Anita Snow | Associated Press
SENSUALITY pervades the streets of Havana. A short stroll finds sultry young men scouting for new sex partners outside a cinema and Lycra-clad women tossing saucy suggestions to foreign tourists.
The promise of sex is part of the landscape in tropical Cuba, carried along on languid sea breezes and the primal pounding of drums.
But is communist Cuba ready for Robert Mapplethorpe?
Cubans will find out this week when an exhibition of Mapplethorpe photographs opens in Havana, testing the limits of art in this highly sexualised society that is ruled by an authoritarian government.
It’s true that the exhibit at the Fototeca in Old Havana doesn’t include the artist’s more confronting images. There are no bullwhips, no blatant homosexual acts.
That a Mapplethorpe exhibit is being held at all, and that Cuban officials signed off on the pictures, demonstrates a certain openness to art that celebrates sexuality. This is quite unlike the reception Mapplethorpe’s works received in the US in the 1990s.
In 1990, the Contemporary Arts Centre in Cincinnati and its director were charged with obscenity for exhibiting Mapplethorpe.
Both were acquitted, but the case sparked a national debate on government funds for the arts, with conservative law-makers and religious fundamentalists attacking the National Endowment for the Arts for subsidising Mapplethorpe shows.
“I’m really interested to see how Cubans will react,” says curator Philip Larratt-Smith, a Canadian based in New York. Allowing any kind of Mapplethorpe exhibition in Cuba “flies in the face of charges that there is no freedom of expression” on the island, he says.
Entitled Sacred and Profane, the exhibit includes 50 black-and-white photographs including portraits, still lifes and a sprinkling of sexually explicit male nudes.
Larratt-Smith says he thinks the nudes will be the most provocative element of the show. Shown in a multiracial, somewhat machista society such as Cuba, the images of naked men as objects of beauty may strike a nerve - positive or negative - in those who view them.
Sexual mores tend to be relaxed in Cuba, much as they are in other Caribbean societies, and images of nude female bodies barely raise an eyebrow, even though pornography is officially forbidden.
The Catholic Church never had much influence in Cuba, even before the 1959 revolution, and multiple sex partners and repeated abortions are commonplace. Among the most widely read columns in state media is Sex Sense in Communist Youth newspaper Juventud Rebelde, featuring readers’ questions about sex.
However, although male genitalia sometimes appear in Cuban art as symbols of power and aggression, Cubans are not used to seeing pictures of nude men portrayed as objects of desire. Homosexuals were once considered social deviants in Cuba and in the 1960s some were even sent to work camps.
Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989, is virtually unknown in Cuba, which still remains largely isolated from the US through trade and travel restrictions stretching back more than four decades. Only a small circle of Cubans, mostly artists, have heard about the photographer, and then just distant echoes about his sex life and controversial shows, according to Rafael Acosta de Arriba, former president of Cuba’s Council for the Plastic Arts.
Most Americans learned of Mapplethorpe in 1989, when an exhibition of his work was held at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The show was cancelled after conservative politicians declared Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic and sadomasochistic images to be offensive.
Writing in the catalogue for the show, Acosta calls the Mapplethorpe exhibition in Cuba “an old dream that has now become reality”.
“The great New York artist, one of the paradigms of 20th-century photographic art and, in my view, one of the major energisers and promoters of photography, deserved to enter into contact with the Cuban public, Cuban artists and critics,” Acosta writes.
The Cuban show is being funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation in Mexico City, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and money raised by art galleries and private individuals through the nonprofit Cuban Artists Fund of New York.
Because of the trade restrictions, a licence from the US Treasury Department was necessary for those travelling with the show. The photographs are being shipped directly from Canada to avoid additional red tape.
In the mix are portraits Larratt-Smith hopes Cubans will find interesting. One is a photo of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in his Mr Universe days. Another features artist Louise Bourgeois, whose work was shown in Cuba in February.
Larratt-Smith, who curated the Bourgeois show, featuring her trademark giant spider sculptures, hopes to continue introducing Cubans to US art by bringing the works of great artists under the general theme of Sexuality and Identity.
“I want my next show to feature Andy Warhol,” he says.