By Chris Bergeron | TownOnline.com
At a time when Cuba remains off-limits to most travelers, Linda Hirsch has flung open the windows on a people and society hidden from view by four decades of political conflict.
The Wayland artist and member of Congregation Beth El, has organized “Cuba - There is Light and Shadow,” a revealing, often gorgeous exhibition of images by nine photographers, including her own work, at the Panopticon Gallery in Waltham.
Working in color and black and white, the photographers have captured an island culture of vibrant beauty and failed revolutionary promise.
To their credit, they never reduce Cuba or Cubans to visual stereotypes about Fidel Castro in fatigues or street corner musicians. Instead, the photographers offer nine different yet complementary visions of recognizably real people in a country that is at once familiar and alien.
Richard Wood of Boston records the intimacies of everyday life in brilliant color shots. Cuba native Jose Marti Montero creates stark black-and-white images of cane cutters and laborers. And Hirsch discovers a Jewish community thriving in an unlikely Caribbean setting.
“This project has truly taken on a life of its own, becoming a personal mission,” she said.
Globe-trotting Cambridge photographer Don Gurewitz contributed several striking color images of seemingly ordinary Cubans against a backdrop of institutionalized communist drabness.
In one, a smiling nurse in a clean white uniform comforts two infants in a day care center. In another powerful shot, a gigantic statue of revolutionary martyr Jose Marti towers over a uniformed officer, guarding an empty plaza.
With about 40 mid-sized works, the show offers a pleasingly varied look representing a range of techniques from silver gelatin black-and-white prints to inkjet from scanned chrome to archival iris prints.
The exhibit, which has the Spanish subtitle, “Cuba - Hay Luz Y Sombra,” runs through April 23.
It also includes “Against Silence,” a documentary by Cuban filmmaker Lizette Villa about women living with AIDS. Reproductions of all images are available through Panopticon.
Hirsch deserves credit for bringing together nine photographers, including herself, who present a broad but balanced view of Cuban life and whose styles range from documentary observation to abstract realism.
“The show has a really nice mix of people,” she said. “For viewers, there are many entry points to the photos from an aesthetic, historical or educational perspective.”
The show benefits greatly from the inclusion of Montero and Mario Diaz, native Cubans whose black-and-white photographs capture very different aspects of Cuban life with stunning results.
Montero’s photos of “macheteros,” men who cut sugarcane by hand, conveys their grinding labor in stark black-and-white images of haunting power.
A 55-year-old self-taught photojournalist, Diaz captures tableaux of everyday life in delicate chiaroscuro.
In a shot titled “Salsa Kitchen,” a couple dances in a threadbare room while a smiling older woman looks on. In “Baseball Ruins,” three children knock a ball around a cavernous courtyard.
Diaz is a master of unobtrusive composition, creating revealing stories in subtle images. In one quietly striking shot, three women carry on their daily chores, bathing children and washing laundry in a narrow alley.
Hirsch was right when she said works by Montero and Diaz give the show its “grounding and nuance.”
For the 56-year-old Hirsch, the exhibit represents a three-year labor of love that began with her first trip to Cuba in 2001.
A trained psychologist, she did not own a camera until the 1970s. Since taking a photography course at the DeCordova Museum in the mid-1970s, she has mixed commercial and fine arts photography with her recent emphasis on photojournalism.
The U.S. government prohibits Americans from visiting Cuba unless they secure a special license from the Treasury Department. Official permission is generally limited to journalists, researchers and a handful of other groups.
Hirsch received her permit in cooperation with Congregation Beth El in Sudbury to photograph Cuba’s little-known Jewish community.
“Enthusiastic and proud of my religious and spiritual heritage, I began to document and assist a small but feisty Jewish community outside the mainstream in Cuba,” she said.
She met friendly people in a country with a rich history whose struggles have been obscured by a U.S. government embargo that began with Castro’s Marxist revolution that continues to today.
“That’s an aspect of Cuban culture that’s often been ignored. Many people don’t even know Judaism is alive in Cuba,” she said. “As a subject, it resonated with my own personal and spiritual interests.”
After staging a small show at The Center for Arts in Natick, Hirsch returned to Cuba with her husband, Gary, in 2002 and 2004 for a deeper look at a culture that increasingly fascinated her.
Since returning, Hirsch sought out other photographers whose shared interest in Cuba she hopes can help break down political and cultural barriers.
“I wanted to put together a show that would offer a diverse variety of impressions. I wanted a show that would be subtle but highly provocative,” she said.
Hirsch said she included photographers who gave Cuba a hard but honest look that respected the complex circumstances of its people.
“I wanted artists who avoided stereotypes. There are a lot of deep and dark shadows. I wanted people to be provoked to do more research,” she said. “In a gentle way, I wanted to deliver several messages: There is beauty and humor and pathos.”
Hirsch hopes the U.S. government relaxes travel restrictions to Cuba so more American artists can share their work with the public.
“There is a political agenda to the show, but I want people to draw their own conclusions,” she said.
Deeply personal styles
Mari Seder provides several intriguing shots of home altars that combine images of the Blessed Virgin and Che Guevara with carnations, cigars and other personal icons. The Worcester artist explores the eclectic mix of African, Christian and Caribbean religions in a deeply personal style.
Several exhibitors, like Paula Tognarelli and Blake Fitch, the deputy director and director of the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, respectively, have put the variegated palette of Cuban life in arresting images.
Tognarelli, who lives in Cambridge, observes ironic juxtapositions in people and their surroundings. She looks with a sympathetic eye on people torn between their own government’s failed brand of Marxism and shortages resulting from a U.S. trade embargo.
In “Two Birds in a Cage,” a woman in a housedress and her pet bird stand behind a barred door. In “Viva la Revolucion,” a man cradling his young daughter in front of a slogan-covered wall looks guardedly into the camera lens.
Fitch captures poignant slices of everyday life.
In her remarkable, “Girl in Green Dress,” an adolescent sits on a seawall, gazing upon azure seas and skies as if wondering about the world beyond her confined island.
As if defying the travel ban, this exhibit invites viewers into Cuba to see it for themselves.
The Panopticon Gallery, 435 Moody St., Waltham, is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
For more information, call 781-647-0100 or visit [url=http://www.panopt.com]http://www.panopt.com[/url]