Peruvian artist Cesar Cornejo talks about how his project for the 12th Havana Biennial expands on a concept he first realized in Puno, Peru. In Cuba, the project site is a local family’s home on the hillside of Casablanca, a neighborhood near the entrance to Havana Harbor. His unique sculptural intervention evokes both the family’s history and the architectural design of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain.
Sound Editor: Kris McConnachie
CATHY BYRD: This is Fresh Talk with Peruvian artist César Cornejo. We meet in Cuba during opening days of the 12th Havana Biennial. Our conversation begins on the street in front of a small house in Casa Blanca, a community near the entrance to Havana Harbor. The neighborhood is perched on a hill beneath the eighteenth-century fortress that serves as a Biennial venue. As do most locals, we reach Casa Blanca by taking a ferry from Old Havana. Cornejo is one of a dozen Biennial artists creating site- specific works in Casa Blanca. In a local family’s home, he continues an experiment with art, architecture, and community that he began in his home country.
CESAR CORNEJO: I had been invited to represent Peru at the 12th Havana Biennial, and I was invited to present a version of a project that I am developing in Puno, Peru called Puno MoCA, which stands for Puno Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s a project that proposes to create an alternative museum model that is based on Latin American reality, let’s say, or Third World reality.
CB: The original project began with home improvements.
CC: What we have done is go to homes in low income areas of Puno and offer people to repair some spaces in their homes for free with the condition that they allow us to exhibit art in those spaces that we have repaired. After the exhibition ends, the works are withdrawn and the spaces remain for the owner to enjoy them as part of their home. I, as an artist, benefit from the opportunities that develop from there.
CB: A few months after we meet, I called Cornejo to talk about why he chose what he calls a poor and ugly city to launch this experiment. Far from the metropolis of Lima where he grew up, Puno is a jumping off point for a global tourist destination, Lake Titicaca, 12,000 feet above sea level.
CC: It was really one of the less likely places to create a museum.
CB: When Cornejo went to Puno for the first time, he found that construction had never been completed on 70% of the houses.
CC: The first time I went to Puno, it really marked in my memory how there were so many unfinished houses. Instead of bringing Western or First World country models of the museum, which require lots of investment and magnificent buildings, this project proposes that we use our buildings. This is our architecture, and I thought we can create a model by which they benefit and also we benefit.
CB: Achieving such a project involves many dimensions of engagement.
CC: There are aspects that have to do with finances and business, aspects that have to do with location, aspects that have to do with environmental research and development of environmentally friendly technologies. I started working small scale, because I didn’t have money yet to do any significant work, but still, that’s meaningful.
CB: This concept is portable. The artist could create a mini museum in any number of small neighborhoods around the world, but building the necessary partnerships is essential. And connecting on a personal level is not always easy.
CC: More important even than the place to me is the people; finding the neighbors that actually can be good partners for the project because that is the key to succeed. Because there has to be this trust between them and me, a good relationship, to be able to have a happy ending and a good experience for everyone.
CB: The project turned out to be a perfect fit for the theme of the 12th Havana Biennial: Between the Idea and Experience.
CC: For the Havana Biennial, we have been introduced to the family of Alberto Chinique. The house belongs to that family, an old family here in Casablanca. Mrs. Mary Saltero also lives there with her daughter and her son, and they have been extremely helpful also all along the process. In
this house, we have repaired the entrance, where there was some structural damage due to weather conditions. Cracks have been repaired, the structure has been repaired, the lobby and bedroom walls have been painted and glass has been put in the windows. We have an exhibition of two Colombian artists at the moment who are also guests of the Biennial.
CB: The Biennial’s organizational structure and financial support allowed Cornejo to expand on the Puno MoCA model—to move his idea to the next level, with an exterior spatial intervention that involved the family and their community in a new way.
CC: Havana has been a step forward, with me being involved in creating a sculptural statement on the façade to show that this is a museum. That’s an idea that I have been thinking about for a while, but until all of the circumstances come together, it’s really hard to do.
CB: Cornejo’s team transformed the entrance of the hillside home into a temporary/contemporary landmark visible from the ferry landing below. The sculpture tells the family’s maritime history. A great-grandfather had operated a ferry boat service for Casa Blanca before the Cuban Revolution. With elements that the artist had built in his Florida studio and shipped to Havana, they erected a shimmering monument: four curving, crescent shapes made of laminated plywood and surfaced in aluminum, suspended at different heights and angles from a central column. The faceted reflective form evokes architect Frank Gehry’s design for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Where do you go next with this idea?
CC: I feel that making something that’s significant like we did in Cuba, in Puno, would be very, very important. That would complete the idea of Puno MoCA not being only a project that deals with architecture and art, but also that’s integral to the fabric of society. That’s the next work, I would say. It’s less material and more spiritual.