Image from taniabruguera.com

Art as a Tool for Social Change: a look at contemporary artist Tania Bruguera

As a student studying art at UC Berkeley, I am especially interested in how art can be used as a tool for communication. I draw inspiration from artists like Tania Bruguera, Damon Rich, and Jae Shin who are able to find a way to elevate their art into an impactful mean of communication and change.

Tania is a performance artist, who focuses on political motivations in her art. Her work looks at the ties between social change, political systems, and art. Many of her artworks question the effect of politics and economic authorities on society, especially in regards to the Cuban government. As a immigrant from Cuba and raised by a Cuban diplomat, Tania has personal interest in uncovering the Cuban propaganda misconceptions.

Tania’s works can attest to the power of social media and the sharing of knowledge. Through several performance works she has attempted to explore the success and defaults of the Cuban Revolution. Her emphasis on the Revolution incites viewers to see through the mystic of government political propaganda and mass-media influence.

One such work titled “Tatlin’s Whisper #6” exemplifies how she uses the Cuban government as a model to encourage viewers to reflect on political shortcomings and the power of free speech. In this piece, Tania displays a blank podium and sources two security personnel dressed in Cuban military uniforms to guard the podium. She then allows random people from audience to step up to the podium and speak freely for one minute as if he or she were a political figure. This “mock” Cuban political campaign gave people the chance to express their opinions and feel the difficulty of suggesting change without being too idealistic. Tania mentions that the project was “interesting to freeze power.” She noted that it stirred people to be more pragmatic about political goals rather than filling the crowd with unattainable visions and fluffy propaganda.

As a political artist, Tania always wants her work to have real “consequences,” in other words she wants to create social change. Another project in the series,“Tatlin’s Whisper #5,” came from uncomfortable feeling she had with the news. In the documentary “Legend” she talks about the origins of “Tatlin’s Whisper #5” stemming from the fact viewers have become increasingly desensitized from what is happening in the news and in reality. In her work “Tatlin’s Whisper #5,” she hires policemen to do their duties riding horseback inside the museum rather than out on the streets. From this work, she wanted people of all experiences and races to understand how it felt to have police tell them what to do, also bringing awareness to issues in the criminal justice system. Through the outcome of this work, Tania talks about how it is “interesting when you stage repression, knowing what your doing is protecting people.”

Part of what Tania wants to do is change the way we think of art. She embodies the contemporary art movement of arte útil (ie useful art art) which aims to implement art as a practical tool to benefit society. Tania believes she can find solutions to socioeconomic and systematic oppression issues through the implementation of art. She has developed long-term projects like a community center and a political party for immigrants.

The community center she founded is located in Queens, New York and is called Immigrant Movement International. It serves as a community space where art and education meet to help immigrants feel emboldened personally and politically. Immigrant Movement International is the place where immigrants can unite together to feel more at home and comfortable before going out into the world. Tania’s initial goal in creating this project was rethinking the political representation of immigrants. Tania is an idealist; she wants to create a political party for immigrants. Despite her commentaries on the media as a force of deceitful propaganda and promises unmet, she aims to utilize it as a way to create meaningful change for immigrants. She must rely on the media as a means of communication for her political motivations and projects. Part of the interesting aspect of her work is that it blurs so many lines between art, politics, and activism. She discusses how the full realization of her artwork occurs when others adopt and perpetuate it. In fact in the documentary “Legends” she said, “the most important moment of an art piece is when people are not sure if its art or not.” The unclear lines and boundaries her art crosses bring a whole new dimension to the definition of art and challenge the art world to accept a broader vision of what constitutes “art” and arts place in society.

In one of her earliest pieces titled “Displacement” 1998–1999, Tania realized the full power art can have in society. “Displacement“ was a performance piece where she dressed up as Nkisi Nkonde, a religious fetish mainly native to Congo. According to the legend, the Nkisi Nkonde is activated with relics or body parts of the deceased. It is made up of the mud, strewn artifacts, and numerous nails. Each nail making up the sculptural costume is a wish that has made. Following the myth, the person who leaves a wish with the Nkisi Nkonde must make a promise in return, and if the promise is not made then the spirit of the Nkisi scours the land in vengeance for the person who did not fulfill the promise. In the performance piece, Tania is dressed as the legend of the Nkisi in a sterile museum setting and hears the audiences wishes. She then awakens and slowly walks outside of the museum into the public. The purpose behind this piece was to highlight all the things that were promised in the Cuban Revolution, but were not actually met. As Tanis walked onto the street, a policeman approached her but stopped when someone told him what she was doing was art. The police officer told her she could “proceed, proceed” and that became the moment when Tania realized “art can go places other people cannot.” Her realization enforces my own belief in the strength of art as a means of communication.

However, no matter how much art can provide a buffer for activists against police, it is not invincible. Tania has been arrested multiple times due to her voicing opinion of her political beliefs and protesting on the streets. Her plan for a participatory performance, called #YoTambienExijo, to take place on New Year’s Eve in Havana’s Revolution Square caused Bruguera multiple arrests. Cuban authorities even took her passport and pressed charges in 2015.

In 2015, she was also attending a silent protest for the Ladies in White, a group of women who lost a loved one to the hands of the Cuban government. These women march the streets dressed in white holding photos of their missing loved one in protest of the Cuban authorities. Unfortunately police authorities take brutal force against the women, often beating them and imprisoning them for demonstrating their unrest. When Tania took part in the protest, she received several injuries from the force of the police and was arrested. Part of the reason she attended the protest was because she is working on a new project to “to present a law which will penalize violence due to political hate and which would propitiate freedom of expression in public spaces.” In addition to her political protesting in Cuba, Tania continued to take a activist stance by establishing the Hannah Arendt International Institute for Artivism. As part of the launch, she began a 100-hour reading of the book The Origins of Totalitarianism in her home beginning on May 20, Cuban Independence Day.

While many of these acts of protest may appear to put Tania’s “art” into the category of activism or politics, she is careful to define her work as art. Many of her loyal followers are also strongly defensive of Tania as an artist not just an activist. Her followers emphasized the importance of framing Tania’s acts as art not politics by posting a 2010 “political art statement” by Bruguera to the Facebook Page of the #YoTambienExijo project. Part of the public’s defense of Tania is as follows: “The only group Tania Bruguera belongs to is the platform#YoTambienExijo, which is the structure of her work. Tania does not belong to any group of opposition, nor of dissidence, nor of activism in Cuba. Tania is an artist who works in an independent manner with EVERYONE … Tania is not an opposition, nor a dissident, but an artist who works with political art and who believes that art can help transform the social and political reality we live in.”[1]

It is astounding to see the momentous effect Tania’s art practice has had over the political landscape in Cuba. More than just inciting political change, she has been successful in bringing global awareness to the ongoing human rights violations in Cuba and universally.

I draw immense inspiration from Tania’s aim to create change through her political art practice. I hope that I can eventually use my own art practice as a way to communicate my ideologies of the world and better understand our existence.

[1] “Artist Tania Bruguera Arrested Again in Havana, Injured by Police.” Hyperallergic.com.