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Tania Bruguera

Cuban Artist and Political Activist

Born: July 18, 1968 - Havana, Cuba
"I think that power must be spoken to without fear, even with a certain arrogance."
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Tania Bruguera
"This time of polarised feelings, of the lack of citizens' resources to change the course of things, calls for us to reclaim public space as a civic space rather than a venue for propaganda where above all there is a lack of transparency and institutional tolerance."
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Tania Bruguera
"I have not lost faith in the ideas of social justice in the early years of the revolution, but I have had many disappointments. The priority of the revolution has not been the Cubans, but their international image."
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"I always say that I am a dissenting artist."
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"I will always be an artist and my place will be to protest what I think is unfair."
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Tania Bruguera
"My art has to have a real function for myself, to heal my problems, or to help other people to reflect and improve."
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Tania Bruguera
"Art and ethics cannot be separated in this practice. They are interdependent, they define each other."
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"All my work is about making people think."
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"My biggest inspiration is injustice."
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"I think art is a way to know yourself better, and to know yourself in situations you haven't been in yet."
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"Art is not a luxury. Art is a basic social need to which everyone has a right."
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"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."
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"Art is an invitation to questioning; it is the social place of doubt, of wanting to understand and wanting to change reality."
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"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."
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"Art is a common good that does not have to be entirely understood in the moment one finds it."
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"Art is a space of vulnerability from which what is social is deconstructed to construct what is human."
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"Artists have the right to disagree with power, with the status quo."
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Tania Bruguera
"We cannot ask artists, whose work is to question society, to keep silent and resort to self-censorship once they cross a territorial border."
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Tania Bruguera
"Artists have the right not to be fragmented as human beings or as social beings."
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"Artistic expression is a space to challenge meanings, to defy what is imaginable. This is what, as times goes by, is recognized as culture."
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"There is no other type of practice in the public sphere providing the qualities of the space created by art. That is why this space must be protected."
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"Critical thinking is a civic right which becomes evident in artistic practices. That is why, when threatened, we should not talk of censorship, but of the violation of artists' rights."
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"I don't want to represent a political situation but to create a political situation."
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"I do not see myself as a person with an ego, but rather persevering and with a clear vision of the transforming power of art. And the visibility and protection that I have allow me to be in solidarity and put myself in the front line of fire so that others, behind, can also take over their space."
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Tania Bruguera

Summary of Tania Bruguera

Despite having been arrested, detained, incarcerated, and interrogated countless times due to the radical and defiant nature of her work, Cuban artist Tania Bruguera continues to create challenging performative works, as well as arts education and community outreach programs that aim to teach others that, as she asserts, "artists have the right to be respected and protected when they dissent." She is a courageous galvanizer of contemporary political art, who combined new frameworks for participatory art with a hard-hitting activist approach making art that can at times be controversial but is always poignant, challenging, and historically informed.

Accomplishments

  • While Relational Aesthetics had been around for some time, Bruguera added a new dimension to it, bringing in real-world context, even conflicts, into art spaces. Bruguera's aim in this regard is to have "lived realities" confront the viewer and for familiar news images to "become real life experiences" for museum visitors who may not have had first-hand experiences of some situations - such as being corralled by riot control police.
  • When she got arrested by Cuban authorities before the start of a planned performance, the international art world banded together to condemn the arrest and demand her release. The media coverage in this particular case - as well as the conversations and controversies that her other works engendered - can also be considered part of the work, which Bruguera used to her advantage as a political artist.
  • Bruguera stands as an example of artistic integrity and the fight for freedom of expression, becoming a model for many younger artists in Cuba and the rest of the world. She is also heavily invested in education and pedagogy, which first started from her teaching art students but eventually expanded into artworks that function as social programs for marginalized communities - what she calls Useful Art.
  • In all of her work, there is a reckoning with the complex history of her national identity and the political conditions in Cuba, of the sites where she performs, and of the legacies of colonialism and slavery in the contemporary world. Bruguera doesn't only allude to history in her work, but she creates layers of meanings "between histories," as analyzed by art historian Stephanie Schwartz.

Biography of Tania Bruguera

Former Cuban President Fidel Castro visiting Washington D. C. In 1979.

With a diplomat father who worked for the Castro government, Tania Bruguera grew up in Paris, Lebanon, and Panama before returning to Cuba at age 11, where the reality she encountered conflicted with the image of the country that the Cuban government had been projecting abroad. Trying to reconcile the two, she later said, planted the seeds of activist art-making in her, which especially started to take roots during her experience studying Performance art in the US after finishing a degree in painting in Cuba.



Progression of Art

1986

Homenaje a Ana Mendieta (Tribute to Ana Mendieta)

In 1985, the Cuban-American Feminist artist Ana Mendieta died. That year, Bruguera, then a student, began to conceptualize a multi-part project that would be implemented over the next decade. In each part of the project, she recreated works and performances by Mendieta. The first of these was a recreation of Mendieta's work, Blood Trace (1974), in which the artist covered her arms with animal blood, and drew them downward on sheets of white paper creating a red V-shape. The resulting works were then left up in the gallery space as a visual marker to remind viewers about violence against women.

Bruguera started this site-specific series while she was working on her thesis at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana. She wanted to bring Mendieta's work into public consciousness. Arts writer Tessa Solomon explains the series: "The act symbolically reclaimed Mendieta, who experienced a traumatic migration to the US as a child and who has traditionally been considered, largely with respect to US art history, for Cuba's artistic heritage."

The series also showcased Bruguera's promise as a young artist with historical awareness, political will, and deep knowledge of Feminist, Body Art, and Performance Art precedents, all of which would undergird her subsequent artistic output. In the process of creating this series, Bruguera also became an early practitioner of re-performance and reenactments, which have reinvigorated performance art discourse in recent years.

Performance re-creation series - Fototeca de Cuba, Havana, Cuba

1997

El Peso de la Culpa (The Burden of Guilt)

In this performance, which was part of the series Memorias de la Posguerra (Memories After the War), Bruguera stood naked for forty-five minutes with a headless lamb's carcass hanging from her neck, while she ate dirt mixed with water and salt meant to symbolize tears. The work was inspired by the legendary story of a group of Indigenous Cubans who committed mass suicide by consuming large amounts of soil as an act of rebellion under the Spanish Conquest. From this episode came the Cuban expression "eating land," which refers to a desperate situation from which there is no way out.

Bruguera remarks that "the Cuban Indians ate dirt as a weapon of resistance. They are from earth where they had been born, which is to say, they ate their ancestors, themselves, their history, their memory, as if they were committing a cultural suicide." The Burden of Guilt is "the recovery and realignment of this story," bringing it to the contemporary context and acknowledging her country's history and her guilt, as performance scholar José Esteban Muñoz puts it, "over colonial brutality and mass killing," which saw indigienous populations "wiped out during the shock of the colonial encounter." Arts writer and curator Edward Rubin notes that when the work was first performed in the artist's home in Havana during the Havana Biennial, "the audience was duly reminded that freedom, liberty, and self-determination are not abstract ideals, but achievements that deeply inscribe their meaning on our physical being."

A later work that Bruguera performed as part of the Memorias de la Posguerra (Memories After the War) series was El Cuerpo del Silence (The Body of Silence) (1997-98), which involved the artist sitting in a box filled with lamb meat while correcting, with a pen, a book of Cuban history, and then licking lamb meat off her naked body as an act of self-humiliation, before finally consuming the pages of the book itself as an act of self-censorship (the act of editing "official" Cuban history would likely have been punishable by law). Bruguera said: "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."

Performance - Artist's home, Havana, Cuba

2000

Untitled (Ingenieros de Almas [Engineers of the Soul])

This work was first staged in 2000 during the seventh Havana Biennial (the theme of which was "Closer to One Another") at the underground Cabaña Fortress, a military bunker that had been used as a prison, where many Cubans had been tortured and executed during Fidel Castro's regime. For the work, Bruguera covered the floor with rotting sugarcane bagasse, and lit the dark space with only a small television playing Castro-era propaganda videos. Sugarcane is particularly symbolic in Cuba, as its cultivation and exportation was historically connected to slavery, and because it has been used as an important symbol of Cuban national identity for many years. Bruguera thus intended the scent of the sugarcane to invoke an olfactory emotional response on the part of the viewer. As well, within the space, four nude men performed choreographed symbolic gestures such as bowing and cleaning off their bodies. Just a few hours into the performance, Cuban authorities shut it down on the basis that public male nudity was forbidden.

For Bruguera, the darkness of the space held a particular significance. She stated that "The long dark walk through the prison corridor provided time to think through your feelings, to explore your own ignorance of a place where the only light emanating from the image of the one man can be seen, not the eleven million people [over] whom he had the power." For arts writer Tessa Solomon, this work "embodies Bruguera's practice," which puts the spotlight on both "visible and invisible means of governmental oppression." Bruguera re-staged the performance in 2015 at the Venice Biennale, doing her best to recreate the multi-sensory elements of the original version, including the acrid odor of the rotting sugarcane, the physical and auditory crunch of it underfoot, and the presence of the original Cuban performers, in order to make it "feel authentic."

The second re-creation of the performance, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2020, had more of the element of "political-timing specificity" that Bruguera considered important to the work, since, as she explains, the first iteration in Havana had aimed to address "corruption and censorship during the Cuban Revolution." In 2020, the themes became "especially important to discuss in the Trump era." Unfortunately, Bruguera was unable to include the original Cuban performers in the New York re-creation due to governmental restrictions. However, an alteration made for this version involved permitting only four people to enter the space at a time, resulting in long lines of people cueing up to visit the work, which, according to curator Gabriela Rangel, "remind us of those [lines] that Cubans have to form in their everyday lives to buy bread, coffee or sugar."

Sugar cane bagasse, video (black and white, silent; 4:37 min.), and live performance - La Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

2008

Tatlin's Whisper #5

For this performance, Bruguera invited two mounted, uniformed police officers to aggressively exercise crowd control techniques on Tate Modern visitors finding themselves on the bridge of Turbine Hall, the museum's central thoroughfare. These techniques included forcing people to move from one place to another, corralling them into small groups, asking them questions, and closing off entrances. As arts writer Tessa Solomon notes, "The performance, which occurred at unannounced times, was contingent on the participation of the museum's visitors, many of whom did little to resist the officers. The piece was an attempt to bring lived realities of some oppressed communities - police brutality, riot suppression - into an art space." Likewise, curator Tanya Barson asserts that "the work reflects on the complex relationship between agents of authority and the people they aim to control."

The title of Bruguera's Tatlin's Whisper series was inspired by Russian Constructivist artist and architect Vladimir Tatlin, designer of the Monument to the Third International (1919-20), also known as Tatlin's Tower, a never-realized project meant to serve as a fully functional conference space and propaganda center for the Communist Third International. The series title alludes to "the intensity, credibility, and exaltation of socialist revolutions, just as Tatlin's tower, which was never built, were frustrated and utopia is rethought with the effort implied in a weak whisper," said Bruguera. From today's vantage point, explains journalist Yanet Pérez Moreno, "the series redefines [Tatlin's] practice based upon its failure and not its projected monumentality."

Tatlin's Whisper serves as an example of what Bruguera terms "Unannounced Performance" (in that no signage or audio announcements forewarned visitors of what was going to happen, eliciting, as art historian Jonah Westerman writes, "earnest confusion if not fear on the part of the viewer"). It is also part of Bruguera's "Behavior Art," which, according to her, is art that aims to "provoke" both viewers and institutions, and merges "with society and even with some psychological movements." As Bruguera explains, the intent behind her series was for familiar news images to "become real life experiences. She says specifically of Tatlin's Whisper #5, "The people do not have to know that it's art. [... Once] you know it's art, then you can do other associations, that are not exactly what you would do in your everyday life. So the fact that they are [...] having the same reaction they have in real life when they see the police controlling them, for me is very important." Bruguera sees this sort of work as examining "the relationship between apathy and anaesthetization of the images in the mass media." "The idea," she explains further, "is that next time spectators face a piece of news using similar images to those they experienced, they may feel an individual empathy with that distant event towards which they will normally have an attitude of emotional disconnection or informative saturation."

Tatlin's Whisper #5 was part of a larger weekend-long exhibition titled The Living Currency, during which the Tate's Turbine Hall was filled with other emotionally provocative works, for instance, with Spanish artist Santiago Sierra paying nine homeless women the cost of a night in a hotel room to stand facing a wall while viewers took their photos, and Croatian artist Sanja Ivekovic hiring an actor to sit and cry while reading news stories. As Westerman notes, "The museum was a sea of bodies - some performing, more watching, many doing both. The bridge [where Bruguera's performance was staged] - a mezzanine level that affords views up and down the expanse of the ground floor from above - would have seemed an ideal place for both respite and an objective overview. However, as two mounted police officers arrived on the scene, the situation changed and escape was impossible. [... Visitors] became both subject and object of the performance."

Ten years later Bruguera would return to Tate Modern with a series of interventions in the museum space addressing the migration crisis, including a piece that induced tears from visitors using an organic compound in the air.

Mounted police, crowd control techniques, audience - Tate Modern, London, UK

2009

Tatlin's Whisper #6

For this controversial work, staged during the 2000 Havana Bienniel, Bruguera set up a microphone on a podium (guarded by one man and one woman in military uniform), on which audience members could "freely express their thoughts," uncensored, for one minute each. A white dove was placed on the shoulder of each speaker. The white dove alluded to the famous image of Fidel Castro, who had also worn one on his shoulder--as a symbol of peace and the fact that he was "the chosen" leader--while delivering his first speech after the Triumph of the Revolution, in Havana in 1959. Once each speaker's minute was up, one of the uniformed individuals removed the dove from their shoulder, signaling that it was someone else's turn. Although it took several minutes for the first speaker to gather the courage to take the podium, a total of thirty-eight others followed suit. The performance became a much-talked-about sensation. Bruguera notes that "The following day some people visited the place to see if the mikes were still open," and several similar performance strategies were enacted by other art groups in the following months.

While the various speakers presented widely differing political opinions, Bruguera reports that all were "accepted" and met with "respect." Yet the audience responses were also emotional and at times intense, with Bruguera stating that "It went from a person whose only reaction was to cry because she had had no other option than migrating because of her political differences, to declarations of members of the blogger movement in Cuba who have contributed when dissenting in virtual public spaces in the net. Some demanded those who were part of the secret police to come to the mike, others asked for a day when freedom of speech did not have to be a performance." An additional element of the performance included passing out 200 disposable cameras to audience members, so that they could be in charge of the documentation of the event, especially in the case that Cuban officials reacted with force or violence.

While Cuban authorities openly denounced the event as "anti-cultural," "shameful," and "offensive," Bruguera asserts that it "was conceived as an open structure pressing the limits of the institutions in power, where the responsibility rests with the audience that, to participate, must assume their role as citizens actively integrated to the political process [allowing] spectators [to] enjoy a sort of momentary democracy, almost as a rehearsal of what a plural society tolerating discrepancy as part of a project for civil society would be." "This piece, with its situationist and hyperrealist notions," she states "can go beyond representation spaces to work directly in and with reality."

In 2015, Tatlin's Whisper #6 was restaged in Times Square, New York City, while Bruguera herself was under house arrest in Havana. In the New York iteration, many spoke out against her detention, including artist Hans Haacke, art historian Claire Bishop, artist Dread Scott, curator RoseLee Goldberg, and artist Malik Gaines. Bruguera also staged subsequent versions of the performance in Kassel, Germany (2000), Bogotá, Colombia (2009), and Gaza in the Middle East (2009). Particularly in the cases of Colombia and Gaza, she notes that the work had an important social role, as "both are places highly defined by the view of 'the other,' a view that is almost unalterable and imposed and which is more an answer to the need of 'the other' in terms of political usefulness than the reality of the people belonging to the place of which this political imaginary is had." At the Bogotá iteration, Bruguera focused on bringing together a group of people who had been directly affected by the country's ongoing drug conflicts, and even had a tray of cocaine passed around the audience during the event, an act that was met with confusion by some, and outrage by others, while some individuals (unsurprisingly) engaged in use of the drug.

Stage, Podium, Microphones, 1 Loudspeaker inside and one outside of the building, 2 persons on a military outfit, White dove, 1 minute free of censorship per speaker, 200 disposable cameras with flash - Wifredo Lam Center, Havana, Cuba

2010-2015

Immigrant Movement International

Immigrant Movement International, a work supported by the nonprofit arts organization Creative Time and the Queens Museum of Art, began with Bruguera spending a year living in a small apartment in the Corona neighborhood of Queens, New York, shared by five immigrants and their six children. As arts writer Tessa Solomon explains, "during that time, she lived on a minimum wage, without health insurance, to better understand what many U.S. immigrants went through daily." The next stage of the project involved Bruguera and several volunteers engaging with local immigrant communities, as well as social service organizations, elected officials, and artists concerned with immigration reform in Queens, through public arts workshops as well as educational and support programs such as English classes, computer literacy classes, immigration law workshops, nutrition workshops, counseling services for victims of domestic abuse, and free healthcare and childcare programs, in order to "explore who is defined as an immigrant and the values they share, focusing on the larger question of what it means to be a citizen of the world."

Bruguera explains that these sorts of "longterm projects are educational processes and as knowledge evolves so does the project. These projects are about creating an ecology that embodies the desired change, where people can experiment with what they want before it is socially established, that is, before it becomes culture. [...] Long-term projects have an unstable form, a liquid form, so that they can adapt to the complexities they confront and to the outcomes of collective authorship." The project exemplifies what Bruguera terms "Arte Útil" ("Useful Art") or "ARTivism", that is, participatory and socially-engaged arts projects that center around the specific needs of community members, who are the ones who drive the project (as opposed to the artist).

As artist and writer Alex Kershaw explains, Useful Art "seeks to provide beneficial, timely and relevant solutions for those involved with its projects. In terms of aesthetics, its aim is to recast the viewer as a user, while individual artistic authorship is swapped out in preference of the potential for its participants to expropriate the work and make it their own. In these ways Arte Útil is more about working with reality rather than simply representing reality." Or, as Bruguera puts it, "Arte Útil doesn't represent - it presents, it proposes, and it implements." As such, projects such as Immigrant Movement International engage in discourses and debates about a genre of contemporary art variously referred to as "participatory art," "dialogical art," "activist art," "community-based art," and "socially-engaged art", most notably taken up by scholars Claire Bishop, Grant Kester, Yates McKee, and Carrie Lambert-Beatty. As Kershaw notes, these sorts of projects tend to be "risky, transformational, or even antagonistic," often going beyond the original "Relational Aesthetics" as coined by curator Nicolas Bourriaud, in which artworks stage experiences for viewers to interact and become social.

Immigration policies and laws, Immigrant Population, Elected Officials, Politicians, Community Organizations, Public Pressure, Media - Queens, New York, New York


Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Tania Bruguera
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
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  • Coco Fusco
    Coco Fusco
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    Tomás Sánchez
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    Sandra Ceballos Olaya
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    Marcos Castillo
Artists
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Friends & Personal Connections
  • Guillermo Gomez-Pena
    Guillermo Gomez-Pena
  • Coco Fusco
    Coco Fusco
  • No image available
    Tomás Sánchez
  • No image available
    Sandra Ceballos Olaya
  • No image available
    Marcos Castillo
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Paisid Aramphongphan

"Tania Bruguera Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Paisid Aramphongphan
Available from:
First published on 07 Oct 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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