Picture Memory City

"Habana, Mayo 1997"

Havana. A magical place built by the Spanish, coveted by the English, worshiped by the Americans, and nearly destroyed by the Cubans, the city has become a de rigueur stop for sex-hungry Europeans and cheap Latin-American tourists. Lately one finds the city's decrepit walls set against blue skies in Cigar Aficionado, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and National Geographic. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, tourism has become Cuba's main source of income, and Havana's nightlife has grown notoriously decadent.

Alexis Rodriguez-Duarte, a high-fashion and celebrity photographer, grew impatient with an adulterated perspective of Havana, as a blast from the past in a postcolonial, postmodern world. An exile since 1968, he had never returned to the island but was anxious to "see it with his own lens." Habana, Mayo 1997 at José Alonso Fine Arts is what he returned with after finally making that voyage home.

Faced with ruins, economic disparity, and an postcommunist excess, Havana does indeed emit an omnipresent atmosphere of decay and decadence. Yet Rodriguez-Duarte's eye can steer a steady course between the Scylla and Charybdis of gloom and hope. We witness nostalgia and misery, but also everyday life in the stance of young bathers and the expression of a man in drag. Through 68 photos (only 4 are in color) of mismatched styles and themes, Rodriguez-Duarte, perhaps inadvertently, reveals his photographic influences and hidden desires.

Havana through an exile's eye
Havana through an exile's eye
The photographer's eye captures a subtle atmosphere of inviting androgyny.
The photographer's eye captures a subtle atmosphere of inviting androgyny.

"Habana, Mayo 1997" is a handsome collection, often because of its photogenic and alluring subject matter. But there are more than pretty pictures here. The show is not about anything in particular and is about everything in particular. It's moving and funny to see how the exile photographer works with this oxymoron. Rodriguez-Duarte's forte is portraiture and fashion, but back in Havana he became a documenter as well. While the photographer rediscovered the city of his youth, the viewer discovers this Havana and many others.

First the nostalgia. Some prints reproduce sentimental landmarks: El Centro Gallego (The Galician Center) is a symbol of Cuban Baroque and a well-known site representing late nineteenth-century Spanish domination.

Then there's the Havana of La Época, Fin de Siglo, and Teatro America. They are thematic in that they show the obligatory exile narrative of a once-thriving land now in tatters. Of these, Teatro America is where Rodriguez-Duarte makes the most of his (gelatin silver) medium. A well-known façade of an important building and theater in Havana, the print conveys the contrast between the Art Deco, bronze-embedded calligraphy and the traces of laundry detergent on the whitish marble.

With Havana en Mayo Rodriguez-Duarte captures a dramatic superimposition of Cubistlike rain-drenched profiles set against a typical Havana rooftop landscape. The broken windows, tendederas (clotheslines), bent TV antennae, and washed-out façades make this print simply depressing. With a growing overpopulation fed by the provinces and no new construction in decades, Havana already shows visible signs of asphyxia.

La Tienda del Dólar (The Dollar Shop) frames abundance vis-à-vis misery in La Bodega de la Esquina (The Market at the Corner). In the former, Warholesque rows of canned meatballs and frankfurters are neatly displayed on dustless shelves. The latter shows a dilapidated interior and sheets filled with detailed bookkeeping instructions next to a blackboard recording how many ounces each buyer is allotted. But, amazingly, no food.

Rodriguez-Duarte's camera focuses on the subject of flesh for sale. El Jinetero (Male Prostitute) is a closely cropped shot of a self-absorbed young man's eyes and nose. Another image shows the man blocking his face with his hands: Por 15 Dólares (For 15 Dollars), his going price. It's still dramatic after 40 years; prostitution's eradication was one of the revolution's most-prized goals.

Samantha de Monaco is an admirable sociological statement about gender and attitudes. Samantha -- a well-known, big-eyed, sensual blond transvestite in Havana -- sits smugly, wrapped in a black-feather boa. Next to him a TV broadcasts a perturbed-looking Cuban president (in customary fatigues) talking to the press. The photograph speaks louder than words: Samantha is tranquil and self-assured; Castro appears taut and menacing.

In El Malecon young boys hang out near the harbor, and the photographer's eye captures a subtle atmosphere of inviting androgyny. A dangerous ambivalence is suspended here, which is reminiscent of Passolini's Accatone. Rodriguez-Duarte says he would have been robbed of his camera while shooting this picture had it not been for his friend and companion Tico Torres's timely appearance. The series also features El Rubiecito (The Little Blonde). Its subject faces the camera with a welcoming and innocent smile, a reflection of the friendliness for which Cubans are known.

The "Chevy" series is less successful. It was hard to know what to make of El Packard, in which a gloss seduces the eye and detaches the machine from the intimate milieu Rodriguez-Duarte tries to suggest.

And then there is Cuban politics. Rodriguez-Duarte gives us a view of El Capitolio, the prize of Cuban Neoclassic architecture with a 300-foot dome modeled after the Capitol in Washington D.C., and one of the island's most outstanding buildings. Conceived as a presidential palace, it became the seat of the Senate and chamber of the House of Representatives. After 1959 it was left to decay until being resurrected as the science museum, and finally, as the science ministry. Built with democratic ideals in mind, El Capitolio illustrates the question of the century: When, since its independence from Spain in 1899, has democracy been taken seriously in Cuba?

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