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CAG curator Keith Wallace visits the Bienal de la Habana

Keith Wallace

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During my tenure from 1991 to 2001 as Curator, then Director/Curator, at the Contemporary Art Gallery, I experienced a pivotal moment in my journey as a curator. When I began at CAG, its programming had recently shifted from a focus primarily on emerging Vancouver artists to also embracing artists that represented a broader national and international reach. While this shift included important non-Vancouver artists from Barcelona, Calgary, London, Montréal, Munich, New York, Paris, Saskatoon, and Toronto, across solo and group exhibitions, that reach—mine included—seemed to be kind of stuck to a limited segment of the world.

In the spring of 1994, I organized an exhibition of work by London-based photographer Sunil Gupta, which was then shipped to Cuba to be included in the 5th Bienal de la Habana. Scott Watson—then Director/Curator of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at UBC—and I decided we would travel to Havana to experience the Bienal, which since 1984 had held a distinct position among biennials in that it boldly brought attention to art from the non-Western world.1 The ’90s was also the time, in Canada and elsewhere, of the first wave of what was then referred to as “identity politics,” so in some respects I was prepared for challenges to Western colonialism and its cultural hegemonies. But for me, the Bienal was a moment. What I was not fully prepared for was the realization that, in spite of globalization having been peddled as making the world smaller, it in fact resulted in a world that is much, much larger. At the Bienal, there was a vast representation of artists from parts of the world that had received little exposure to art audiences in Vancouver, and to me, it was evident that Havana was clearly more international than Vancouver.

The 1994 Bienal also represented an important moment in history for Cuban artists in terms of recognition that resonated beyond the island’s shores. While there, I met Eugenio Valdés Figueroa, one of the Bienal curators, and I suggested the possibility of organizing an exhibition of Cuban artists to be presented in Vancouver. Further discussion with Scott resulted in the Belkin becoming the lead institution for the project Utopian Territories, presented in 1997 and co-curated by Scott, myself, Eugenio, and Juan Antonio Molina, and which included the work of 25 artists displayed over seven venues across the city, including CAG.

While an expansive approach to the international is now commonplace in Vancouver, aided by expedient network communications and international travel, during the ’90s it was less so. It was this experience with the Bienal that resulted in CAG, even with its relatively modest resources, organizing exhibitions during the remainder of the decade of artists not only from across Canada, but also from places as varied as China, Colombia, France, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, Thailand, UK, and USA. Of course, this was by no means comprehensive—many nations or even continents were not represented by our program. CAG’s international turn was more an endeavour of stepping out of what perhaps was comfortable and expected in a city of Vancouver’s scale and at that point in its cultural history. What this achieved, I believe, was to introduce other perspectives into one’s cultural consciousness, and for Vancouver to reflect upon itself through work that was often unlike what was produced here, either in content or aesthetic, rather than affirming its presence internationally through work from elsewhere that was complementary. 

Keith Wallace

Keith Wallace has been a curator of contemporary art since 1979. For seven years he was Associate Director/Curator at the Morris & Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia. He has contributed to numerous publications, among them Vancouver Anthology (1991), Whispered Art History: Twenty Years at the Western Front (1993), Action–Camera: Beijing Performance Photography (2009), Jayce Salloum: history of the present (2009), Sunil Gupta: Queer (2011), The Spaces Between: Contemporary Art from Havana (2014), and Anna Wong: Traveller on Two Roads (2018). In 2004, he was lead organizer of InFest: International Artist Run-Culture, a conference in Vancouver that included 250 participants from 25 countries. From 2004 to 2020, Wallace was Editor-in-Chief of Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art published by ARTCO, Taipei. From 1991 to 2001, he was Curator, then Director/Curator, at CAG.


1 Part of my interest in going to Havana was piqued by stories from Rebecca Belmore, Jan Wade and Paul Wong, who had visited there earlier.