In the 40-odd years since Castro came to power, Cuban photography has evolved from an ideological instrument into a projection of the private set. A recent exhibition sets politics aside to examine this shift.
Cuba brings out in most U.S. observers an egregious impulse to generalize. Even as particularities of Cuban culture become more and more familiar here through films, exhibitions and recordings, the country remains, to most Americans, a monolithic, adversarial other, and every consideration of its music or its art doubles as a referendum on Castro’s regime. As Coco Fusco has aptly remarked, “A discussion about art from Cuba rarely begins with the art.”1 First comes a thicket of thorny issues-socialism pitted against democracy; the embargo versus free trade; the relative perils of censorship, self-censorship and free speech, the rules and repercussions of emigration and exile. Then, viewed through this polarizing, politicizing filter, the art is considered.
“Shifting Tides: Cuban Photography After the Revolution,” a show originated by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, deviates refreshingly from this pattern. If anything, it errs at the opposite extreme, trusting in appearances to reveal realities. Art –much of it exhilarating– first in this exhibition, and politics second. Considering that this is the first survey of the material by a U.S. museum, the show makes real- modest claims, not stretching where it can’t each; but as an introductory sampling, “Shifting ides” works well its contents compelling, its imitations acknowledged up front.
Primary among the show’s qualifiers is LACMA orator Tim Wride’s own status as an outsider, an American whose first trip to the island in 1997 forced him to shed myriad preconceptions about the country, its people and its art. His selections for the show, made over the course of five subsequent visits, reflect his excitement at the breadth of work being made in Cuba. Familiar ideological issues trickle in, but Wride primarily tracks the evolution of visual ideas.
In setting the parameters for the show, Wride defined Cuban photography in the strictest sense, as work made by those living on the island. (Photographers who have left Cuba are represented only by work made while still living there.) The bittersweet nostalgia of exile and the societal critique implicit in emigration don’t, as a consequence, permeate the imagery in this show as they have done in other shows featuring Cuban Americans looking back on their experience. Here, there’s not a boat or raft to be seen.
Finally, Wride also opted to keep the show compact, limiting its scale to just over 100 pictures by 16 photographers. Curating along a single thematic line, he traces in Cuban photography since 1969 a general progression from overt ideology toward personal imperative, from an emphasis on constructing community to a focus on defining the self, from collectively held myths to intimate realities.
“Shifting Tides” opens with an exclamation point Guerrillero heroico (Heroic Guerrilla, 1960) by the late Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, known as Korda, the utterly familiar, perpetually entrancing image of Che Guevara gazing determinedly into the future. Che’s searing stare has indelibly imprinted itself across the world, as an emblem of hope and heroism. The portrait, reputed to be the most widely reproduced photograph in the world, has come to symbolize not just the ideals of the Cuban revolution but of revolution in general. For Korda, who worked as a fashion and advertising photographer before 1959 and as Castro’s personal photographer after, the revolution marked a profound turning point in his work. The same might be said of photographers through image of Che blown up on plaza walls drove home the effectiveness of the medium as an ideological delivery system. Korda’s portrait of Che, together with Osvaldo Salas’s tightly framed image of Fidel smoking, lays the groundwork for the show, establishing a baseline of the familiar from which successive work emanates and diverges. Photojournalism as a buttress of the revolution remains an effective paradigm throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s portion of the show, but with increasingly diminished certitude. Criticality and ambiguity eventually intrude and, by the ‘80s, take over altogether.
Photographs made in the first decade after the revolution, some with the immediacy of posters, drove home the effectiveness of the medium as an ideological delivery system.
Some of the photographs made in the first decade or so after the revolution exhibit a clarity formality and immediacy also found in the posters of that time. In a 1970 photo-essay, Enrique de la Uz distills the labor of cane harvesters into pure graphic gesture. Rigoberto Romero, too, photographed cane workers, dignifying their physical labor as essential to the building of the new society. These tributes to the common man transmute into more complex cultural observations in the photography of José Figueroa. His work is part homage to the revolution, part interrogative. In 1972, when he photographed busts of the 19th Century champion of Cuban independence José Martí –rows and rows of them ready for distribution to schools throughout the country– he was, in part, celebrating a leader, but he was also evoking a chilling sense of conformity and submission among followers.
The tone of challenge in Figueroa’s work stands out against the more straightforward optimism of the surrounding photojournalism. He serves in the show as a transitional figure from the epic era to that of the oblique and subjective. In the exhibition’s catalogue, Wride traces this trajectory over the past 40 years of Cuban photography, while Cristina Vives, a Havana-based writer and curator, argues against such a linear reading in a counterpoint essay. The reality of the photographic scene in Cuba, she contends, has been more heterogenic –more fuguelike than this account describes. Even in the “heroic” 1960s, she writes, photographers were engaged in experimentation, conceptualism and self-reflection: “What has never been published, nevertheless exists.”2
Broader visibility and support for art across the expressive spectrum began in the late ‘70s, with the establishment of the ministry of culture and the founding of the Instituto Superior de Arte de la Habana (known as ISA), a rigorous training ground for artists. In 1981, many of ISA’s first graduates were featured in the landmark exhibition, Volumen I, where installations and mixed medium work further stretched the bounds of the possible in Cuba. The Havana Biennial, which initially featured only Latin American art and is now international in purview, has become a hot scouting ground for curators and collectors from around the world, folding once-isolated Cuban artists into the international mix. The photographic work from the ‘80s and ‘90s in “Shifting Tides” fits in comfortably with contemporaneous work done here and abroad. Its focus moves to the interior from the street to the studio, from document to concept, from the straight black-and-white print to works that are toned, manipulated and inscribed. More overtly personal than work of the preceding generation, it ventures into the elusive domains of spirit and memory. Marta María Pérez Bravo and Juan Carlos Alóm epitomize these tendencies. Both create diaristic Afro-Cuban religious ritual. Pérez Bravo’s staged self-portraits from the mid-‘80s omit her face and show only her emblematic body, pregnant anti nude. In these striking images, Pérez Bravo presents herself as a physical vessel, but also as a spiritual and ethical vehicle for transmitting values from one generation to the next. In one photograph, she stands in profile holding a large kitchen knife. Along the bottom of the print run the handwritten words, No matar, ni ver matar animales (Neither kill, nor watch animals being killed, 1986).
Alom’s still lifes, staged against a neutral, often abraded ground, feel like elegies, talismans and love letters. Solo tu cabes en la palma de mi mano (Only you fit in the palm of my hand, 1997) is heartbreakingly tender, an ode to the singularity of passion. The hand that rises from the bottom of the photo is open, a tiny, pale fish limp in its palm, while dozens of similar fish cluster nearby, unchosen. Other images by Alom harness a deep undercurrent of spiritual awareness that travels through earth and bone, an organic power manifested in skulls and thorns and darkness.
Following the shift inward, from depiction of “everyday heroes” to exploration of the roots of self and spirit, comes a current of loss that threads through work in the show dating from the last two decades. Rogelio López Marín (Gory), in his Es solo agua en la lágrima de un extraño (It’s only water in the teardrop of a stranger, 1986), is one of the strongest exemplars of this trend. A sequence of nine montages accompanied by text from German writer Michael Ende, Gory’s work begins with a view from the edge of a swimming pool out onto continuous water. The swimming pool edge remains constant from frame to frame, while the view changes from ocean waves to stands of trees, from an abandoned, rundown pool to another, in good repair. Ende’s poignant text teat’s like a journal of displacement and disillusion. The writer speaks of being part of a collective dream, and muses uneasily about what happens with a dream when the dreamer wakes up.
In the context of Cuba’s recent history, it’s hard not to interpret such a passage, with its references to blind hope and an inevitable reckoning with the truth, as a metaphor for the country’s own shifting tides of promise and despair. ISA has delivered a robust crop of well schooled artists, but more attractive opportunities elsewhere have led many of them to settle off-island. (Gory, for one, now lives in Miami.) Artists’ materials –as well as more common goods– are subject to sporadic availability. Freedoms expand and contract, restrictions ebb and flow. “All life long,” Gory quotes Ende, “I swim holding my breath. I don’t know how you all can do it.”
Gory’s poetic spin on the loss of collective ideals might also be read as mildly irreverent, even politically subversive. To focus on disillusion within an ideologically steeped culture of promise verges on the counterrevolutionary. Carlos Garaicoa uses documentary photos as the basis for precise, quasi-architectural drawings of private reveries. His renderings of fictitious public monuments, for example, pit the rhetoric of revolution against the antiheroic texture of daily life. Within the crumbling architecture of Old Havana he inserts a massive (if imaginary) instrument of torture and an irony-laden triumphal arch. These photo-based drawings fuse an engineer’s precision with the skepticism of a keen social observer. When it comes to stating on the renderings which materials his projects comprise, he lists “pain” and “waiting,” rather than the conventional concrete and steel.
The motivating ideology of the Cuban revolution permeates the country’s cultural landscape, whether by admission or omission. Images of physical decay have become common, both as documents of Havana’s poorly maintained historic center and as metaphors for a broader, socioeconomic deterioration. Manuel Piña’s large, grainy photographs of the eroded Malecón, the seawall fronting Havana, read thus doubly. The wall fills most of each frame as a broad expressionist stripe, but also as a landmark weakening before our very eyes.
As postrevolutionary Cuban photography unfolds in the course of “Shifting Tides,” that hopeful glint in Che’s eyes gives way to a gaze gone cynical from assessing the bruised fruits of the revolution. Ernesto Leal and Abigail González both subvert the documentary paradigm and the optimistic tone of the revolution’s earlier years in work that mimics surveillance photography and the clinical gathering of evidence. Leal shoots into corners and under furniture as if searching for something, never to find it. The large scale and vivid color of his prints raise expectations that something informational, if not sensational, will be delivered, but the answer, print to print, is always, as the title has it, Aquí tampoco (Not here either, 2000). González’s gaze is similarly intrusive but also turns up nothing revelatory. In her file-sized, black and-white, pseudo-candid shots, men and women in various states of undress engage in the banal acts of domestic life-washing, cooking, lounging. What is penetrating here is the lens itself and its seeming invasion of privacy.
“Shifting Tides” identifies myriad roles for photography in post-revolutionary Cuban life. The glorifying Che portrait at the beginning of the show and these disaffected surveillance shots near the end frame a host of questions worth pursuing. Chief among them is how various ways of using photography-as a political weapon, a didactic tool; a means of dissent-have affected the thoughts and work of photographic artists across several generations.
If the links between politics and form in photography are inadequately addressed in the show, the medium’s essential status as an analog to human memory is quite spectacularly evoked. José Manuel Fors catalyzes photography’s unique power both to feed memory and to feed off it. In his work from the past decade, Fors draws from a personal taxonomy of sentimental, emotionally charged images. In El paso del tiempo (The passage of time, 1995), an old corkscrew, a fragment of a hand inked letter, a leaf, a bit of stone and a curving shell are aligned in a grid, declaiming their value as objects with deep personal association and meaning. Artificially aged through toning and other manipulation, the photographs themselves read as fossils, artifacts, and palpable memories.
José Manuel Fors, in his recent work, catalyzes photography’s unique power both to feed memory and to feed off it. He seduces with an ellipsis, a mournful celebration of uncertainty.
Fors also ties dense stacks of old family photographs and newspapers together with twine to make memory bundles, earnest attempts at preserving the past and potent reminders of its extinction. The gem of the show is his La gran flor (The great flower, 1999) a wondrous blossom of tiny petal-like images radiating outward in concentric circles to a diameter of 6 feet. The small sepia and gray pictures show details of hands, drawings, feathers, images from familiar paintings such as the Mona Lisa and portraits of familiar cultural figures. Hungrily, compulsively, Fors collects all these moments and impressions, and tenderly assembles them as if to keep their bloom fresh. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful gesture, powerful and doomed. Coming four decades after the infectious certitude of Che’s hopeful gaze, Fors seduces with an ellipsis, a mournful celebration of uncertainty.
1. Coco Fusco, Signs of Transition: ‘80 Art from Cuba, (New York: Center for Cuban Studies, 1988).
2. Cristina Vives, “Cuban Photography: A Personal History,” in Shifting Tides: Cuban Photography After the Revolution, (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2001), 95.