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Tania Bruguera - Biography and Legacy

Cuban Artist and Political Activist

Born: July 18, 1968 - Havana, Cuba

Biography of Tania Bruguera


Tania Brugueras was born the elder of two girls to Communist father Miguel Brugueras, who had been an underground militant during the Batista dictatorship and, from 1959 onward, worked as a diplomat and minister in the Fidel Castro government. Due to his work, the family moved often during Tania's childhood, living in Paris, Lebanon, and Panama. When she was eleven, Tania moved back to Cuba with her mother (an English translator), who had divorced her father.

She recalls that her mother had begun "to ask uncomfortable questions, such as, for example, why were they sending planes without seats full of very expensive things for Raúl Castro's wife paid with money that belonged to the town, while there was nothing to eat in Cuba. My mother had a utopian idea of the revolution and those things shocked her, and since she was impulsive and could take to saying things like that in front of anyone, my father's solution was to get away and send my mother, my little sister, and me from Panama back to Havana, without prior notice and without suitcases."

A 1920 postcard image of the El Vedado neighborhood of Havana, where Bruguera grew up in the 1980s.

Back in Cuba, the family lived in the upscale Havana neighborhood of El Vedado. Young Tania was shocked by the disconnect between "the idyllic image of Cuba that the Government projects abroad" and the "real Cuba" she encountered. "I found it suspicious," says Bruguera, "that the government would try to sell an image to the world that portrayed everyone in Cuba as being happy with the agreement with the US." She cites this as the moment when the seeds of activist art-making were planted in her. "I couldn't reconcile reality with the projection I had of that reality. There is the root of my work," she states.

Brugueras studied at the Elementary School of Plastic Arts in Havana until 1983. She then continued her studies at the San Alejandro Fine Arts School until 1987. While there, at the age of eighteen, she changed her surname to Bruguera as a form of symbolic rebellion against her father, likely removing the "s" from the end of the surname to assert her independence and separate herself from the idea of being one of several "Brugueras". This act meant that she gave up any potential future inheritance.

Education and Early Training

In 1992, Bruguera received a degree in painting from the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana and later left Cuba to study in the United States, where she got her M.F.A. in Performance from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2001. She continued to maintain her presence in Cuba by carrying out often controversial performance works and by working as a teacher at the Instituto Superior de Arte, where she taught until 2002. (She has also taught outside of Cuba, including in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Chicago, from 2003-2010, as well as the Università Iuav di Venezia in Venice and the National School of Fine Arts in Paris.)

Between the 1980s and 1990s, a new generation of artists came up in Cuba, who led the way in updating the local scene with knowledge of contemporary art abroad, especially in the US and Europe. Cuban writer Rafael Rojas explains, "This was a generation that, while pertaining to the Soviet bloc, was aware of the most groundbreaking movements taking place in Western art, and attempted to assimilate and adapt them into the Cuban context." To him, Tania Brugera was "the most emblematic" of this transition in the art scene.

In 1993, Bruguera's own father, whom she had only seen a few days per year since she was a child, took her to be interrogated by authorities, after she made a newspaper with artists' texts for an exhibition. (It is forbidden to produce any form of independent publication in Cuba.) Her father confiscated all of the papers, and took her from her house, saying the same thing all police would say to her when they would take her for interrogation, "Let's go for a walk." He then put her in a car and drove silently to a house where two other men, whom her father referred to as "colleagues," began the interrogation. On this episode she says, "it was then when censorship became the core of my work."

Mature Period

Tania Bruguera in 2009.

In January 2003, Bruguera founded the Cátedra Arte de Conducta (Behavior Art School), hosted by the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana, with the aim of creating a space for the study and development of alternative art forms, and of showing Cuban students ways that they could use art to address hegemony and ideology. Institutional Critique played a significant role in the teachings of the Cátedra Arte de Conducta, which functioned as a two-year program with weekly workshops on "Behavior Art" and discourse. Bruguera also supported the careers of her students, notes art professor Adrian Anagnost, "by exhibiting their artworks as her own participation in the Havana Biennial." The program ran until 2009.

Bruguera has been arrested numerous times in Cuba, as her work often directly confronts the government. For instance, in 2014 when she organized a performance titled Tatlin's Whisper #6, which would've provided a platform for free speech in Havana's Plaza de la Revolución, she was arrested the morning before the performance was scheduled to start and charged with incitement to break the law, inciting public unrest, and resisting the authorities (although the latter charge was later dropped). Her passport was confiscated, and she was interrogated more than thirty times over the following months.

Several other artists and activists were also arrested for their plans to participate in that performance. When she was incarcerated that year, she recalls, "It was at that moment I learned that injustice has a way of manifesting itself physically and isn't just a concept. I stopped eating, not out of courage, but because I thought what was being done to me was unfair, and I had no other way of making that clear." She also recalls that the interrogations for that incident involved a great deal of "psychological violence."

In June 2015, Bruguera was able to get her passport back. She stayed in Cuba for a couple months, participating in several marches with the dissident group the Ladies in White, and then left the country in August. She pursued a Kickstarter campaign, through which she successfully raised over $100,000. The money was used to start the Institute of Artivism Hannah Arendt (INSTAR), which has its headquarters in her Havana home.

The Institute's stated mission is to "work with 'ordinary Cubans,' from housewives to professionals, from activists to students [...] to have a sample of Cuban society with people from different political spectra and levels of education. We want to work with the people who will be in charge of the construction of democracy in Cuba day by day, demanding their rights and fighting for social justice in their schools and jobs; transforming viewers into active citizens."

Bruguera was arrested again in December 2018, before a planned protest of a proposed Cuban law, "Decree 349", that would require all artists to apply for government licenses, as well as enable government officials to regulate artwork sales in the country and to prevent artists from addressing various subjects, including the "use of patriotic symbols that contravene current legislation," violence, and pornography. Bruguera, along with a number of other artists and activists who opposed the law, was imprisoned for three days, and then put on house arrest while the authorities worked to build a penal case against her. She decided to file a defamation lawsuit against the government.

Bruguera wears a tattoo on her right arm which shows the geographic coordinates of her home in Havana, as well as the date on which Castro left the presidency of Cuba, and a drawing of a skull pointing a gun at its temple, alluding to her 2009 work Self-Sabotage, in which she played Russian roulette in front of the public. "It reminds me," she says, "that every time I go to my country I have to remove my fear and go to the last consequences. Political art in Cuba is a Russian roulette, an all-or-nothing game in which you bet on losing everything."

In 2020, Bruguera reported hearing a high-pitched sound in her Havana home, which caused her high levels of physical distress. This phenomenon is well-documented and referred to as "Havana syndrome" following the first reports that surfaced in 2017 from American and Canadian diplomats in Cuba who suffered similar auditory symptoms, as well as sensations of pressure or vibration, with some extreme cases resulting in brain damage. "Havana syndrome" is generally believed to be the result of targeted attacks by the Cuban government, possibly through the use of microwaves or ultrasonic signals.

In March 2021, Bruguera was detained once again, for six hours in a Havana police station. She refers to the event as a "kidnapping," as she was forced into a vehicle by state security agents while running errands. In May 2021, she was one of six artists who requested that their work be removed from the National Museum of Fine Arts of Cuba as a form of protest against the imprisonment of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, another performance artista and outspoken critic of the Cuban government. Then, in July 2021, Bruguera herself was again detained and interrogated for eleven hours.

Bruguera has stated that she feels she is under constant surveillance, citing instances when friends who have visited her are soon after visited by "someone from the Government," as well as other instances in which individuals sitting near her in restaurants eat nothing and look at her constantly, or seem to wait on the sidewalk for her to come out of stores. She states, "I am not paranoid, but I know that I am a target of the Cuban government. They have classified me as an enemy, and there is no turning back." She currently splits her time between New York and Havana.

The Legacy of Tania Bruguera

Tate Modern director Frances Morris notes that "Bruguera is known for the original and compelling way in which she addresses the major political concerns of our time, not only in debates on art and art history, but also in the hope of bringing about real change in the world around us." Throughout her career, Bruguera fiercely defends her political beliefs though her performance, installation, and participatory art projects. Forcing awareness and reassessments of historical and current socio-political issues in Cuba, her legacy comes not only from her work itself, but also the media coverage of her numerous arrests, incarcerations, and interrogations by Cuban authorities, who view her work as a threat to their political system.

Bringing together art and activism, Bruguera's myriad artistic approaches, strategies, tactics, and philosophies (including "behavior art," "useful art," and "ARTivism") have also made her a trailblazer in terms of the form her art takes, particularly in the field of participatory art and related discourses, with her name already included in seminal texts on the topic, such as Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (2012) by art historian Claire Bishop, who previously critiqued Relational Aesthetics for being removed from social context despite creating new experiences and social interactions.

Bruguera has influenced a new generation of artists in Cuba, the United States, and beyond, such as Celia Irina González Álvarez, Yunior Aguilar, Lazaro Saavedra, and Pussy Riot. This younger generation aims to combine social practice with artistic practice in order to have real-world effects on governmental policy as well as on the quality of life of ordinary citizens who experience disenfranchisement. In addition to her artworks, much of her influence has also come through her teachings, such as at the Cátedra Arte de Conducta in Havana, as well as the Asociación de Arte Útil, the Institute of Artivism Hannah Arendt, and the Immigrant Movement International. National Plastic Arts Award laureate Lazaro Saavedra asserts that Bruguera will be "celebrated for her braveness and rebellious spirit in social media. [...] When she goes, she will be leaving behind her thousands of Cubans fighting for our civil rights, and as always there will be hundreds or thousands abroad pushing them."

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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
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First published on 07 Oct 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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