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Permission to Participate: What it Takes for a Cuban Artist to Exhibit Abroad

Many assume that the greatest challenges facing Cuban artists come from within Cuba – often they don't

I’m in a room with no windows. Strangers are napping on vinyl-covered foam mattresses on the floor around me. I don’t have my identification or my belongings and there is a guard outside the door. Every six hours someone comes in and gives out sandwiches.

I’m not in prison and there’s been no natural disaster. I’m simply a Cuban artist in transit. I’m on a layover in the Mexico City International Airport on my way to Korea for the 2018 Gwangju Biennale. Because of my citizenship I’m required to relinquish my passport and right to freely roam the airport during my layover, in case I use the process of changing planes as an opportunity to immigrate. The theme of this year’s Gwangju Biennale is ‘Imagined Borders.’ The irony of this situation is not lost on me.

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Room for passengers without a visa, 2018, Mexico. Courtesy: the artist

Room for passengers without a visa, 2018, Mexico. Courtesy: Nestor Siré and Julia Weist

My caged layover in Mexico is far from atypical as I attempt to participate in the international art world. To travel to Korea with a layover in countries such as Canada, the US or in Europe I would have had to apply for an airport transit visa which awards me the privilege of changing planes only after an extensive application and background check has been approved. Fellow artists from Syria, Iran, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia and far too many other countries are required to obtain the same permission. The online systems for most airport transit visa applications are blocked on Cuban internet connections (the government is Cuba’s only internet provider and some sites are censored) and many require an international credit card, which is prohibited in Cuba’s nationalized banking system. My American-born and NY-based collaborator Julia Weist has copies of all of my identifying documents and has filled out so many visa applications for me she knows my passport number and parents’s birthdays by heart.

Back in February I was invited to speak with Julia at the New Museum in New York. I spent the weeks I should have been preparing for the talk travelling to Georgetown, Guyana to try to obtain a visa to enter the US for this five-day professional trip. The Trump administration closed the US Embassy in Havana in 2017 thereby requiring Cubans to travel to foreign countries to apply in-person for all US visas. Guyana is one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t require a visa for Cuban nationals and as a result, thousands of individuals travel there every month to buy goods to resell in Cuba as well as to attempt to travel legally to the US. On a more recent trip to install an exhibition in Kansas I travelled to the US Embassy in Bogotá, only after obtaining a visa for the right to enter Colombia. In order to apply for this tourist visa I had to be invited by a Colombian resident so I asked for the help of my friend’s brother who lives a few hours outside of Bogotá. Despite the extreme lengths I must go to in order to apply to enter the US I’ve only ever been granted single-entry visas and must start the process over again when the next art invitation arrives. The cultural institutions I work with must pay for these additional trips to Guyana, Colombia and elsewhere for me to be able to contribute to their events, programmes and exhibitions. While other artists are making work or perusing opportunities I’m often trying to gain permission to participate.

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Guyana airport, 2018. Courtesy: the artist

Guyana airport, 2018. Courtesy: Nestor Siré and Julia Weist

Many assume that the greatest challenges facing Cuban artists come from within Cuba. While it’s true that there are countless obstacles in my everyday life – extreme restrictions on internet access; limitations on funding; the inability to make simple purchases by credit such as for website hosting or travel bookings – many of the most difficult limitations come from abroad. The examples are too numerous to catalogue so we can focus just on movement and travel. The US Embargo on Cuba prohibits many non-US businesses from trading with, servicing or shipping to Cuba while also engaging with American markets. As a result, acquiring materials and shipping artwork without strong economic support or commercial representation is severely limited. I’ve never shown artwork I didn’t physically transport myself in my checked baggage (outside of my collaboration with Julia). Flights in and out of Cuban airports are not aggregated or searchable by travel sites as a result of the embargo. Less than two years ago the first US commercial flight landed in Cuba in more than five decades. When I receive funding from American cultural or academic organization, it must be provided in cash because I’m unable to deposit checks or receive wire or bank transfers. Because there is frequently no policy for paying in cash this often means I simply go unpaid for my work with these institutions.

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Colombian Visa in Passport and Visa acceptance document for the US, 2018. Courtesy: the artist

Colombian visa in Passport and visa acceptance document for the US, 2018. Courtesy: Nestor Siré and Julia Weist

When an artist cannot travel freely, nor efficiently move their artwork off the island where they live, it’s nearly impossible to engage with the art world. On the occasion of ‘Imagined Borders’ I offer this to those who pass easily through this world: you must not forget your fellow artists who are made to wait in guarded rooms, who can’t stop while in transit, who are denied entry. We must keep borders in our imagination so that we can dream of ways to tear them down.

Main image: Room for passangers without a visa, 2018, Mexico. Courtesy: Nestor Siré and Julia Weist 

Nestor Siré and Julia Weist are artists living in Havana, Cuba and New York, NY. Their collaborative work has recently been exhibited at the Queens Museum (New York), Rhizome (New York), Triple Canopy (New York), and the Hong-Gah Museum (Taiwan) among other venues.

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