“When I say I’m from Cuba,” says curator and art historian Iliana Cepero, “everybody’s first reaction here is ‘Oh, the Buena Vista Social Club.’ That,” she says, “is exactly what Cubans hate.”
With ¡Cuba, Cuba! 65 Years of Photography, says Cepero, the intention is to “break this fantasy” of Cuba as a nostalgic remnant of a bygone era. “We are not this postcard,” she insists. “We are not this postcard.” As she explained in a recent New York Times article, “Cuba is much more complex. Life is messy. Life is complicated. Behind those beautiful scenes everyone is attracted to there is a complex canvas waiting for them.”
Opening this Saturday, August 15, ¡Cuba, Cuba! features more than 100 photographic images dating from the 1950s to the current moment. Presented by the International Center of Photography at the Southampton Arts Center, and co-organized by Cepero and ICP curator Pauline Vermare, the exhibition includes work by some 20 photographers, photojournalists, and artists.
The show opens with a brief section on “Glamorous Havana” before moving on to themes of “Revolution,” “Cuba Dura,” “Scenes of Everyday Life,” and “Open Roads,” a look at recent directions in photography on the island.
For this Cuban Art News preview, Cepero has chosen five images that convey different aspects of Cuba’s rich and varied photographic history, and offer a glimpse of the everyday realities of life on the island.
Ramon Pacheco, Untitled, from the “Living Together” series, early 1990s
Ramón Pacheco lives in Matanzas [a city and province east of Havana]. Imagine if for Havana photographers life is difficult in terms of getting equipment and materials, imagine what it’s like for someone outside the capital.
Pacheco is photojournalist for the official communist newspaper in Matanzas, Girón. He made this series in early 1990s. The title in Spanish is Convivencias—Living Together. One of the most difficult issues in Cuba is housing. Convivencias means that you grow up in your family house, then when you get married you have to stay in the house and live with your in-laws or your folks and your new family, etc.
In the early 1990s, there was this inward look in Cuban photography [due to the hardships caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union]. So you have Pacheco doing this very interesting documentary work of his own domestic environment. Some of the spaces he portrayed are his own house or the house of his neighbors. He took pictures of different tenants of this building, and one is this family.
This is a boy whose mother was a jinetera—a prostitute who went with foreigners. She would leave him alone in the house at night to go to work on the street. It’s a poignant commentary on the social and political situation in Cuba at that time, seen through this domestic space.
We selected four images from Pacheco’s series. They are very powerful. In them, you can see the dangling electrical wire, the old TV. These dilapidated domestic spaces—sometimes you don’t see a human presence in the image, but it’s telling you the state of affairs in country at the time. It conveys the atmosphere of hopelessness and angst that many Cubans were feeling in those years.
María Eugenia Haya (Marucha), Untitled, from the “In the Lyceum” series, 1981
I always want to talk about Marucha, because she was so fundamental to the development of photography in Cuba [and the founding of the Fototeca de Cuba in Havana].
This is 1981, one year after the big exodus through Mariel. By this time the Ministry of Culture has been founded, in 1976, so things are a little better for the art scene, and for photography at this moment. Remember that between 1980 and 1981, there was the famous show, Volumen Uno, and a new generation of Cuban artists in the 1980s.
In the late 1970s and the very early 1980s, Marucha was the only female voice in the very male-dominated Cuban photo world. What I love about her work is that she was not doing what everyone else was doing at the time.
Marucha was the first to do intimate scenes, of this old couple going to the theater—the Teatro García Lorca, the national theater in Havana, the most important theater for ballet and opera. Apparently there was a section in the theater in which old couples would go at night to dance danzón. [The Teatro García Lorca is located in a building erected in 1915, primarily by immigrants from Galicia, Spain, for use as as a social center. Among its activities were Sunday afternoon dances.] Danzón is a Cuban rhythm, very old, that was popular in the 1920s.
For me, this series signals the transition in Cuban photography from the labor hero to the ordinary man, to emphasizing the dignity of the ordinary man.
I think before this, human beings were excuses for ideological concepts. You have the guerilla man in the 1960s, then you have the working hero in the 1970s. Marucha was one of the first photographers in the 1980s to realize that dignity lies in the humbleness and everyday nature of these men and women. They have a value in themselves—they are not vessels for ideological or political ideas. That makes this an incredible series in itself, all these old couples dancing. They’re posed portraits, very dignified.
But the more I’ve thought about the series, the more I’ve realized that it is also a political statement. Because these people were re-enacting their lives from the past. In a poorly designed society, they are reviving old rhythms, old music, old dances. They try to dress for it, in suits and straw hats, the women with fans and elaborate dresses.
This longing for the past was a very interesting statement to make at the time—a longing for the past that is very different from the folklorism that is like what the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon would later convey.
What Marucha wanted to convey here was not to fit the expectations that foreigners have of this frozen Cuba of the 1940s and 1950s. She’s showing how, in that particular moment in the 1980s, this marginal group of people were making this space of freedom in that society. I see this series as the construction of a site of freedom.
Mario García-Joya (Mayito), Untitled, from the “Caibarién” series, 1983–1984
This series is called Cabarién. Caibarién is in Villa Clara province, at the center of the island. Mayito went there to talk about something very interesting—kitsch, Cuban kitsch. Mayito and Marucha were married; at the time, they were involved with the new generation of Cuban artists, from Volumen Uno and the Instututo Superior de Arte (ISA).
For the generation of Volumen Uno, kitsch was a popular thing in early 1980s. Flavio Garciandía, for example, was doing a lot of work on kitsch. Pepe Franco, all these artists.
So Mayito went to Caibarién, because Caibarién is famous for parrandas. Parrandas are a carnival that happens every year. People create elaborate floats and papier mâché figures for the parrandas.
Mayito goes to Caibarién, into the domestic spaces, and documents the popular taste of Cubans at the time.
This is so interesting. Because Cubans, if they couldn’t have porcelain anymore, if they couldn’t have natural flowers anymore, they would replace all these ornaments with cheaply produced objects, like plastic flowers. They would recreate this bourgeois past with products imported from the Eastern Bloc. Because they still wanted to decorate their houses but they didn’t have the resources that they had in the past.
Mayito’s series really opened this up in photography. Visual artists, painters especially, were already working on it, and doing installation art. But before Mayito, nobody was doing this kind of work in photography.
What I like about this series is that this material culture that he began to document in the 1980s became really fascinating in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union—when Cubans began to repurpose and recycle all materials, and this material culture became a world in itself. This whole process and mentality began to be documented in the 1980s by Mayito: How Cubans would replace and fix things, how they would try to create a nice environment in the home with whatever resources they had available.
Now it’s very trendy. There is one Cuban designer and theorist, Ernesto Oroza, who has a whole theory about the culture of necessity. Mayito, of course, didn’t go that deep into this phenomenon. But at the time, no one else was thinking of how to document it photographically.
Luis Quintanal, Boris gets ready in his house for a private show, Havana, from the “Queens for a Day” series, 2004–2006
Queer culture—again, a very interesting theme. In the early 1990s, Quintanal started to document cross-dressers and transvestites performing illegally in private homes. He made beautiful slides, shot in color, and then large format photo prints starting in the early 2000s.
These parties would be raided by police, often. That’s why most of the images by Quintanal are of the moment before the show, in which the performers are getting ready. If it was controversial to have the parties, imagine what it would have been to have a photographer documenting them. He knew it was extremely dangerous.
Quintanal’s images convey the state of mind in which these performers are getting ready, and at the same time, they’re nervous about the outcome of the party.
This particular model’s name is Boris. He had been a member of an elite force in the army before becoming a cross-dresser. Then he became a fashion model. Finally, he fulfilled his dream of being a cross-dresser.
This is a moment in his house. You can see in the background images of Fidel himself taking pictures. This image is so eloquent. You have this person who was in the military, who is a cross dresser. In the background, as part of the décor of his room, he has images of Fidel Castro taking images. There’s an incredible dynamic here of seeing and being seen.
Ricardo G. Elías, Todo lo tengo y todo me falta—eyeúnle tonto eyeúnle (I have Everything and I Have Nothing), 2002
This series, I find so beautiful, so elegant. It is about the Diloggún Oracle.
The Diloggún Oracle is a system of divination in Regla de Osha or Santería. The Diloggún is conformed by 16 cowrie shells that the santero or santera, the priest or priestess, casts on a table or a mat on the ground.
Basically, when you go to a santero or santera as a client, and you want to know something about your life, the Diloggún Oracle is the means by which the santero or santera communicates with the deity or the Orisha.
What Elías is doing here is taking a picture of the tirada, the throw.
Each throw will contain a particular combination, and this combination will relate to a series of parables that will help the priest to interpret the riddle and apply it to your particular situation.
What Elías did [in this series] was to capture different throws and match them with the parables they refer to. The titles of the parables, which become the titles of the work, are very powerful statements. For example, this one: Todo lo tengo y todo me falta, I have everything and I have nothing. That says a lot. And it encapsulates how many Cubans feel in Cuba. I have everything because the government tells you that you have everything—you have health, education, housing, etc.—and I have nothing. I think it brilliantly summarizes and really reflects how ambivalent many Cubans feel toward the whole political process.
¡Cuba, Cuba! 65 Years of Photography opens this Saturday, August 15, at the Southampton Arts Center, where it runs through September 7. The reception runs from 5 to 8 p.m. on Saturday.