Tania Bruguera (b. 1968 in Havana Cuba) is an activist and performance artist at the forefront of “activist art”. In the creation process, she builds models based on social practice–specifically those relating to immigration, censorship and identity–which she urges others to thoughtfully consider. Although she does not fabricate physical objects, Bruguera is a highly dynamic and prolific artist; she engages in both short and long term projects (many of which are related to immigration), working for the reverberation of each project’s result and message. In doing so, Bruguera collaborates with many other artists and institutions while simultaneously calling for “self-criticism” of such institutions. Such critique, as well as comments on larger socio-political conditions, are further detailed in her manifestos, such as the Citizens Manifesto for European Democracy, Solidarity and Democracy:
Citizens Manifesto is the result of a three-year process of popular consultations across Europe. It has involved thousands of Europeans (by birth, choice or circumstance) who were asked to elaborate policy proposals which in their views should constitute the primary focus of the work of the next European Parliament and Commission.
The artist began her work at a time when it was particularly difficult for women to move beyond the role of student and achieve the status of a professional artist. Inspired and empowered by Ana Mendiete’s spirit of transnationality as well as Mendiete’s definition of “art”, Tania admittedly began copying her work for her MFA thesis project. It was during this period that she said, “I was really interested in challenging the ideas of authorship and working in ways in which I am not the traditional ‘author’ or ‘artist.” At the same time, she sought to cement Mendiete’s work into the history of Cuban art. By doing so, though, she began to see herself more as an archeologist or historian than an artist.
The death of Ana Mendiete triggered not just an emotional loss for Bruguera but also a social and political loss. It additionally resulted in the departure of many visual artists from Cuba. Because Mendiete’s work was politically-oriented, and Bruguera’s work was largely based on the former’s work, others took her work as largely political. On the contrary, Bruguera did not initially intend to be “political”. Rather, her work is intended to demonstrate the erasing of the peoples who emigrated from Cuba during the Revolution from 1953-1959. It is about creating an ecosystem of respect. By working to create this ecosystem, she uses art as a tool to say the things she couldn’t say as a citizen in the Cuban environment. “Art should be something that irritates. I should not be pure entertainment.” Admittedly, the artist realized that no matter what you do in Cuba, it is going to be political because the environment is inherently political. Still, the artwork itself was not her goal; the object and performance is meaningless if it does not disturb and awaken others. “I actually burned what I created throughout those ten years. I did not want the object to be mystified; the object was not the goal, the goal was the gesture.”
Tania Bruguera’s work is also about recovering the memories of a place or moments that have been lost. In doing so, she uses religious and cultural icons. In her work Displacement (1998-99), she uses the Kongo power icon, Nkisi Nkondi, that is also used in Cuba for spiritual practices. It is said that one asks the icon what you want in return for a promise. If you don’t fulfill your promise the icon wakes up and haunts the beggar. Bruguera created a performance piece in which she impersonates the African icon in a costume of her own design. She stands still for several hours, growing angry and takes to the streets in search for those who have broken their promises. The artist also uses her own person as the subject. For instance for the work L’accord de Marseille (The Marseilles Agreement) (2006), Bruguera and collaborator Jorge Luis Castro created a notarized legal agreement stating that the body of the artist which dies first would be used in a performance piece of the other artist. “The Marseille Agreement blurs the limits between art and life, an individual contingency in which the body is offered as a repository of art. Art is created and made after death itself. The body of the artist becomes an object of the public sphere.” In 2018, she was even arrested for three days, along with about twelve other Cuban artists and activists, for organizing a sit-in protest against Decree 349 that possessed new regulations restricting artistic expression, in which artists need to apply for approval from the Ministry of Culture before hosting events or selling their work. Reportedly, the protest, coupled with unexpected public retaliation, resulted in adjustments of the law, although it apparently still makes “independent art impossible,” according to Bruguera.
The artist subsequently realized that using the body in these ways was not creating the dialogue needed, so she turned to exploring the limits of society. She also explores the limits of art. For Bruguera, art is “the possibility to have absolute freedom as a citizen and an individual. This freedom allows one to be messy and unsure. The response of the medium is also art.” Whether it’s in her body performance or “activist” art, Tania admits that she aims to create situations that are difficult for people to discern. She hopes to facilitate a conversation about various moments that the piece (long term or short term) comprise. The outcome of each of these situations is also her art, and the conversation will keep going. This she hopes will enact the change needed.
Tania Bruguera’s work even caught the attention of the United Nations when she was invited to join an “expert group” to explore the ideas of censorship in 2012. There, she presented her Manifesto on artists’ rights (below is an excerpt from the Manifesto):
Art is not a luxury. Art is a basic social need to which everyone has a right.
Art is a way of building thought, of being aware of oneself and of the others at the same time. It is a methodology in constant transformation for the search of a here and now.
Art is an invitation to questioning; it is the social place of doubt, of wanting to understand and wanting to change reality
Art is not only a statement of the present, it is also a call for a different future, a better one. Therefore, it is a right not only to enjoy art, but to be able to create it.
Art is a common good that does not have to be entirely understood in the moment one finds it.
Art is a space of vulnerability from which what is social is deconstructed to construct what is human.
Artists not only have the right to dissent, but the duty to do so.
Artists have the right to dissent not only from affective, moral, philosophical, or cultural aspects, but also from economic and political ones.
Artists have the right to disagree with power, with the status quo.
Artists have the right to be respected and protected when they dissent.
Further, she often distinguishes her works by those that are “long term” or “short term” in addition to the manifestos. The short term projects generally comprise performance pieces or talks, such as the aforementioned Displacement or Untitled (Havana). Some of her short term works may be perceived as quite disturbing, including those wherein she bears a headless lamb carcass, ingests dirt and paper, or moves aggressively through the streets of Ghent, Belgium with a flock of sheep while clamping on a bit, herself, in The Burden of Guilt (1999). Long term projects (some of which have been passed to other activists or stopped altogether) consists of those that work to achieve real change and can take up to years. When seeking to reinvigorate the Cuban art world in the 1980s, Bruguera founded the newspaper: Memoria de la Postguerra, which saw only two issues before a local government official urged her to stop, including the collaborative efforts of over one hundred other artists. Another newspaper, Post War Memory II (1994), “reproduced the structure of Granma, the official newspaper-document of the Cuban Communist Party…and became a forum for the debate of non-authorized topics, criticism generally silenced by the state censorship on Cuban journalism.” Other important long term projects include Catedra Arte de Conducta (Behavior Art School). It is an alternative school in which she facilitated conversations about what social work is, how it’s documented, what is art and how it is framed with different constituencies.
Immigration is also a critical point of reference for Tania Bruguera. Immigrant Movement International in Queens, NY aims to “recuperate the immigrants as a political subject”, because according to Bruguera, often when immigrants leave their native home, they lose their rights to be political. Partido de Pueblo Migrante in Mexico was established as an attempt to create a political party of migrant people. This project occurred during the election during which people substituted a long tradition of shouting newspaper headlines, and instead shouted for rights that they wanted for immigrants. The Francis Effect was a campaign in which the artist urged people to sign a petition to the Pope to allow anyone in the world to be a citizen of Vatican City no matter his or her religion. As of 2017, 16,000 people signed the petition.
In 2018, her work Untitled (Havana) was finally exhibited at the MoMa–two years after Fidel Castro’s death. Untitled (Havana) was initially titled Engineers of the Soul inspired by Stalin’s declaration at the First Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers in Moscow in 1934 that “the production of souls is more important than the production of tanks” and that artists were the “engineers of the soul.” The work was created in 2000, the same year that the artist attempted to mount it at the 7th Havana Biennial when Fidel Castro was still alive, but it reportedly shut down by censors within hours. She chose the name “Untitled” to honor Felix Gonzalez-Torres, an exiled Cuban artist known for his post-minimalist works and who died from AIDS-related causes in 1996. To experience the work, one first approaches an arch and a faux-cement atrium stained with rust representing the old fort in Cuba where “Untitled” was originally mounted. The “fort” was used as a jail and execution site during the Cuban Revolution. She/he then walks over sugar cane, soon to observe four naked men along the wall, “bowing and brushing themselves off, as though brushing off history”. The viewer then watches a four-and-a-half minute video projected onto the ceiling, comprising film footage of Fidel Castro taken mostly from a propaganda film by Estela Bravo: Castro as a young man in town, strutting in Havana or on his wedding day; old Castro, wading in the ocean; Castro opening his uniform to reveal to the public that he is not wearing a bulletproof vest. Using a wide array of media in this singular work, it also draws upon art historical motifs of the medieval and Renaissance periods. Her “tableau vivant’ engages historical themes and makes you feel uneasy, vulnerable and empathetic for the victims of Castro and other regimes.”
Tania Bruguera expands the definition and range of performance art, and redefines “useful art” by creating works that achieve full realization when others adopt new practices and perpetuate her messages. Perhaps enacting real change is a more challenging endeavor that the artist has realized. Still, while exploring and shedding light on the experience of her people–from embracing assurances from the propaganda of a revolutionary turned dictator to enduring the demise of their country–Bruguera provides knowledge of the socio-political realities, as well as the immigrant experience. In this way she incites anxiety and disturbance in her viewers. “Art is mostly accepted in its contemplative function; even when the work itself is presented in an “active” way, what is demanded at the end from the audience is mostly an activation of the mind,” she says. Many times the extent of her work does indeed result in change. And when the project is not producing the desired result, she is wise enough to bring its end and move onto the next one.