Giant ants swarm the facade of an aging theater. White-clad, face-painted dancers and circus performers frolic on a central boulevard. Cuban and American chefs serve gourmet cross-cultural meals from a boxy shipping-container kitchen.

Havana's always bustling streets are even more colorful than usual these days, with Friday's kickoff of the Cuban capital's Bienal art festival.

Crews installed sculptures along city's famous seawall, galleries hung paintings and citywide performance pieces delighted art lovers, tourists and residents tickled to stumble onto the unexpected.

One Cuban artist laid out a wax dummy of Osama bin Laden on a Persian rug and, shortly after the one-year anniversary of the al-Qaida leader's killing by U.S. forces, questioned whether there's more to the story.

"Is he dead or is he alive? Where is he? Who knows?" Julio Lorent said. "Only through art can we answer these uncertainties."

This year's theme is "Artistic Practices and Social Insertion," and organizers said they were placing particular emphasis on bringing art to the streets in addition to more traditional gallery spaces.

"Art is an instrument of inquiry and questioning ... not just a pastime of the elite," said Ruben del Valle, one of the Bienal's lead organizers.

Officials said 180 artists from 43 countries, mostly in Latin America, and thousands of art aficionados were taking part in the Bienal, which runs through June 11.

Created in 1984, the Bienal — which at times has been held every three years instead of two due to economic difficulties — is one of the main artistic forums oriented toward the developing world and has gradually been catching the eye of the art community in the United States.

More than 1,300 Americans, including artists, curators, critics, collectors and aficionados, applied for accreditation to take part, said Jorge Fernandez, another organizer.

Cuban-American artist Jose Parla painted large, imposing portraits of senior citizens on buildings around the city.

"The murals and we artists have been well received because everybody has something very poetic to say, very deep and beautiful," Parla said. "We have enjoyed working here."