"Cuba is emptying out; only those who cannot afford to leave and the elderly remain"

12 December 2023

Fusco, Coco.jpg

Interview with Coco Fusco by Susana Reinoso for Clarin Diario. Originally published on November 9, 2023 in Clarin Diario.

  • Coco Fusco, Cuban interdisciplinary artist, writer, and curator, was in Argentina within the framework of CIMAM, the great global meeting of modern art museums.
  • She talked to Clarín about art patrons, the social responsibility of museums and artivism in her native Cuba, where many artists are political prisoners.

The renowned Cuban artist Coco Fusco, who lives in the United States, arrived in Buenos Aires to participate in CIMAM, the global network of modern art museums that will hold its annual conference at the Museo Moderno until Saturday, under the auspicious title "The Co-Creative Museum: Social Agency, Ethics, and Heritage".

A few days earlier, from New York where she casually mentions she is cooking for her son, the interdisciplinary artist shares that she was contacted to speak about the social responsibility of museums, and "they wanted me to give my point of view on this issue. I am an artist, teacher, and writer. I don't work in museums as a curator. I have always been on the sidelines, but of course, I have a relationship because I present my work and have also worked as an independent curator, but I am not employed by a museum."

So, from her initial reflection, gathered in a Zoom conversation, we infer that her perspective on this matter is that of an independent artist and cultural critic. 'I want to focus first on what the work of a museum consists of, to begin with, and what is happening right now. There are contextual and institutional situations that mark this moment, one of which is the privatization of culture. I haven't been to Argentina since 2017, but throughout Latin America, public museums have their budgets cut, and at the same time, there is a boom, a rapid growth of private museums,' emphasizes the artist. She adds that she does not intend 'to demonize the private sector or glorify the public sector.' A good starting point for a thorough critique.

Coco Fusco says we need to think about where this comes from and what it means, and from the perspective of artists, consider what can be done 'when one is not a magnate' because every time a billionaire buys or opens a museum, she emphasizes, it then influences the selection of works and artists that will be part of the collection.

"And then I would like to ask what it means for a museum to be socially responsible. Since the 19th century when several collections passed from the hands of aristocrats to the State in Europe, and the idea of a museum representing the values of a country was created, there has always been a sector of the elite that has determined this responsibility of a museum. And in general, the idea of preserving certain pieces or artifacts."

For Coco Fusco, the idea of responsibility can be considered from an educational or ideological perspective, depending on one's idea of conservation. She reflects that there have been many criticisms of museum institutions in recent years for various reasons.

"Some represent the interests of an elite and are not inclusive enough, others because they accept donations from billionaires who have built their fortunes with little ethics, and there are more cases. I will try to explain this conflict in terms of the unfolding dynamics. I refer to the work of a German historian, a specialist in Latin America, named Olaf Kaltmeier, who has written a book titled 'The Refeudalization of Economic Relations.' He talks about this boom of billionaires worldwide and their characteristics compared to those in Europe and Asia, mainly. And he speaks about this process of refeudalization because polarization has pronounced itself, and on the other hand, the growth of economic assets of billionaires continues to grow," anticipates Coco Fusco to Clarín Cultura.

Present the panorama, and now it would be interesting to know how it transforms.

This affects the cultural sector. I have my reflections on how one should react and what the most pressing social issues are. I refer to the work of some artists who are creating very important works on these topics, and I won't have much more time. I talk about Regina Galindo, Carlos Martiel, Carolina Caycedo, Pablo Nazareth, among others.

This issue of elites in museums seems to be more of an American problem than a European one. Can this feudalization be modified?

-Here we see a lot of submission to the multimillionaires who run the museums, but there, is where the curator's work comes in. Curators can choose the artists they want.

I just inaugurated a retrospective of my work in Berlin, Germany, at a Contemporary Arts Center. The curators I worked with could choose the artists they wanted. They don't have the pressure of a billionaire or a collector imposing their artists. They still have the freedom to choose their programs.

In the United States, it's not like that. Obviously, there are large foundations, philanthropists, people who try to promote more progressive cultural policies, but basically, the large museums depend on donations from billionaires, and they are on the boards and represent those elites that decide cultural policies.

Certainly, there is a willingness to change that vision. I talk about it with curators. The curator's role is crucial to explain to sponsors why they need to change and accept other artists. But in the end, the rich, not us, make the decision. That's what happens inside museums. Now, that doesn't mean everything done in art is reduced to what happens in museums."

How are those other spaces?

–Much activity and critical work doesn't make it into the museums. For the general public and as a teacher with 30 years of experience, I see that my students still haven't immersed themselves in that bohemia to see the effervescent experimentation that exists outside of museums.

And I also have to acknowledge that lately, the conflicts happening in the United States are the ones that receive the most publicity. But I have friends in Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador, and everywhere, there are conflicts between the interests of those elites and other interests that want to change the institutions. This is happening in many places.

In Berlin right now, there is a controversy with a museum that has assembled its collection related to colonial history, and now there is a lot of disagreement. The government invested many millions of euros in the restoration, and now many people disagree with the policies of that space. This is happening in countries where you can still protest. Because then you have the far right in Poland, for example."

But in the United States, the decision of the elites who sponsor museums is where it has the most strength because more investment means more power, is that correct?

–In the United States, that decision is more powerful. The more decisive the investment, the greater the power. For example, today, there is a lot of division in this cultural area between those who support Israel's actions in Gaza and those who disagree with both Hamas and the idea of massacring innocent citizens in Gaza.

Many intellectuals have been against this, and there was a letter signed by four thousand artists published in Art Forum, and that publication expelled the editor. There was a lot of pressure from collectors. This demonstrates the power of money in the art world. Additionally, several artists who signed that letter have been threatened with the cancellation of their exhibitions.

On whom or which individuals does the responsibility fall to change this status quo?

–I have curator friends in many museums, and it is up to them to convince the multimillionaires about what to acquire for the collections and exhibitions. Today, contemporary art museums have become much more open. A multicultural and feminist perspective is noticeable.

Finally, what has happened with artivism in Cuba?

–It's an absolute and total disaster: there are 1,057 political prisoners, many of whom are artists, and many others continue to be harassed. For example, Tania Bruguera was under house arrest for a year, and Hamlet Lavastida was put on a plane and deported.

For two years, we have been denouncing the repression and persecution of the cultural sector at the UN, but they do not release the political prisoners. Even the Pope has intervened. There is a huge community in Madrid and also in Miami. They are young people, journalists, musicians, artists. The students from the art school and the Ministry of Culture continue as if nothing is happening. Hamlet Lavastida was imprisoned and put on a plane. And he can no longer return. There is a facade of repression. Tania was under house arrest for a year. It's a horror that I experience as the final stage of the system's decline.

Last year, 300,000 Cubans left Cuba. It was the largest migration in its history. This year, 200,000 out of 10 million inhabitants have left the island. Cuba is emptying. Only those who cannot afford to leave and the elderly remain.