Tania Bruguera, Cuban installation and performance artist, steps up to the podium for her artist talk at the sold out Glenbow Theatre as the loud applause from the crowd fades to silence.

As Bruguera begins her speech for the public art and social practice workshop series, members of the crowd sit at the edge of their seats, waiting in anticipation for her next words.

“No matter what you do in Cuba, you’re going to be political,” Bruguera says.

Only six days earlier, Bruguera was in a Cuban jail, detained for giving aid to victims of Hurricane Matthew that struck the country in September. Now she tells a theatre full of people that she is “not an artist, but an initiator.”

Controversial political views are what Bruguera displays through her artwork. Even though her actions have caused her to be detained by Cuban police multiple times, she says nothing can stop her from fighting for change until all Cubans obtain freedom.

“I was not doing a performance — I was doing a social gesture, which is what my art is about,” says Bruguera.

Lorenzo Fusi, academic curator of the Illington Kerr Gallery, says it isn’t the quality or type of Bruguera’s work that interests him, but the fact that her art is something big.

“It is the awareness that Cuban art is more than art, which Cuban artists have to develop very quickly in order to retain their own intellectual integrity and political integrity, as well as independence from different forms of oppression,” says Fusi.

Bruguera’s art attempts to set up the conditions for political change to occur. It acknowledges that the sustainability of social and political work depends on the intervention, care and enthusiasm of the audience.

“In Cuba, we lack freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of organization, freedom of protest and demonstration and also freedom to feel free,” Bruguera explains.

Bruguera was first arrested in Havana, Cuba’s capital city, for her performance art in December, 2014. The first incident caused a ripple effect: Bruguera was then arrested several more times in the years afterward and even had her passport confiscated for eight months by Cuban authorities.

However, it was her most recent detainment on Jan. 13 for giving foreign aid to victims of Hurricane Matthew, that hit a nerve with Bruguera.

“I even feel like the people who were interrogating and detaining me thought it was absurd that they had to do that to me,” says Bruguera.

She began using art as a way to voice her activism and fight for social change in Cuba creatively – something called “artivism.” However, the raw and challenging nature of her work is seen as rebellious in Cuba.

At one performance, called “Self-Sabotage,” Bruguera played Russian roulette at a public lecture on the idea of survival. She would stop during her speech to hold the gun to her head until audience members and fellow artists begged her to stop.

Tania Bruguera recently came to Calgary to complete a presentation on her influential art displays, many of which have landed her in legal trouble. Video produced by Kemi Omorgbe, Mackenzie Gellner and Karina Zapata

Anne Drew Potter, one of the artists participating in the Calgary workshop series, says art is important because of its ability to play on involuntary reactions.

“Art is extremely powerful because we cannot defend ourselves against it, and yet it’s emotionally and intellectually gripping,” says Potter.

After seeing Bruguera’s unique display, an audience member, Su Ying Strang, comments, “I think in Cuba there definitely needs to be more dissenting voices and advocates to stand up for the people of Cuba, and so I really admire Tania’s work for that reason.”

Bruguera is highly aware of the basic rights that Cuban citizens are being deprived of, and despite her multiple detainments, Bruguera says she will continue using her art and voice to demand rights and freedom for the people of Cuba.

oomorogbe@cjournal.ca mgellner@cjournal.ca kzapata@cjournal.ca 

The editor responsible for this article is Brandon Tucker,  btucker@cjournal.ca 

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