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By Michael E. Miller
There is an almost Grapes of Wrath veneer to the photos of rural Cubans Ghada Khunji took last year. They look like they have to be at least 80 years old.
Her stark collection of eighteen color C-prints, on view at Filtro in Wynwood, is a throwback to the work of New Deal photographers like Marion Post Wolcott, Dorothea Lange, and Russell Lee, who documented the plight of rural Americans for the Farm Security Administration during the Dust Bowl and Depression era.
Gallery owner Lourdes Guerra says this is the second time she has curated a show of the same title in her space the first was in 2005 and that the works displayed in both installments were chosen to convey a sense of the island being stuck in a surreal time warp.
Since opening its doors in 2005, Filtro has concentrated on the work of photojournalists and filmmakers, exhibiting the work of Mark Craemer, Noelle Theard, Jack Bridges, Sean Hemmerle, and Brenda Ann Kenneally, among others. "We believe in the lens as a tool for social change," Guerra explains.
The Bahrain-born, Brooklyn-based Khunji spent a week among tobacco farmers in Cuba's Pinar Del Rio province, capturing the abject conditions in which her subjects live. The pictures in her "Cuba Series" are untitled, and often depict solitary country folk in their ramshackle homes in moments of repose, away from their backbreaking work in the fields.
In Untitled 28, an elderly woman wearing a threadbare nightgown sits in a homemade rocking chair; the rough board walls of her shanty are cracked, allowing the sunlight to seep through. One of the woman's arthritic hands rests on her lap as she stares vacantly into space, oblivious to the scrawny hen near her feet that pecks away at the dirt floor.
One can almost detect a whiff of the rancid stink of cooked grease in Untitled 34, in which a young girl wearing a halter top and purple shorts is snapped from behind in a makeshift kitchen as she whips up a meal. The light blue walls of the tiny space are streaked with the sooty patina of smoke and stale grease. The old-fangled metal pots on the counter and stove are coated with carbonized grease; some of them glint with a toxic bronze sheen. Near the girl's knees, a pane of tropical reef-patterned fabric has been draped over a length of rope to curtain off a crudely rigged storage space. The cloth injects a dash of color into the dirty, dreary room. Behind the fabric panel in a corner to the girl's left, beer bottles full of yellow water are arranged in a row on the floor. They double as aquariums, and each one contains a live Siamese fighting fish bred by the family to scrap against each other and help supplement their income with the meager bets placed on their briny battles by neighbors and friends.
Khunji shares a deep sympathy with her subjects, yet also steers clear of letting her work slip into the maudlin, or veer toward propaganda, like many of the New Deal photographers did. She seems to stick to the bare-face facts, craftily detaching herself and eschewing editorializing. Her pictures are full of details and textures, and seemingly even sounds and scents, that speak volumes of an island forgotten by time, where the conditions that sparked the revolution still remain unchanged.
In his "Movements" series Valentin, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and staff photographer with the Sun-Sentinel, depicts images of Cubans in motion, including a compelling selection of images taken during the balsero migration in 1994.
Balseros 1, one of the dramatic digital prints displayed near the gallery's entrance, depicts nearly a dozen men carrying a raft fashioned from wooden beams with several truck tire inner tubes lashed to them. Roughly the size of a motor home, the raft is covered with a sturdy black canopy to shield the men from the blistering sun as they attempt to cross the Florida Straits. The men are making their launch in broad daylight and are glimpsed from behind as they struggle with their flimsy craft in knee-deep water a few feet from shore.
Nearby One Last Look, Cuba, tugs at the heartstrings with a closeup of a man chewing on the tip of a plastic American flag as he sits in the back of a blue-painted school bus. Taken in 1995, it shows the man's last glance at his homeland before he boards a plane from the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo to make the short hop to Florida and freedom, his face streaked in tears.
One of Valentin's most striking photos, Promesa, is the cropped image of a man fulfilling a promise made to San Lazaro, in which the believer drags himself on his back along an asphalt road on the way to the saint's shrine. He is wearing a suit made of itchy burlap and one of his ankles is chained to a huge rock. The man is one of many Cubans who engage in similar acts on the eve of December 17, this saint's day, to gain the favor of one of the island's most popular religious icons, who is worshiped as the patron of the sick and poor.