BY MITCHELL SEIDEL | Star-Ledger Staff | The Star Ledger
NEW YORK—The title of the photography exhibit, “Cuba on the Verge: An Island in Transition,” implies that the Communist nation some 90 miles from Florida is experiencing change, heading from one state to another. The only problem is that the International Center of Photography exhibit, which gathers the works of some 14 Cuban, American and Cuban-American photographers, cannot really tell us where it is heading.
The “transition” in the title alludes to the changes forced on the island with the economic withdrawal of its major benefactor, the former Soviet Union. It has forced Fidel Castro’s hand to allow Cubans to experience limited capitalism in an attempt to keep hard currency flowing into the island. The currency of ideas is another thing altogether, as Castro recently demonstrated with show trials and harsh sentences for dissidents.
Guest curator Terry McCoy has managed to make the exhibit as apolitical as could be hoped for, a daunting task since one cannot help but be inundated by Communist party slogans posted throughout the country. There is very little of that aspect here, with the photographers instead examining how old-fashioned farming and Santeria can coexist with increased foreign tourism and new construction.
The photographers are a mixed group, using a variety of formats and techniques. This is all the better to show that there is not one monolithic Cuba, but a nation of individuals.
The most technically ambitious works in the show come from Abelardo Morell’s unique “Cuba from a Dark Room” series, in which he converted entire rooms into old-fashioned cameras obscura, in effect making them giant box cameras. An upside-down image is projected through a tiny pinhole onto an opposite wall, with Morell mixing the interior and exterior views without the use of multiple exposure or darkroom trickery. The images are captured by pointing a camera inside the darkened room at the wall where the image is projected and leaving the shutter open, sometimes for as long as eight hours.
A compelling visual aspect of modern Cuba is its crumbling infrastructure, where traces of the pre-revolutionary country are visible, though not in their former glory. Manuel Pina’s “Time” series explores the layers of aging in various structures. In one image, an aging wrought iron gate is highlighted by brown and orange rust. In another, the stucco of a pockmarked wall shows traces of a gay mustard tone that now competes with blue and green, to say nothing of scratched graffiti and various old decorations. A living room, frozen in time with small dime-store statues and an unevenly colored brown/beige wall, shows fraying around just about every edge.
Andrew Moore documents the restoration of the country’s old sugar mills and plantations, yet another aspect of Cuba’s past. There is strong irony in this concept, since the sugar plantations were held up as examples of worker exploitation and now are seen as historic sites.
Adalberto Roque’s study of popular flutist Jose Luis (El Tosco) Cortes and jazz pianist Chucho Valdes is meant to be a study in contrasts, with the younger Cortes and the more traditional Valdes attaining different levels of popularity. But the comparison does not ring true, for while El Tosco is shown surrounded by adoring pop fans, Valdes is not given the same opportunity. Shown either in tight close-up or practicing his piano at home, Valdes is not seen in the context of performing before the hordes of eager jazz fans he routinely attracts.