Posted July 11, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Culture.
By SARAH BOXER
I want to go to Cuba before things get better there,” someone confided to me recently. Cuba, for many people, is a place suspended romantically in history. It has outgrown its socialist revolution, but has not yet become crass and capitalist. Its streets are full of old Buicks and Fords from the 1950’s rather than new Toyotas. It is a country of ruins that doesn’t have enough money to build lots of hideous high-rises. Every street musician plays the old songs of the Buena Vista Social Club. And that’s the way some people want it to stay, forever.
The signature image of “Cuba on the Verge: An Island in Transition,” at the International Center of Photography, is Virginia Beahan’s color seascape. Off in the distance you see a dark brown shape, a mangrove swamp, jutting into the blue-gray ocean. In the foreground is an aging cement balustrade pointing off in the same direction and at its base a pile of brownish rocks and flotsam. This is where Fidel Castro; his brother, Raúl; Che Guevara; and 79 other men landed in a boat called Granma, armed with weapons from Mexico, to start the Cuban revolution in 1956.
Homely and forlorn as the scene is, it still packs in three kinds of nostalgia: for ruins, for landscape and for the revolution. Ms. Beahan set out to chronicle how Cuba’s history has been “written on the land in words and images: on billboards and signs, on public buildings and homes, painted onto rocks, and spelled out in whitewashed pebbles in the red earth.” One picture shows a cement baseball scoreboard planted on the site where Cuba’s rebels first battled Fulgencio Batista’s forces. Through the scoreboard’s square chinks, where hits, strikes, balls and outs are posted, you can see green hillsides, muddy hilltops and in tiny white letters “Viva Fidel.” The picture has a wry edge, but also a touch of pathos.
Is it possible for anyone to photograph Cuba without some romance creeping in?
Shortly after the end of the “special period,” the dark, poverty-stricken years of the early 1990’s when the Soviet Union had collapsed and no other power came to Cuba’s rescue, Terry McCoy, a writer, arts producer and documentary filmmaker, invited writers and photographers — Cubans, Americans and Cuban-Americans — to gather impressions and images of the island. As Ms. McCoy notes in the accompanying book, “Cuba on the Verge” (Bulfinch Press), she didn’t want “cliched images of vintage American cars and other remnants of a prerevolutionary era — an era of the spectacular Tropicana nightclub and the famous hotel Nacional.” Nor did she want iconic images of the revolution. She wanted, she writes, “to convey Cuba present.”
What she got, at least in part, was an updated romance. Cuba is clearly in rotten shape. The best buildings are crumbling. People work for next to nothing. Children beg for paper and milk on the street. Money comes from tourism, prostitution, revolutionary knickknacks, art, music and anything else that brings in American dollars. You wouldn’t think romance could be squeezed from such stuff. But the exhibition, organized by Cynthia Fredette, an assistant curator at the center, demonstrates that it can. It is a dispiriting sight.
The worst case of inappropriate romance can be seen in the photographs and wall text by Abigail González, a Cuban photographer who makes pictures of sex, which, Mr. González suggests, is the last frontier of Cuban freedom. His photographs, he writes, are about “having sex in a place where, finally, you are in control.” In Cuba, where there isn’t much to do, sex is a national pastime, and so is prostitution. “Here,” Mr. González writes, “it is important to seize the moment and take pleasure when and where you can.” His black-and-white photographs are of very young women dressed only in underpants, with or without men. Are they prostitutes or just teenage girls seizing the moment?
The romance of world revolution is another ideal that will not die. Next to Carrie Mae Weems’s series of black-and-white photographs — one showing a woman reveling religiously in a landscape, one showing a naked woman with a healer, one showing a woman with a friend at a board game — is Ms. Weems’s poem “Ritual and Revolution,” in which she imagines herself a part of every revolution.
I was with you
on the longest march
in Cuba and Timbuktu
I was with you
attempting to block
an assassin’s bullet
and again in Harlem
cradling Malcolm to my bosom crying.
We’ve heard this kind of thing before.
Carlos Garaicoa photographs ruins and mounts his pictures on lighted plexiglass boxes. These are not your classic ruins, which Mr. Garaicoa defines as “objects that have survived from a lost and distant past.” Rather they are objects that have themselves been lost with the past. They are ruins ruined. One picture shows a broken-down colonnade filled with rubble. Another focuses on a piece of a white grooved column surrounded by white rocks. Still, Mr. Garaicoa finds a touch of romance, a thrill in what he calls “a possible, imagined, fictional city.”
Some photographers are acutely aware of the awkwardness of trying to capture an elegance that is quickly turning to dust, especially when the Cubans are watching. Manuel Piña makes gorgeous photographs of Cuba’s walls: peeling walls, mossy walls, rusted walls and walls with unreadable lettering. “Already the lady of the house is about to ask me why I want this photo of the facade, and from here on things get complicated,” he writes. “How can I explain to the woman that I treasure all the riches of those dozens of coats of paint, those thousands of tones?” The fact is, he can’t. His art is her poverty.
The most refreshing views of Cuba are those devoid of romance, particularly those in which the subjects appear to confront the camera. One of Ernesto Bazan’s color photographs of rural Cuba shows a man, face obscured by a cloud of cigar smoke, who thrusts his ugly gamecock toward the photographer. Another photograph is of tobacco farmers in the fields of Pinar del Río province. The landscape is leafy green, but you can’t romanticize it too much because two girls are keeping guard against that. One has her arms crossed but refuses to look at the camera. The other looks, but she refuses to look quaintly rustic.
In one photograph Sylvia Plachy captured schoolgirls walking along the Malecon, the sea wall that separates Havana from the ocean. There are no ruins in sight. A line of modern streetlights, not yet on, punctuates the way. At the bottom of the picture are four windblown girls in colorful dresses. They are rushing away from the photographer, though two of them have turned to look back at her. One has her arm around the shoulder of the other as if to say: “Come along. Don’t let her hold us up.”
Abelardo Morell’s photographs may be the most fitting metaphors for the outsider’s view of Cuba. Mr. Morell, born in Cuba but living in the United States, has been making camera obscura images in many cities for many years. But in Cuba they have special resonance. He darkens all the windows in a room and then lets light seep in from the outside through a tiny pinhole. Then he sets up a view camera to take the picture. After hours of exposure, he has an upside-down image of the world projected onto the darkened room’s walls, ceilings and floors.
One giant black-and-white camera obscura image by Mr. Morell shows a ratty tiled bathroom whose doorway has been knocked out. But projected onto those barren walls you see a gorgeous, grainy upside-down image of la Giraldilla de la Habana, the female symbol of Havana, atop a medieval-looking tower and, beyond that, the sea. This, it seems, is the state of Cuba. The place is clearly a wreck, but a projection of faded beauty, glamorous revolution and old-time sensuality still clings to the walls.
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