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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. In Cuba's socialist economy, successful artists have a lot of privileges. They can travel abroad, they benefit from state support and they can earn huge sums of money selling their work to foreign buyers. Every two years, Cuban artists get a shot at that sort of success during one of Latin America's most important art events, the Havana Biennial. Nick Miroff has more from Havana.

NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: Built in the 18th century, Havana's La Cabana fortress was the largest Spanish colonial fortification in the Americas. It's been a grim place for much of its history, serving as a military garrison, a prison and the site of some notorious firing squad payback after the Cuban revolution.

But, this month, as the center of Havana's Biennial, it makes for an art gallery like no other. In the cavernous space of what was once a large prison cell, 30-year-old Oswaldo Gonzalez has spent weeks installing a piece he calls Domestic Scene. With nothing more than carefully cut pieces of cardboard, masking tape and backlit strips of brown paper, he's recreating something like a cozy living room, complete with a soothing fireplace and windows.

OSWALDO GONZALEZ: (Foreign language spoken).

MIROFF: This is the most important art event in Cuba, Gonzalez said. For young artists who are trying to emerge, this is our chance to meet collectors, gallery owners and museum directors.

Gonzalez is just one of the young Cuban artists who cleverly make use of the Biennial's setting. Another piece features huge oil derricks set between the fortress ramparts, their rusting holes covered with sod. Then there's a room full of lifelike clay human figures which a Cuban sculptor will slowly dissolve under a web of shower heads.

The artist, Duvier del Dago, gathered 3,000 pieces of rusting iron that flaked off an old Spanish cannon and has suspended them on strings so as to recreate the object's ghostly image in the air, illuminating the entire thing in a darkened cell with black lights.

DUVIER DEL DAGO: (Foreign language spoken).

MIROFF: It's sort of mystical, said del Dago. I wanted to make something lyrical out of the fact that no one seemed to care that this cannon was falling apart.

Cuban artists struggle with the lack of decent internet access and few have agents who can represent them abroad. Access to the best market for their work is also complicated by the U.S. embargo.

Christian Gundin is a young collector who represents several artists in Havana.

CHRISTIAN GUNDIN: Cuban artists have lots of ideas, which they cannot develop because of the lack of budget, you know.

MIROFF: For some young artists, the Havana Biennial is the place to take risks with their work, as well as their savings, hoping to catch the eye of visitors from Europe and increasingly the U.S.

Twenty-four year old Lorena Gutierrez sunk thousands of dollars into her piece, importing sheets of holographic vinyl from Peru and a giant custom-built birdcage from Spain whose bars are white neon lights.

LORENA GUTIERREZ: (Foreign language spoken).

MIROFF: I'm a little tired of people saying we have to work with basic materials because we're here in Cuba, Gutierrez said. I wanted to make something glamorous and beautiful, even if I had to find a way to bring materials from far away.

The results of her effort is a cell inside the fortress whose high walls and vaulted ceiling are completely covered by the iridescent vinyl and lit up with the electric glow of the neon cage that hangs in the center of the room. It creates a warm, almost psychedelic rainbow effect, but the cell and the buzzing cage produce a disturbing feeling of confinement. Gutierrez calls the work Condemned and it's up to viewers to read between the lines.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.

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