urban dynamics have gotten used, to live in and from them although temporally or even definitively, they move to others. That happens frequently to professionals at various levels and ranks, and even to artists. It seems that the ‘reason’ for this lies nowhere but in the complex rea-lity they face — which is different in Europe, the United States, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Facing it from the perspective of differences might prove to be the most sensible way to help ourselves to understand more objectively the art produced today in each one of our regions, be it in areas consi-dered as ‘developing’ or in highly industrialized countries that have started a slow process of ethnocultural transformation as the result of visible migrations and the necessary exchanges of this globalized universe.


That world of images (and sounds, noises, odors, street actions...) that populate the geography of our cities, inexorably conditions the tastes, nourishes the imagination and molds the sensibilities. From it, our artists extract many of the signs and referents to cons-truct their works, since most of their concepts and ideas share the same source. Those of us who are not artists (Joseph Beuys would not approve of such statement), that silent majority of citizens is also conditioned by a way of ‘seeing,’ not only the world that surrounds us, but also other worlds beyond our noses. To this we could add — and it would make this story longer — the fashion that every citizen adopts according to his preferences and means, as well as many other factors (cars, trucks and buses circulating by day and by night, the illumination of streets and public places) until we achieve an exhaustive analysis, but here I limit myself to those belonging or being associated to the visual, being re-appropriated as signs and symbols by the artists from within their territories, in may cases with the support of curators and institutions, specially when it has to do with cultural events, of big or small impact.

Our cities, towns , villages and hamlets generate a kind of visual culture in some ways different to the one we could find in other urban settings where any ambulant activity hardly exists, informal economy, illegal appropriations of public spaces, abundant ruins, settlements illegally constructed with poor materials, and undiscriminated advertisement. It is about, once again, a contextual problem, a problem of daily influences of that urban culture on the citizens, which has represented a never ending source for our artists during the last years, as it can be confirmed in Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Puerto Rico, Belize, Cuba, Colombia, South Africa, Angola, Nigeria, Thailand, Indonesia, the Phili-ppines and China.

Berlín / PHOTO: Ximena Narea

It is no longer only ‘the big narratives’ that are the cause of many valuable works in our regions (from history, social movements, politics to ideologies, gender and race issues). Now, even certain areas of eve-ryday life, of the intricate mesh of messages upon which we stumble every day in the streets, of the quotidian challenges that the old and new economic structures submit us to, and of our share of dreams and aspirations. We face an objective and subliminal bombardment of visual codes — far superior in quantity to that attributed to certain electronic communication media — which become visible to the eyes and sensibilities of our artists.
Hence the more active participation of our creators on and upon the urban environment, independently from their scale and signification, since the cities have become the largest and most exciting galleries for the circulation of works, and a space for the confrontation and reflection upon their fortune and their destiny. Many wish to contribute from their tiniest parcel to shed light (be it from parody, criticism or adulation) of those ongoing transformations taking place in buil-ding blocks, parks, streets and squares.

Art seems thus engaged in the return to one of its places of origin, to the recovering of the role played by the community and the city in human history, long before it was subdivided into functions and classes. It is a trip to the seed, postponed by a span of centuries. The eternal return.

Belgrad / PHOTO: Ximena Narea


There are as many urban cultures as specific realities in each city, country and region. I have attempted here to underline those where perhaps more ample margins exist for disordered, non-regulated interventions; that is, where non-professionals participate, even when they do not produce a sufficient amount of visual and non-visual images. This could be called urban popular culture, in its wider sense. But it is hardly ever mentioned, since it is not produced from within the territories legitimated and sanctified by art historiography and criticism: many of its creators are not sufficiently known, their ‘works’ escape the traditional analysis and studies in spite of the massive volume they occupy within the physical space where they are produced and of their undeniable influence on everyday life.

From their own territories, and perhaps from other more distant ones, various ar-tists reflect upon them from a critical pers-pective with the aim of calling the attention of the public and contribute to their improvement, whereas other exalt some of its traits as an important factor in the identity of a city, or of a small or big urban conglomerate. And an event such as the Biennial of Havana puts them in circulation within an open system of artistic proposals and exhibits, integrates them in its structure and organization, and shows them to a public, perhaps captive of the splendid and effective spider webs of a post modernity that has not done enough justice to them, still busy privileging other expressions closer to the market, to the controversial dictates of an international contemporary curatorship and to the ‘tyranny of the museums.’ However, they continue to be fundamental and profound ingredients of our identity at the environmental, cultural and social levels, and the Biennial of Havana doesn’t refrain from insisting on any of the aspects that could shed light on our lives and destinies, even at the risk of repeating ourselves.

Copenhague / PHOTO: Ximena Narea

We are thus still engaged in trying to identify our various identities and faces, because they are many, perhaps too many.

While many think they know us thanks to the achievements of certain humanistic disciplines and sciences, we discover with preoccupation and enthusiasm those elements that have been poorly visible to our own eyes and hearts.

There are those who think they know everything, or almost everything, about themselves: happy them.

We think that we do not know enough about this entangled visual, cultural mesh underlying our cities except for ‘that’ shown every day by the television and the newspapers.

It is about this so exciting and polemic phenomenon that we pronounce ourselves in an international event that must aspire to serve to the exchange of ideas and human beings in spite of the serious economic strains we are going through.

(Note by the author: this text is a barely modified version of the original, published in the General Catalogue of the ninth edition of the Biennial of Havana, in March-April 2006.)




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