Michael DweckTropicana 4, 2010
Digital print on Kraft paper, 115.6 x 90.8 cm.
Michael Dweck’s Dionysian Havana
Michael Dweck visited Cuba for the first time in 2009. He was invited by a friend to a party in a house on the seashore, and the photographer was captivated by an extraordinary phenomenon. Despite the lack of material and technological assets as well as political constraints, Cuban youngsters managed to spend a really good time in an elegant, carefree, and glamorous way.
Michael Dweck recalled such experience using these words, “there were waves that crash of the breakwater and a crowd of beautiful people dancing to the bit of the music of a live band in the midst of a dense fog around a turquoise swimming pool. For a photographer that is looking to capture sensual images and films of Cuba, it was a real goldmine.” (Interview to the artist given by Noticias de Arte Cubano, 2011)
From that moment on, the foreign photographer began to fall within the Havana show business, one of the few professional areas of the country in which people have succeeded in living out of their job with a certain economic dignity. Visual artists, film directors, musicians, actors, models, all of them transformed through Michael Dweck’s lens into characters of a visual story: a story of exploration, discovery, understanding of a cultural, social, political aesthetic dynamic that is very specific. In addition, it is transformed into an almost anthropological tool of a foreign culture; and therefore, exotic to the foreigner’s sight.
After his first visit in 2009, the photographer made around seven more trips to the Island, and with all the visual material collected in those journeys, he edited a book entitled Habana Libre (Damiani Editore, 2011). Such book has turned out to be controversial because the artist focuses himself in putting together a portrait of hedonism reflected in the Havana’s cultural scene: parties, cabarets, sex, bohemian nights, smoke of tobacco, and sugar cane alcohol. The evening atmospheres of fun!
Some critics have pointed out that Dweck’s vision avoids the deep side of Cuba, the harsh contingency of reality that the great majority of Cuban people have to endure. Others have pointed out that the American artist has taken delight in taking pictures of a privileged social class of Cubans in an uncritical way, because he has been dazzled by the mythical and erotic Caribbean mystic. However, the great majority of the commentators agree on the fact that the photographic shooting has irrefutable aesthetic values. They also state that Dweck has a good eye for capturing charisma, sensuality, beauty, seduction, glamour, and pleasure; in short, the aesthetic surroundings of the hedonistic ritual.
If we are to do justice to the work carried out by Michael Dweck in Havana, we should place these photographs on a great historical ellipsis. The presumed uncritical panorama, showed by the artist in his photographs about parties, dances and nocturnal shows, takes a deeper historical sense as an explicit symptom of a resounding failure: the failure of a cultural Puritanism that the Revolution wanted to impose. It is important to remember that the first great cultural debate of the revolutionary period was caused by a harmless documentary (PM). The main cause consisted on the fact that in such first small film directors showed the carefree, cheerful, easygoing way in which workers at the seaport in Havana went dancing and drinking beer and rum at night in bars.
However, in 1961, a year of full revolutionary effervescence, those behaviors cease of being valid for Cubans. From that moment on, Cubans had to become a working, fighting, self-sacrificing, heroic people, so they could make honor and justice to their Revolution. Therefore, the documentary was censored, labeled as evil, killed, and buried.
Fifty years and something afterwards, Michael Dweck has showed something interesting to the world. Despite the great socialist adventure, Cubans have not lost their wishes and their ability to have fun; they have not lost their joy, sensuality, charisma, and beauty. The Revolution closed all casinos, prohibited gambling, prostitution, and drew a veil of morality over the excesses of pleasures. However, after more than half a century, a night in Havana does not seem to be so different from a night in the 1950s. The only unlikeness is that the city has grown old in a precocious way, and now glamour exists side by side with ruins.
However, Dweck has shown something more in an implicit way. He has displayed the protagonists in his photographs, that group of artists and people from the show business: talented, cultured, sophisticated people with a certain access to consumption. Such “group” is also a product of the Revolution, an obvious sample of the eruditeness project implemented by the Revolution. Habana Libre shows us a deep paradox only if we are capable of going through the contrasting brightness of the photographic surfaces. The human, artistic and cultural resources created by the educational work of the Revolution takes up again the Dionysian spirit of the Caribbean in the precise moment the revolutionary project wanted to deny it, suppress it and annihilate it, in order to transform Cuba into an Apollo-like, erudite, sensible, scientific, and cold country (like our friends from the East).
Habana Libre book was accompanied by a homonymous exposition that was exhibited in San Francisco, Toronto, Tokyo, New York, São Paulo, and the Photographic Library of Cuba. The photographs of the exposition constitute unique copies that are printed on kraft paper of a huge size; therefore, they are extremely valuable. The contrast of white and black together with kraft paper give a timeless appearance to the photographs. Past and present are merged into the same spirit.
In one of the photographs taken in Tropicana (Tropicana 4), we only see the hefty legs of a dancer or singer, because she has a microphone in her right hand and an exotic folk outfit with feathers and sequins. This is an image that speaks to us about a deep cultural womb that is expressed in time with slight changes on the surface, but it remains constant on the essentials. This photograph of a Tropicana artist could be placed at any moment of history either in 1950 or in 2009, and this time suppression is one of Michael Dweck’s great achievements in this series.
And there is also the heavenly image of two beautiful young women enjoying the coastal Havana in a classic convertible while the mischievous wind tangles their hair. These young women exhibit a provocative smile that spreads out the lips and shows the whiteness of the teeth. The photograph also puts on view the girls holding a martini in one hand as well as the sun, nine, and universe reflected in a huge glasses. Isn’t it the face of seduction that tries to possess in order to be able to live out of being possessed?
–Dr. Hamlet Fernández