Artist Tania Bruguera detained in Cuba before performance, family says

Cuban artist Tania Bruguera reportedly detained in Havana before planned performance about free speech

Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera was detained by authorities in Havana before a controversial planned performance, according to the artist's sister. The piece was to consist of installing a podium and an open microphone in Havana's Revolution Square, allowing any interested individuals the opportunity to speak their minds for exactly one minute.

Deborah Bruguera, who lives in Italy and in the past has helped her sister manage her studio, issued a series of statements via her Facebook page stating that law enforcement officials were seen taking Tania Bruguera from their mother's home in Havana on Tuesday morning and that the artist had not been seen or heard from since.

"I'm making an urgent call to the national and international community to pressure the Cuban government to give us information on her location and condition," Deborah Bruguera wrote in one post. 

Neither news agencies nor the Cuban authorities have confirmed the artist's arrest. But the arrest of three well-known dissidents in advance of the performance has been reported by various news outlets, including the New York Times, NPR and the Guardian.

"I was able to speak with my mother [in Cuba]," Deborah told me via telephone from her home in Italy on Tuesday evening. "Two policemen and one military officer started banging on the door at about five in the morning. They banged on the door for five hours, until Tania finally decided to open the door. That's when they took her. They said they were going to take her to chat for an hour, that they would be back soon. ... But it's been many hours and my mother is very worried."

Tania, a Cuban national who divides her time between Cuba, the U.S. and Europe, is an established performance artist whose politically minded actions and installations have been shown at the Venice Biennale and the Tate Modern in London. In 2011, in collaboration with the Queens Museum of Art in New York and the arts nonprofit Creative Time, she helped organize Immigrant Movement International, a long-term project intended to support immigrant communities around the world and examine some of the issues and challenges they face.

This past fall, one of her pieces was featured in the exhibition "Citizen Culture: Artists and Architects Shape Policy," at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. The piece, titled "The Francis Effect," consisted of a letter-writing campaign to Pope Francis to convince the pontiff to give immigrants citizenship to Vatican City as a gesture of protection.

Deborah said that her sister had returned to Cuba in the wake of the announcement about the resumption of diplomatic relations with the intent of re-creating one of her earlier works: "Tatlin's Whisper #6." The piece caused a sensation when it was first staged in 2009 at the 10th Havana Biennial. It consisted of an open podium and microphone which the public was invited to use as they wished for a period of one minute. Over the course of the performance, the stage was employed by a range of people — from a woman who weepily clutched the mic and said nothing to a dissident blogger who declared, "Cuba is a country surrounded by the sea, and it is also an island surrounded by censorship."

Tania had aimed to restage the piece on Tuesday afternoon at Havana's iconic Revolution Square, a popular site for political rallies. She had promoted the event on her website and via Facebook and other social media using the hashtag #YoTambienExijo (I Also Demand). But on Saturday she was informed by Cuba's National Mixed Media Arts Council that it would not be providing her with institutional support and that "the action would negatively impact public opinion, in a key time of negotiation between the Cuban government and the government of the United States."

Tania, however, said she would move forward with the performance, telling the Miami Herald: "I'll be there. I'm not going to hide."

According to Deborah, however, Tania was taken into custody at 10 a.m., roughly five hours before the performance was set to take place. By 3 p.m., news crews and a small group of onlookers descended on Revolution Square in anticipation of seeing the work staged, but the artist never arrived.

Supporters of Tania have taken to Twitter and Facebook to demand information on her whereabouts. At press time, the #YoTambienExijo page on Facebook had more than 10,000 followers. In addition, Guatemalan performance artist Regina Jose Galindo posted a photo of herself holding a sign that read, "Where is Tania? From Guatemala, I Also Demand."

Deborah says the whole experience has been quite emotional.

"I've been quite tested," she said, her hoarse raspy from lack of sleep. "But it's been quite beautiful, too. People have been so supportive. They are talking about my sister. I'm sure Tania will be heartened to know that."

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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