OMNI Zona Franca and the Public Sphere

Zoya Kocur 

On a warm spring evening in 2006, amidst a large crowd gathered for an event of the Havana Biennial being held at the popular outdoor nightclub La Tropical, a group of men in their 20s and 30s wearing beads and dreadlocks—one in a skirt—burst onto the stage. With an explosion of energy the members of the Cuban collective OMNI Zona Franca leapt from poetry to rap to pounding on old manual typewriters that in their hands became musical instruments. The performance, entitled Hay Que Luchar and featured in this multimedio was at once irreverent and humorous. Calling for a “liberation of the self,” the physical, poetic, and musical presence of OMNI offered up a frenetic portrait of daily life. “You have to pay the electric bill! You have to pay the phone bill! You have to pay for the television!,” cried David Escalona, in a rapid-fire rant. Meanwhile, Amaury Pacheco interjected at regular intervals, “we need a change of air, look for a new perspective…” The quartet concluded with a reprise of Higiene pública, the unofficial action performed during the 2003 biennial in which the artists literally washed out their mouths by brushing their teeth in unison in a reference to censorship.

OMNI Zona Franca is a Cuban art collective based in Alamar, east of Havana. Its core members are Amaury Pacheco, David Escalona, Luis Eligio Pérez, Alina Guzmán, and Nilo Julián González. The group formed when the poets of the experimental group Zona Franca, led by poet Juan Carlos Flores, and a self-taught group of artisan sculptors working in the Casa de Cultura in Alamar met in 1995 and began a series of loose collaborations. In 1997, the two groups joined together. They became involved in organizing the rap festival and community activities and began doing performances in the streets of Alamar. Over the past 16 years OMNI Zona Franca has engaged in a wide range of artistic projects, including poetry, video, sound works, music, performance art, public interventions, installations, painting, photography, sculpture, public art, and graffiti murals. OMNI has performed in the Bienal de la Habana and exhibited in galleries, however, they most often perform in the streets for a public largely unfamiliar with performance art. Their artistic interventions have taken place in settings such as street corners, bus stops, on buses, as well as art venues such as festivals and galleries.   Among the key sources informing OMNI’s art-making are countercultural and alternative elements. One that draws particular attention is their manner of dress and public presentation. Amaury Pacheco and David Escalona regularly wear skirts and women’s clothing. Both wear dreadlocks. Luis Eligio Pérez often wraps his head in a turban and Pacheco wears a cooking pot on his head emblazoned with the words “This is not a pot” on one side and “Eso no es una cazuela” on the other. Through such unconventional modes of self-presentation the artists invite audiences to approach the unfamiliar and engage in dialogue.

In the group’s annual performance/pilgrimage on the Day of St. Lazarus (December 17), referred to as la Peregrinación or el Garabato, the members of OMNI Zona Franca, along with a few dozen supporters, carry a heavy garabato (or scythe, assembled from large tree branches) while reciting poetry, chanting, and handing out flowers along the route to the sanctuary of San Lázaro in el Rincón. The garabato is at once a symbol of St. Lazarus, the healer, and the Yoruba deity Eleguá, who clears paths. The collective performs this ritual for “the health of poetry” as they engage with religious pilgrims, spectators, and the Catholic clergy in the church where the procession ends. The response of the priests to the entrance of the garabato into the church has slowly shifted over the years from rejection to tolerance, a successful example of the long-term commitment to encouraging openness and acceptance of diverse ideas that characterizes OMNI’s work.

Other performance actions are more pragmatic. When neighbors and passers-by saw human arms and legs sticking out of a large heap of uncollected garbage on the street corner in Alamar in 1997, many responded with confusion and curiosity. Pacheco recounts:

We did one of our first actions in 1997 when the entire city—and especially Alamar—was full of trash on every corner. It piled up week after week without them coming to collect it, with flies, rats, and people passing very close. So we had the idea to bury ourselves in the garbage. People started to gather when they saw feet or a hand sticking out of the trash. The police arrived quickly and also other authorities such as the Municipal Director of Culture. Except for a garbage truck, the whole world was there! We were detained by the police for six hours.1 (Pacheco 2007, 5)

Alongside performances that could be considered openly contestatory (for example, Higiene pública) the collective has developed more open-ended modes of expression. OMNI’s performances in the streets are often deliberately ambiguous, challenging spectators to decipher what they’re seeing. They play with gender norms through cross-dressing, and make reference to a wide range of spiritual traditions (including Yoruba practices, Spiritism, Buddhism, Rastafarianism, Catholicism, etc.), incorporating them as performative elements. Using these and other means, they consistently throw viewers off balance with the unpredictability and “strangeness” of their actions and their presence.

The group’s cross-dressing produces multiple effects. It draws attention, represents gender fluidity (“una manera de jugando con género” or a way of playing with gender), and projects an ambiguity that questions convention and acknowledges the dual presence of male and female elements. In addition to its role as an aesthetic and social act for the collective, this mode of dress is also a spiritual act that invokes the transformative power of Yoruba religious practice, permitting the art to connect to life and to the sacred.

The combination of cross-dressing and the incorporation of symbols of religious and African diasporic cultural elements attract attention and also create distance. This mode of performance is inspired by the Yoruba deity who plays the role of mediator-fool, Eshu.  In the Yoruba tradition of the male clown-fool, playing with appearance and cross-dressing is common. Sometimes hats from Western cultures are worn, or women’s clothing, signifying the freedom to associate with people of one’s own choosing or as a reference to the consciousness of a split society. (Adeleke 2009, 113) Pacheco’s hat/cooking pot can be interpreted as a reference to the figure of Eshu. Pacheco explains that these practices are meant to engage the public: “With performance in the street I put on a dress to make people laugh. The more people laugh, the better. This is an African ritual of self-protection. Each ritual is designed to address and resolve a particular problem.” (Pacheco 2012)

OMNI Zona Franca’s insistence on openly occupying space in the public sphere belongs to a history of disruptive artistic interventions and alternative cultural movements in Revolutionary Cuba. Diverse forms of cultural production have emerged in Cuba over the past three decades with varying degrees of protest or rebellion: hip hop, rock sub-cultures, tattooing, graffiti, Rastafarian religion and culture, and a gay and lesbian movement, to name a few. Luis Eligio Pérez explains how these earlier non-conformist expressions influenced OMNI: “The frikis or the Cuban ‘hippies’ who have suffered humiliations similar to those of homosexuals are inspirational for us because we began to understand that this was alternativity (alternatividad), to insist on living in one’s own manner, breaking taboos and personal prejudices.”(Pérez 2007)1 Such alternative forms of expressions have been spurred by the state’s relatively narrow definition of what constitutes loyalty to Revolutionary principles as well as a desire on the part of younger generations and excluded groups to participate in cultural production, and indeed in Revolutionary society, on their own terms.

How should we understand OMNI Zona Franca’s testing of artistic limits within a state apparatus that closely monitors and at times intervenes to censor artistic expression? The actions and performances of the group often contest the status quo in an implied critique of the government and direct references to shortcomings. Further, the performative practices of OMNI articulate a demand for inclusion: specifically, inclusion in Cuban socialist society and an insistence that the state fulfill its responsibilities and honor Revolutionary ideals, a form of demand that belongs properly to the sphere of civil society.

In The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre theorizes a body “which, by putting up resistance, inaugurates the project of a different space (either the space of a counterculture, or a counter-space in the sense of an initially utopian alternative to actually existing “real” space) (Lefebvre 1991, 349). The strategic ambiguity of OMNI Zona Franca’s work is central to the project of creating an expanded public space. In OMNI’s case, the performative body appropriates public space, which is controlled by the state, while symbolizing and enacting the body’s multiple potentials (for art, spirituality, civic participation, etc.). Crucially, the collective’s mobilization of the performative body-in-space signals the possibility of producing an alternative space without prescribing or delineating the content of what should occupy such a counter-space.

Alamar is often characterized as a “marginal” community, and OMNI occupies the periphery of this margin. However, through their performative and communitarian efforts, OMNI has transformed the margin into an emergent space of inclusion, alternative vision, and utopian dreams. Critic Armando Chaguaceda describes OMNI’s work as having produced “‘other possible rhythms’ of coordination and dialogue between different cultural initiatives” that have generated “alternative ways to develop consensus and alleviate conflict…derived from a deep sense of commitment with their community.” (Chaguaceda 2009) Formed by a non-hierarchical and communal impulse, OMNI works to inspire gather diverse communities of people to participate in art, create poetry, and to develop their own artistic visions.  OMNI Zona Franca’s performances interrupt the space of power and create a space for democratic expression in the public sphere, using the space of art and the performative body to initiate a rupture of dominated space. These creative irruptions into the space of the streets temporarily suspend everyday reality. Through the unexpected and imaginative form of their actions OMNI transforms the everyday into poetry, suggesting possibilities for imagining new realities and embodying the potential for the creation, however embattled, of a utopian counter-space.

 Zoya Kocur received a PhD from Middlesex University in London, writing her dissertation on OMNI Zona Franca. She is the editor of the anthologies Global Visual Cultures and Theory in Contemporary Art Since 1985 (both published by Wiley-Blackwell) and has served as adjunct faculty member at New York University and the Rhode Island School of Design.


1 Friki is a term used in Cuba for rockers, hippies, those involved in drug culture, tattooing, and in general refers to the subcultures of disaffected youth. 

Works Cited

Adeleke, Durotoye. 2009. “The Yoruba Fool Insignia: Beyond the Shakespearean Tradition,” Journal of Social Science, 21:2

Chaguaceda, Armando. 2009. “La OMNIpotencia de Amor,” Poesía Sin Fin blog, December 14,

Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.

Pacheco, Amaury in Sánchez, Yoani. 2007. “Empujar los límites, entrevista a Omni-Zona Franca” Consenso 8.

--- 2012. Interview by author. March 29.

Pérez, Luis Eligio. 2007. Interview by author, February 22.