From Cuba with Life
Photography is a great medium for social documentation. Think of nineteenth-century French photographer Eugène Atget, who produced thousands of photographs of Paris with direct, novel, and poetic renditions of everything imaginable: people in the streets, shop fronts, buildings, wheeled vehicles of all kinds, decorative details, et cetera.
Cuban photo documentaries go back to the beginning of the 1900s, but after 1959 the genre became a political tool to legitimatize the young revolution. Most images became prey to socialist realism syndrome: hackneyed and bombastic. Photographers such as Enrique de la Uz, Marucha, Ivan Cañas, and José Alberto Figueroa portrayed a Cuba moving out of "underdevelopment" -- as reiterated time and again by the official discourse of the Sixties. They also tried to move out of the cult of personalities, giving us (within the limits of censorship) a personal view of a changing reality.
The generation of the mid-Seventies explored a more inward-looking iconography. They tackled problems of everyday life by incorporating individual experiences that touched their collective habits, which ambivalently borrowed from Latin-American magic realism, Afro-Cuban vocabularies, and the European avant-garde. Artists such as Marta Maria Perez Bravo, Gory, and José Manuel Fors were informed of contemporary international trends. After 40 years of communism, the problem remains how to circumvent a heavy political climate and the pressures of a tourist-dependent image of a society and still produce fresh and compelling images reaching more universal archetypes. This is what "Recoding Locales: Contemporary Photography from Cuba" at Miami-Dade Community College's Centre Gallery attempts to show. Joseph Tamargo and José Antonio "Tonito" Rodriguez have curated -- if a little unevenly -- the works of five artists living in Cuba: Niurka Barroso, Raul Cañibano Ercilla, Gonzo Gonzalez, Ismael Rodriguez, and Humberto Mayol Viton.
Tamargo is quick to point out that they've done what they can relative to the available resources: "Taking into account where it comes from, this exhibition is being brought up with much difficulty." For instance the last time Tonito went to the Cuban capital, he couldn't find Gonzo Gonzalez. "We had to show these little photos which Gonzo had sent me for a Website I was making," explains Tonito, a professional photographer with years of experience working with MDCC and the Museum of Contemporary Art and who has had recent successful exhibitions in Havana. You only see black-and-white pictures in this show, apropos of a city like Havana, which seems set still in time. "It's not a conceptual plan but really born out of necessity," explains Tamargo. "These people don't have materials to work with."
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Cañibano is one of the most important young photographers in Havana today. He's good at exposing the hardship of life in the cane fields: His subjects look candid, involved in their own affairs, untroubled by the prying eye. See their weathered faces and lean, muscular torsos hardened by endless hours under the sun. A photo of a farmer looking at the camera, his friend's hand with a missing index finger on his shoulder, is particularly moving.
A photojournalist for Agence France Presse, Barroso has won numerous prizes and held exhibitions in France. Her series for this show deals with children with cancer in Cuba. Barroso's images are disturbing yet devoid of manipulation -- something not easy to do. She is capable of waiting for the right moment to bring a hopeful, even funny, note to the misery of her subjects. (Most of the children depicted in these photographs have since died.)
In spite of some interesting pictures, there were not enough photos of Havana's Psychiatric Hospital (known before the revolution as Mazorra) by Gonzo Gonzalez to compare it with other artists' series in the exhibition. They were too small and mixed with other photos dealing with different issues. Ismael Rodriguez's walled spaces depict isolated subjects behind fences. For some reason I find these Private Spaces the most subversive. They seem to take up Rodriguez's own obsession with, according to Tonito, "some deeply personal experiences, mostly of a sexual nature." Note that for a place where the notion of private space is difficult to grasp (sexual or not), Rodriguez's statements are the more seditious.
The work of Humberto Mayol reminds me of someone who is done with simply recording and proceeds to build more artificial atmospheres. Building upon layers of imaginary glass reflections, Mayol creates these juxtapositions of images between religiosity and consumerism. The least realist of the bunch, Mayol's work looks fresh and contemporary, as if he were able to conjure self-made visual symbols.
"We are perhaps the first to present photographers from Cuba who live in Cuba," says Tamargo, a veteran professor of photography at MDCC and a Fulbright recipient. He adds, "The idea is to bridge the photography gap between the island and ourselves, politics aside." Tonito also makes clear that "this exhibit is about culture." Richard Rorty, the American pragmatist, counsels us to get rid of metaphors when they aren't helpful anymore. I agree. In Miami -- and also in Cuba -- the old-school idea of politics as a necessary byproduct of the arts has become a useless metaphor.
Indeed times have changed in Cuba. "Recoding Locales" reflects a reality where the ideological manipulation of former times is almost gone. Instead these images express a deeper reflection on a postcommunist Cuba, a place of poverty, uncertainty, and disenchantment. And since a truer human essence is captured, these locales and their living subjects become, paradoxically, more real and hopeful.
This exhibition may be a good start for the Centre Gallery. After a series of poor and disparate shows, the gallery has been perceived as a casual reception venue for affairs unrelated to art, rather than a place with real direction. A pity, because the space has the potential to serve as a true magnet for the multicultural community of downtown.
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