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Artist Tania Bruguera Is a Thorn in the Cuban Government's Side

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Cuban authorities watch Tania Bruguera closely. They listen in on her phone conversations. They constantly tail her. "I can move around Havana, but I have a car following me everywhere I go," the curly-haired, 46-year-old artist says. "I know they are listening to my calls, because recently, during a phone conversation with a friend, I mentioned I was going to pass out fliers that the government might find alarming. Then, 20 minutes later, a government blogger wrote, 'Tania is on her way to distribute inflammatory leaflets here.' "

Bruguera, who divides her time among Cuba, the United States, and France, became a celebrity this past December 30. Just two weeks after President Barack Obama announced an easing of restrictions on Cuban travel and finance, she was arrested for trying to stage an open-mike exhibit in Havana's Revolution Square. Her passport was confiscated, and she was ordered to remain on the island indefinitely.

Bruguera had planned to set up microphones that would allow Cubans to express their thoughts about the historic thaw between Havana and Washington.

See also: Cuban Artist Will Hold Public Performance Despite Government's Objection

"I think what's happening in Cuban cultural policy now is very dangerous," she says. "Art can be a way to understand, a way to heal, but for that to happen, art has to talk about sensitive things, and the government has to allow it."

Bruguera, who spoke at length with New Times from her mother Argelia's home in El Vedado, was born into a high-ranking Havana family in 1968. Her mom worked as a Spanish-English translator, and her father Miguel was a top adviser at the Cuban Embassy in Paris before being appointed ambassador to Lebanon and then Panama. He also filled top positions in the Cuban government, including deputy foreign minister.

Growing up, she frequently argued with her father about the social and political injustices troubling her homeland. "My situation with my father was very complex, and I am not your typical papa's girl," Bruguera says. "I wasn't raised in circles of power, nor were my friends the children of privileged government officials."

Her parents eventually divorced. "I was raised by my mom and saw Cuba's reality very differently than my dad. He didn't accept any criticism."

Bruguera became fascinated with art at a very young age. She loved to draw, but her parents wanted her to be a scientist. When she was 12 years old, they enrolled her in art school.

As a teenager studying art in Cuba during the 1980s, Bruguera was no stranger to government censorship. Havana was a hotbed of art activism. Artists and critics from around the world began paying attention to a group called the Eighties Generation, which included artists Glexis Novoa, Carlos Cárdenas, and Lázaro Saavedra.

Many of the group's pioneers became victims of government censorship and fled the island to escape political pressure. "I was very inspired by the Eighties Generation," she says. "They showed me the power of art. "

Bruguera earned a master's degree in 1992 and then created Memory of the Post-War, an underground newspaper modeled after Granma, the Cuban revolution's official daily. Artists wrote sections ranging from sports to agriculture but made them a metaphor for Cuba's repressive political climate. Authorities weren't impressed. The state arts council ordered her to destroy the paper. One of her collaborators was detained, and the printer was sacked from his job.

She stopped making art for a while. Then, in 1998, she created The Burden of Guilt, a 1998 performance piece in which she stood naked with a lamb carcass draped around her neck while she consumed dirt. It symbolized the historical reality that the indigenous population of Cuba would have rather eaten dirt and died than live as captives of the Spanish conquistadors.

Bruguera garnered international acclaim following her performance, reminding audiences how power and oppression remained alive in Cuba.

Though authorities didn't arrest her, they must have hoped she would emigrate. In 1999, she left Cuba to pursue an MFA at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. She split the next decade teaching in Chicago and living in Cuba.

On the island in 2003, she founded an alternative school for political art that she says is an example of her ongoing relationship with her homeland. She aimed to educate her compatriots and connect them with people who had lived outside the country.

"I always answer the question 'When did you first leave Cuba?' by saying that I never left because I did not want to be defined in the terms the government has, like 'them' and 'us,' " she says. "We are all Cubans, and it is not the government who should say if we can leave or return, but each of us."

Bruguera went on to exhibit her works around the world. She has been hailed by the international arts community as a great talent. Cuban critic and curator Gerardo Mosquera, for instance, has called her "stunning" and "awe-inspiring."

The artist recalls that when she told her father of her plans to study in the United States, he became furious and broke off their relationship. A few years later, they reconciled before he died in 2006. "In the end, he came to agree with my views on the injustices in Cuba," she says. "He was always asking me if his heart attack might have something to do with the sadness caused by his gaze on Cuban society from a new perspective."

After her father's death, she became internationally known for shocking performance art. In 2008, she staged an event in which security guards escorted unsuspecting spectators into a darkened room, where the guards interrogated them about a fictional plot to assassinate Obama. The next year, she put on a show that included a naked man drinking his own urine, and one -- in Venice -- where she played Russian roulette with a loaded gun. In Bogotá that year, a waitress offered a tray of cocaine to baffled members of the public who had gathered to see her act.

The work leading to her recent detention, Tatlin's Whisper #6, had been staged in Havana in 2009. Named for an oppressed Russian artist during Josef Stalin's time, the piece included a podium with a microphone that allowed visitors to stand and voice their opinions about the revolution. A white dove was placed on their shoulders as they spoke. After a minute, they were led off the stage by uniformed men. (Footage of that performance is kept at New York's Guggenheim Museum.)

"It had an afterlife of censorship," she recalls. "I was banned from exhibiting at art institutions in Cuba. They didn't publicly announce it, but they exercised the decision."

On December 17, the day Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro made their announcement, Bruguera voiced her intention to stage the Tatlin show. In an open letter from Vatican City, she called "for the establishment of a politically transparent process in which we will all be able to participate and to have the right to hold different opinions without punishment."

Though she had hoped to produce it in Revolution Square, Havana's most politically fraught spot, officials immediately denied her. She planned to do it anyway, but before it could get started, she and 50 others were taken into custody. The arrests were trumpeted around the world as a sign of continued repression on the island.

"Neither my performance nor the consequences of it were acknowledged by the Cuban media, but intellectuals and people who have access to the news know," Bruguera says. "I have received from people I do not know a very warm and complicit support in the streets."

She has been picked up by authorities three times and then let go. Though most of the other arrestees were released, some remain in custody.

These days, Bruguera says, she spends much of her time searching for an attorney to represent her against charges of "resistance and disrupting the public order" leveled by the Cuban government.

"It is extremely hard to find a lawyer who is willing to defend me," she says. "[Authorities] have suggested twice that I should leave and never return; this is what they do with everyone they do not like. I will not accept this blackmail."

Bruguera says her current plight reflects not only the lack of freedom of expression in her homeland but also the government's focus on economic development without a commitment to democracy.

"The obvious benefits [of Obama's thaw] for them are economic," she says. "But the ones I want are human rights and social justice, where Cubans can say in public what they think without fear of retaliation."

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