Photographer Ernesto Javier Fernandez Chronicles the Cuban Rafter Experience

Our world, Our Word (2012): Wooden box, digital print, and neon light; 31.5” x 47.25”.
Our world, Our Word (2012): Wooden box, digital print, and neon light; 31.5” x 47.25”.
Courtesy of Atrium Art Gallery

As a second-generation Cuban photographer, Ernesto Javier Fernandez has borne witness to the lasting effects of the embargo. His father, Ernesto Fernandez, took pictures for writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante and was also a contributor to Cuba, a magazine that highlighted intellectuals and artists in the early days of the revolution.

Ernesto the son, however, was interested in a different aspect of the Cuban experience.

For years, Ernesto Jr.'s work has centered on rafters (AKA balseros). His pieces are a collage of black-and-white photographs shot in a journalistic style and mixed with artistic flourishes. Neon text and bits of old pipes and wires are woven throughout the various works. 

His latest exhibition, "Cuba: Unfinished," is set to open tomorrow, Thursday, at Artium Art Gallery in Wynwood. Fernandez arrived in Miami this past Sunday to oversee the installation and prepare the final details of his show. Though the Cuban government closely monitors travel in and out of the island, it seems unlikely the powers that be are aware of the critical nature of his recent work — a move that could flare tensions during this period of renewed relations.

As preparations for the show were underway, New Times sat with the artist to unpack some of the themes that run through his photographs. 

New Times: What inspired you to document the Cuban rafter experience?
Ernesto Javier Fernandez: Immigration is more political in Cuba than anywhere else, and it was a big part of my life. My family was a part of it in the '60s. My uncle had a yacht back then, and after the revolution, they confiscated his property. So he left on a boat with his family. But it sank with 49 people on it. Luckily, my uncle and his friend survived, but the rest died. That was something that marked my life.

In the '90s, I was living in Germany, and in 1994, I was in Cuba visiting during the last rafter crisis. I started taking photographs of the people who risked their lives to come to America. After I permanently moved back to Cuba in 2000, I started making art. I saw that there was a new generation of artists working with the theme of immigration, but with a bit of fear. They were making references only with images of empty boats, but they never photographed the actual people.

Dead end II (2009): Digital print on acrylic and LED lights, 31.5” x 47.25”.
Dead end II (2009): Digital print on acrylic and LED lights, 31.5” x 47.25”.
Courtesy of Atrium Art Gallery

Do you see yourself as more of an artist or a journalist? 
Making a living through art in Cuba was impossible when I was growing up. Even if you had a solo exhibition that was well received, no one would buy your work. So I decided to take pictures for magazines to make a living. I started with Cuban magazines and then on to Der Spiegel when I moved to Germany. When I moved back to the island in 2000, it was the first time I could actually make a living from my art. This generation of artists is different — they only want to make art and that's it. 

You like to play with your images either by using neon or other bits of found materials. What's the significance behind that?
It's a way to frame the images that will tell the whole story. A picture is part of a moment, it's just an impression. I needed to mix my experience with the images I took. For example, I did a series of images in pipes that are used to get water to people's homes. That became a way to tell the story of how people live in Cuba in their everyday lives. 

Todos Mios Vecinos Van al Cielo (All My Neighbors Go to Heaven) (2016): Backlight digital print, PVC pipe, and magnifying glasses.
Todos Mios Vecinos Van al Cielo (All My Neighbors Go to Heaven) (2016): Backlight digital print, PVC pipe, and magnifying glasses.
Courtesy of Atrium Art Gallery

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Did you encounter any pushback or criticism for your work from the Cuban regime? 
I never received any pressure from higher-ups in the government. I did receive some pressure from the lowest levels, but this was something I could tolerate. There's a saying in Cuba: "You can rattle the monkey's cage, but if you push too much, the monkey will bite back." In other words, as an artist, I could push a little bit without stepping over the line. 

A lot of your work is concerned with immigration, particularly the Cuban rafter experience of the 1990s. Where do you see the state of Cuban-American relations today? 
In general, there's a big change. But every generation of Cuban immigrants feels differently. The generation that came in the '60s still doesn't want to have relationships with the regime. In the '80s, it was a different type of people who left the island. Now Cubans can come to the States and still have relationships with their families back home. The current government understands that the new relations with America brings money to the island. However, I don't think they're ready for the change. The Cuban government is like an old woman with too much makeup — it's old and out of touch. 

"Cuba: Unfinished" 
Opens Thursday, May 12, at Artium Art Gallery, 2248 NW First Pl., Miami. Reception from 6 to 9 p.m. Call 786-487-4326 or visit artium-miami.com


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