With ferry service between Miami and Havana scheduled to begin early next year, America prepares to reacquaint itself with Cuba, the shunned island nation. The over-50 year freeze of relations between the two countries brought about an estrangement. For Americans, the communist country is shrouded in a mysterious, tropical allure. Yet, for the rest of the world Cuba is a staple of the Caribbean.
Chinese photographer Quentin Shih is interested in exploring the complex web of cultural exchange in one of the most tenuous international relationships in the west. Two years ago Shih made a month-long trip from his current home in New York City to Havana in order to produce work. The result was a series of images entitled "La Habana Is Waiting," currently on display at Art Lexing in the exhibit "Dreaming in Cuban."
"Cuba and China couldn't culturally be more different, but the way the people react to the similar regimes is interesting," notes Shih. "The government doesn't let them express political beliefs, but they seem to be happy."
While Shih was raised under an equally oppressive communist regime, he's been living and working in the west for the past decade. In America, he cultivated the same romance for Cuba. His photographs are an attempt to reconcile myth with reality. The shots maintain a haunting and entrancing tinge while accentuating the physical and moral decay of both countries.
“Is the Cuba of propaganda photographs more authentic?” Shih asks, “Or are the waiting and restless teens who grew up after the revolution more representative of reality? Both of these exist in my experience.”
He plays with the notion of representation. His deserted streets, punctuated with fluorescent red and green lights, stands in stark contrast to previous images of the island, whether they be propaganda by the regime or counterrevolutionary ads by the opposition. Shih's photographs live somewhere in the middle.
His subjects are not models, politicians, musicians, political prisoners, or any other demographic subset that are usually highlighted in pictures of the Cuban people. They are Cuban teens, caught in limbo between ideologies. While demagogs debate and set policy, Shih chooses to shed light on young men and women caught in the political crossfire. This new generation, largely born after the Cold War, are still stuck under the same oppressive climate that pervaded the last half century.
In one of the photographs Shih shoots three young men lounging at the end of a bar. Though warm, the subjects seem distant from each other: one looks out the door, the others stare off-scene to a television, a woman, or an imagined future. It's clear that these men are stalled, waiting for their lives to fully begin. Perhaps they hope for a thaw in relations between their small country and the superpower just a hop, step and a jump from their shores.
Quentin Shih's series "La Habana Is Waiting" is currently on view as a part of Art Lexing's "Dreaming In Cuban" at Ironside arts district, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., through November 10. For more information regarding events, visit artlexing.com.