Kcho & Manuel Mendive
The Havana Biennial wouldn’t be the Havana Biennial without Kcho and Manuel Mendive, two of Cuba’s most widely known art stars. Each in his own way has come to personify a certain conception of Cuban art, and each has seen his work snapped up by galleries, museums and private collectors around the world.
Anyone who knows Kcho (pronounced "catch-o," born Alexis Leyva Machado") knows he has a thing for boats. At the last Havana Biennial in 2006, Kcho showed up with a truckload of boat-shaped bricks, which he called "Vive y Déja Vivir" (Live and Let Live) and which he deposited in a heap in the Plaza Vieja. This time around, Kcho’s trucks were headed for a different public square with a more elaborate boat-themed mission.
We arrived at the Concepción Arenal art center to find a confused and enthusiastic crowd waiting to see what Manuel Mendive’s street performance would be all about. Anyone familiar with this famed 65-year-old artist’s biography had a vague idea of what to expect. Mendive had grown up in Havana’s Luyanó district immersed in Santería customs and rituals, and his paintings and sculptures have characteristically turned around the axis of Afro-Cubanismo. For tonight’s happening, Mendive had hand-picked his performers from Danza Contemporánea de Cuba and other top troupes, and they were now huddled together in the foyer of the art center, adjusting costumes and checking makeup. Six naked men were wrapping themselves in a single white sheet, then wrapping themselves again with thick rope. Black bodies were covered with white paint, some of the faces bore bright red dots. Palm fronds and flowers sprouted from heads. One person or persons disappeared beneath a costume of dried tropical foliage. Some of the dancers wore grotesque masks, some had three exaggerated prosthetic breasts. Mendive — dressed in white, trademark beard and dreadlocks — emerged from a side room holding his cane and a freshly painted banner. He uttered a few words of encouragement, someone pounded a Batá drum, the doors flew open, and the procession moved slowly out into the Prado Avenue. You could see passers-by wondering if these were Babalu Aye worshippers who had taken the wrong bus, or if it was the strangest marching band they had ever seen. Either way, it worked. To the sound of a somber bass drum and the occasional cowbell, the marchers stopped in front of the Capitolio building and unfurled Mendive’s banner as if held some deeply important political message. And it did. The banner read, "Amor y Paz" (love and peace).