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Kcho & Manuel Mendive

Kcho and Manuel Mendive
Kcho and Manuel Mendive
Biennial Star Power

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.
Catching Kcho isn’t always easy, but we were lucky to catch him one hot March afternoon as he was unloading a pile of scrap metal and old machine parts onto the cobblestones in the middle of the Plaza San Francisco de Asís. The sun was blazing but that didn’t slow Kcho down. He ran and jumped around the plaza — lifting, building, directing, phoning — in dark glasses, jeans and a combat-green "Brigada Martha Machado" t-shirt. (Brigada Martha Machado is what Kcho calls the relief effort he organized to help victims of Hurricanes Ike and Gustav.) A couple of days later, the work in the plaza was complete — a fully operational carousel. Where you would expect to see wooden horses, though, Kcho has put wooden boats. Not just any boats, but scale-models providing a nautical overview of Cuban history: there’s a slave ship; the USS Maine; and of course the Granma, the craft that brought Fidel Castro back to Cuba in 1956 so he could overthrow the Batista regime — all bobbing up and down together on the same merry-go-round. The title of the work: History of a Carousel Emerging from Darkness. Although Kcho’s carousel can’t actually be ridden, it has become one of the Biennial’s most popular attractions. For the inauguration, another boat — actually a wireframe silhouette of a boat — was hoisted into the night sky above the Plaza San Francisco de Asís. This second boat was the work of Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, who had overseen pyrotechnical displays for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and who had been invited by his friend Kcho to take part in the current Havana Biennial. On cue, the airborne structure sparkled with fireworks, enabling Kcho’s carousel on the pavement below to emerge brilliantly from darkness.

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).
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Kcho & Manuel Mendive
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