Cuban protest artist El Sexto: 'You have to keep at it until you change
By Louise Tillotson, Researcher on the Caribbean at Amnesty
International, 21 December 2015, 00:01 UTC
Danilo Maldonado Machado, known as "El Sexto", is a Cuban artist and
former prisoner of conscience who spent 10 months behind bars for
planning a performance last Christmas Day involving two pigs and some
paint. Released in October 2015, he recently visited the USA where he
won the Human Rights Foundation's Václav Havel Award for Creative
Dissent and participated in Art for Amnesty, a pop-up art event to bring
attention to human rights abuses worldwide.
El Sexto is living proof that, in Cuba, political protest still carries
a hefty price tag. In December last year, just days after President
Obama announced the USA would re-establish relations with Cuba, the
22-year-old artist was locked up for painting the names Raúl and Fidel –
the Castro brothers who have been in power since 1959 – on the backs of
two live pigs.
He had planned to release the pigs in a public park as part of a
performance on Christmas Day. He was not just poking fun to score
political points – his envisioned performance melded a Cuban Christmas
tradition of letting pigs go and having the public catch them, with
ideas from George Orwell's dystopian novel Animal Farm.
But it never went ahead – he was arrested on his way there. "They
imprisoned me before it happened… and they imprisoned 'Fidel' and 'Raúl'
[the pigs]," El Sexto says, grinning.
His slight frame and enthusiastic use of sugar in a hot drink are the
only hints that he spent more than three weeks on hunger strike in a
Cuban prison earlier this year. And his eccentric energy is matched only
by his ability to dive suddenly into a conceptual world created in his mind.
After his arrest last year, El Sexto was accused of "desacato,"
(contempt) a provision in Cuba's antiquated criminal law which carries a
sentence of up to three years. Like other criminal offences used to
silence dissidents in Cuba – including "enemy propaganda" and
"resistance" – it sounds like it has been pulled out of an old science
fiction novel, and smacks of a type of repression that most Latin
American countries left behind long ago.
El Sexto started to draw when he was five years old. He knew he wanted
to be an artist, but didn't know how to go about it. But he later found
an artistic voice, inspired by fellow dissent artists such as Ai Weiwei,
and the New York graffiti scene. "I can't separate art and activism," he
"I couldn't do art based on dreams, drawing flowers, and pretty things,
while just next to my house they are beating up women." This is a nod to
the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco), female family members of
political prisoners who are regularly beaten and detained for peacefully
protesting in Havana and elsewhere in Cuba.
For El Sexto, a graffiti artist is "a publicist, of the underground, of
the people, of reality".
"In Cuba, the government runs advertising. We get information about
Fidel and Raúl and 'La Revolución' from the television… the radio, the
newspapers, from all directions, on the street. That's the only type of
publicity allowed. So, I started using the kind of graffiti I do to mock
the mass advertising they produce. It's a confrontation," he says.
His case highlights a systematic trend. The Cuban authorities routinely
harass and detain people for expressing themselves freely or protesting
In November 2015, there were almost 1,500 arbitrary arrests in Cuba,
according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National
Reconciliation (CCDHRN). This is the highest number in a single month
for many years, and double the monthly average in 2014. On International
Human Rights Day, 10 December, the political police detained activists,
including many in their homes, to prevent their peaceful protest. They
also stopped journalists from leaving their offices to report the story.
While there are fewer prisoners of conscience on the island now than
between the 1970s and 1990s, political opponents who mock the
authorities continue to get jailed and harassed at an appalling rate.
In his first months behind bars, El Sexto shared space with more than
140 prisoners. He saw it as an opportunity to learn more about the human
condition: "People pass you information, their story, without even
knowing it. I like learning from people … and so that's what I did."
When he went on hunger strike, he was isolated in a cell with no
sunlight. To get through it, he began telling himself the hunger strikes
were part of another performance, with people in the outside world
taking part by sending their messages of solidarity and campaigning for
his freedom. After his release, and days without human contact, he was
so weak he found it difficult to stand for long and had problems with
his joints. He found the streets and the people waiting for him in his
house, strange, even overwhelming.
"The way I see art is sort of how I see the real world. It's something
that doesn't exist, but that if I imagine really hard, people can
influence with their energy and can make it real. … That's how it was in
the cell. I said, 'I am going to get out of this prison', and people
began to work on that idea… People across the world put their empathy in
that small space, in that cell, and after that I got out."
El Sexto's case generated global attention from fellow artists and human
rights organizations. And since his release, he has continued his activism.
When he recently won a $25,000 prize for his art, he publicly donated it
to help Cuban migrants stuck in Central America as they attempt to reach
the USA. But he also used the occasion to call on his fellow Cubans not
to leave the island, but to work instead towards solutions to the
problems they face at home.
He has also been going to protests every Sunday with the Ladies in
White, as part of their "Todos Marchamos" (We all march) campaign.
Despite the risk of future arrest and imprisonment, he feels it is
crucial to show solidarity: "You are as important to everyone else as
they are to you. I wouldn't be a fulfilled person; I would be a terrible
person if women were being beaten and I wasn't there [to protest]."
During El Sexto's imprisonment, his mother and grandmother actively
campaigned for his release, and he knows his family has suffered because
of his art and activism. But he feels compelled to work towards a better
society for his two-year-old daughter, Renata María. His face lights up
when he talks about her: "I don't want her to grow up in an environment
where she has to speak softly… It is difficult but I hope she will
understand that her dad goes out and creates art, for her and for
everyone, and for me."
This commitment has fuelled El Sexto's desire to again try to stage his
performance with the two painted pigs for Christmas 2016, when he is
back in Cuba. The announcement sounds crazy, almost naïve, and is sure
to get him arrested again. But this is a man who spent almost a year in
prison for his art, without formal charges and without seeing a judge.
"Art has to be done with bravery," he says. "Artists have a
responsibility to people, because people give artists energy. And it is
important to be responsible with that energy."
Source: Cuban protest artist El Sexto: 'You have to keep at it until you
change their minds' | Amnesty International -