'The only thing they can't take from me is my body'
Danilo Maldonado, aka "El Sexto" and Tania Bruguera were the protagonists, albeit absent, behind the last Bienal de la Havana; he was in prison, accused of "disobedience" and she, detained in the country against her will, faced the threat of a judicial process based on accusations of "resisting authority" and "promoting public disorder."
It is noteworthy that both artists sought to conduct performances in large public spaces. Maldonado's, on 25 December, 2014 in the Parque Central, was going to be called Rebelión en la Granja (Animal Farm), while Bruguera's, five days later, in the Plaza de la Revolución, was to be called El susurro de Tatlin (Tatlin's Whisper).
The political police did not allow the performances to take place, but, at the same time, actually brought them about. Tania Bruguera's story finished when they returned her passport to her and she was able to leave the country last July, but Danilo Maldonado’s Animal Farm fiasco is still not over - nine months later.
When in April of this year they granted him the Václav Havel Prize, in absentia, Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights Foundation, expressed that "El Sexto" belongs to a “generation of change” made up of historical figures who, using only words, "seek to peacefully shake the foundations of dictatorships, in such a way as to change history."
On that occasion Gari Kasparov expressed that what really had led to the artist's arrest was the fact that a comparison between the Castro brothers and the pig characters in Animal Farm had "exposed the nature of a totalitarian regime." Carolina Jiménez, with Amnesty International, which considers him a prisoner of conscience, declared that "jailing an artist for painting a name on a pig is ridiculous."
If the mere fact that Danilo continues to be imprisoned is unacceptable enough, and represents an appalling snub to the protests in Cuba and around the world, considering the letters signed by hundreds of people standing in solidarity with him, and the artist's decision to go on a potentially fatal hunger strike, seeing himself with no other choice, the situation is now both sad and outrageous.
In light of the gravity of this situation, and the Cuban dictatorship's criminal indifference, Tania Bruguera sent Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the of United Nations, a letter denouncing the pressure and censorship to which artists in Cuba are subjected, and asking him, in specific relation to the case of "El Sexto," for all "the help possible," so that he might contact the Cuban government and "prevent a tragic outcome."
Bruguera pointed out, in addition, that Maldonado "has the right to be released from prison while he awaits the public prosecutor's decision." Thus, she asked Ki-Moon to bring up the case before Raúl Castro while he was still in New York participating in the UN General Assembly. "No life should be in the hands of a government just because they don’t want to recognize that they have made a mistake," wrote Bruguera, insisting: "Nobody should be used as a scapegoat to teach the rest of the artistic community a lesson."
A graffiti artist
Danilo Maldonado Machado (1983) was also arrested during the visit by the previous Pope, Benedict XVI. In fact, being arrested, or even disappearing for days at the hands of state security forces, under any pretext, has become business as usual over the last five years of his life.
They have shut down multiple exhibitions of his in Havana, or have not even let him open them, in addition to all those occasions on which they have prevented him from participating as just another plastic artist, with the political police stooping to the crudest kinds of intimidation towards the owners of venues and organizers.
In an interview conducted by Antonio Rodiles for Estado de Sats in January of 2012, Maldonado said, with regards to his defiant creative impulse: "That cry inside you is so strong that you can´t take it anymore," adding that he sees himself as "a human being who needs to express himself, above all" and that "they can call me a dissident, or whatever term they wish to invent." He concluded with a phrase that now takes on a meaning it did not have three and a half years ago: "I am going to continue doing what I do, even if it means my life."
His first work of graffiti, in 2009, appeared all over his district of San Agustín: the sign Rev, from the key of a tape recorder —very significantly pointing backwards. He discovered, above all, how he could knock at the doors of power even with very paltry resources.
His own face, wearing an interrogative expression, a broken five-point star and the question ¿Qué pasa? (What´s going on?) was his second work of graffiti, found all over all the city. In that same year, 2009, he came up with the idea of creating an almost comical character: a superhero who would save everyone from "this."
To create him Danilo drew upon the omnipresent official media campaign for the liberation of the "Five Heroes." Thus appeared the "Sixth Hero," a satire on a farce. He was astonished by people's instant understanding of it, and then watched as he lost control over what "El Sexto" (The Sixth) came to mean; he saw him as an everyday person, as anyone can be a free "hero." Even if many believe that "nothing can be done, because nobody does anything, there is always someone who dares to openly express what he feels and thinks."
A creative whirlwind would follow, with multiple works of graffiti throughout Havana, including the irony of Devuelvan mis cinco euros (Give me back my five euros), the first arrests and threats. They ordered him to take off a pullover that read "Laura Pollán vive" (Laura Pollán Lives) and, when he refused, they ripped it off him. "We are going to knock down the wall," stated Danilo (now having transformed into "El Sexto"), "for our children, for our family. We are going to put an end to this fear."
I had the chance to interview him for Cubanet on two or three occasions. We saw each other in a range of places, and talked at length. His sincerity and incapacity for ostentation were evident to me. He spoke without excessive emphasis, never aloud, always patient and very convinced, as if he had been born thinking the way he does.
In an interview in May of 2012 I asked him about his education and he answered that - although he studied for a time at the studio of Roberto Diago, and at cultural centers, and admired Amelia Peláez, Antonia Eiriz, Mirta Pilar, Hilda Vilar, Arte Calle, Ezequiel Suárez, Luis Trápaga, and many others, not to mention Basquiat — "what really taught me, what nourished me, was the street."
Another thing he said, which today takes on greater meaning, is that "every time the situation gets more difficult, I feel more motivated to grow. One ends up on the floor, or he grows. You can´t get used to losing. I know who the enemy is and what he wants." But there was no intolerance in him. For example, he had no problem sharing a space with an artist who was doing absolutely the opposite of what he was.
"If your behavior in front of people is a lie," he said, "you can be with a woman you don't like, do a job you don't like, hang out with people you don´t like...and your whole life is a lie." He finished this thought by stating that one must make it clear that "I am drawing the line here," because, if you don´t, "your life fills up with a thousand lies, and it spins out of control. You end up signing a letter endorsing someone's execution, and hugging Fidel Castro."
On that occasion "El Sexto" stated that "Art changed my life. It was like waking up, better than any religion. And I had been blind. The best thing that ever happened to me was being an artist here in Cuba, including the bad things that, unfortunately, happen, but they help you to mature, leading to better things. Leaving would be the simplest solution. But why should I, when this is my home?" He would later have the opportunity to travel to Europe and the United States, but he returned here.
When I interviewed him in September of 2012 he had gotten a tattoo of Oswaldo Payá, to pay tribute to the man who inspired the Varela Project, giving the Cuban people lots of hope and encouragement, when many thought it impossible to do way with this dictatorship in a peaceful way.
"El Sexto" wanted to use his body to honor "those who are being killed by the Government: Laura Pollán, Orlando Zapata, Wilman Villar and others. I am also going to add '13 March' and the number of people who died there." According to him the political police can cover his graffiti with pink paint, and get him thrown out of the studios, "but the only thing they can't do is take away my body."
By that time it was almost impossible for Danilo to sell his pictorial works, because buyers had them confiscated at Customs at the airport. It was difficult for him to spend multiple weeks at the same studio. They took his materials, sent to him via Cuba Pack, and cancelled the credit on his mobile, sent from abroad, with ETECSA keeping the money. And they seized his personal and work items —agendas, journals, sprays, cardboard, pens, everything in his knapsack— when they arrested him.
Nevertheless, incredibly, Danilo did not lose his cool. He talked about the persecution and harassment to which he was subjected in a tone as if it had happened to someone else: "I can't work at home any longer because, the more they come after you, the more rebellious and defiant your work gets, more radical, and my relationships with my grandparents and my mother suffer. They’re scared."
Hero of "no," artist of "yes"
Danilo Maldonado declared a hunger strike on 25 August, protesting his eight months of imprisonment. He stopped at the beginning of September, but resumed it on the 8th. Agents calling themselves Kevin and William visited his mother, María Victoria Machado, at her workplace to persuade her son to abandon the strike, not to "work for the enemy" and "not close any more doors," as only they could help. By that point, however, his mother knew very well who her friends and enemies were; they were not able, then or since, to secure her cooperation.
She demands justice for her son. Although the director and the lawyers of the Bufete Colectivo (collective law office) of the town of Plaza de la Revolution recognize that he did not commit a crime, they refuse to issue statements to the press. The lawyer on the case, Mercedes Nery Ferrer Iznaga, has done a dreadful job, if it can be said that she has done anything at all. In reality she has only supported the regime's illegal and vindictive actions, even threatening friends of the defendant who have visited her at her offices.
Dani belongs not just to a generation (as there are several) but a whole group of wide-ranging artists who have been opposing the regime for years now, some more overtly than others, in the field of Culture and appealing to the public, like Gorki Águila, Los Aldeanos, Raudel Collazo (Escuadrón Patriota), OMNI-Zona Franca, Lía Villares, Ángel Yunier Remón Arzuaga (El Crítico), Luis Trápaga, Maikel Extremo, Ángel Santiesteban, and Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, among others.
Some of them are not well known, because it is so difficult for them to promote their work or communicate with the public. At times it is even hard for them to create their works. Amongst those who are widely known, however, some time ago the most harassed of all was Gorki, who spent two years in prison, has been arrested countless times, and even has a camera watching his house.
Also suffering serious repression has been Ángel Santiesteban, who just spent two years behind bars, and is now out on parole. But, at this time, after nine months suffering grim conditions in jail, the artist most persecuted by the regime is "El Sexto." And the most feared. Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, a writer and photographer who no longer lives in Cuba, described Danilo as "a free artist, much reviled for his courage and his genius."
Many will remember that "joke" from the dark Soviet era that went: "Don't think. If you think, don't speak. If you think and speak, don't write. If you think, speak and write, don't sign. If you think, speak, write and sign... don't be surprised."
Danilo has thought, spoken, written, signed everything and, far from being surprised, has astonished the minions who persecute, isolate and seek in vain to discourage him, beyond anything they ever could have expected. Way beyond. Thus, they would be capable of letting him die, as they have done in other cases.
The cynical, unprincipled and aesthetically vapid Alexis Leyva, who goes by "Kcho," conscious of his lack of integrity, gave Pope Francisco, with the blessing of the devout Raul, a crucified Christ on a cross of oars, declared at a Biennial: "El Sexto is a nobody. In Sweden you do graffiti and they lock you up. That's not art at all."
It is terrible but true: pigs sleep well, and eat better, even when men of conscience languish in the shadows —though without giving up their inner freedom. At the end of Animal Farm George Orwell writes: "What was it that had changed on the pigs' faces? Some had five chins, others had four, those had three."
"The only thing they can´t take from me is my body." Or his dignity.