The Museum of Dissidence in Cuba (MDC) is an online website and public art project celebrating dissent in Cuba. It was set up in the summer of 2016 by acclaimed young artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and his partner, curator and art historian Yanelys Nuñez Leyva. Their stated aim is to reclaim the word “dissident” and to give it a positive connotation.
This is a daring and unique project, created by representatives of a new, young generation of artists who are not afraid to challenge the still repressive regime and promote freedom of expression. The repercussions have been fierce: Nuñez was sacked from her job at state sponsored magazine Revolution and Culture for founding the site. Otero was arrested in November 2017 for organising an unofficial #00Havana Biennal through the museum and threatened with prison for being a “counter-revolutionary”.
Cuba is still a one-party communist state. Political pluralism is outlawed and dissent repressed. There are also severe restrictions on press freedom, assembly, speech and association, according to Freedom House. The MDC project aims to bring people from inside and outside Cuba together online, but specialises in radical public art projects and installations, concentrated in the poorer districts of Havana. The founders say that because it is not on either side of the political divide it is particularly vilified and attacked.
MDC won the 2018 Freedom of Expression Awards run by Index on Censorship Award in the Arts Category. They were unable to obtain visas to attend the awards ceremony hosted in London in April.
Alcántara said “having won this prize is super important, for the MDC as well as for all Cuban activism, because it’s an acknowledgement from a prestigious international institution. This legitimises the work that we’ve been doing in favour of a future of freedom on the island, makes it more visible and brings protection and a certain empowerment to keep working despite all the unfairness and insecurity that we experience here.”
In 2017 the MDC website promoted artistic projects round the island. The museum worked with a group of graffiti artists to create murals of aliens and balaclava clad men on the dilapidated walls of Havana in September 2017 to show up the government, which only allows political slogans and pictures of Cuban revolutionaries.
In another striking project they have re-examined the work and lives of important Cuban writers who committed suicide in suspicious circumstances. A terrifying art installation by Amaury Pacheco depicted a man hanging above the street in homage to the poet Juan Carlos Flores. The museum held a series of artistic events in San Isidro, a poor neighbourhood of Old Havana to honour the poets who had killed themselves because of the repressive Cuban regime.
The project #00 Biennial of Havana is the museum’s latest action, born as an act of protest against the decision of the Ministry of Culture to postpone until 2019, the celebration of the XIII Biennial of Havana. It was this project which led to founder, Alcántara, being arrested. He is now free on bail.
Alcántara and Levya’s work is being recognised for its bravery by Index on Censorship and now that visas have finally been granted by the UK Home Office, Metal are delighted to be working in partnership with IoC to provide a two week residency in Southend-on-Sea so that the artists can finally receive their Award in person – and can share their work with the artists and communities of the UK.
In response, curator Yanelys Levya notes that “living on an island makes us believe we are alone in everything that we do. To know that there’s someone, in any part of the world, that supports our struggle and that their dreams are close to ours, makes us feel safer, stronger and gives us hope.”
The Museum of Dissidence will be in residence with Metal in Octoboer 2018, with an opportunity to meet them and hear more about their work at an Artist’s Talk on Wednesday 24 October – more details here.
Artists Biogs in Brief
Yanelys Núñez Leyva
Curator, art critic, and co-author of the Museum of Dissidence
Yanelys Núñez Leyva is a curator, art critic, and co-founder of the Museum of Dissidence in Cuba. She is one of the leaders of the #00Bienal (Havana Biennial). Yanelys has been a member of the Hermanos Saíz Association of young artists and writers since 2016. From 2012 to 2016 she was part of the team of specialists from the Espacio Abierto gallery, curating visual art projects such as Stock, Humor Versus Humor, PullFreight, etc. She graduated from Art History at the Faculty of Arts and Letters of the University of Havana.
Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara
Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara is a Havana-based artist and co-founder of the Museum of Dissidence in Cuba. His work involves social and political comment. He has made interventions in popular public spaces, displaying some of his artworks to be seen by all people, often in defiance of the regulations in his country. He has also participated in various collective expositions both inside and outside the country. Luis is one of the leaders of the #00Bienal Havana Biennial, a member of the Cuban Association of Artist Craft Makers (ACAA) and since 2016 he has been a member of the Hermanos Saíz Association of young artists and writers.