BY Kristin M. Jones in Reviews | 11 NOV 01
Featured in
Issue 63

Shifting Tides: Cuban Photography after the Revolution

Grey Art Gallery, New York, USA

BY Kristin M. Jones in Reviews | 11 NOV 01

As if in a garden whose invisible walls have been cautiously expanded, Cuban photography has flourished since the revolution of 1959. 'Shifting Tides: Cuban Photography after the Revolution' comprised over 100 works, many never before shown in North America, and attempted to convey the medium's complex development in recent decades. In dividing the work into three sections, or 'generations', curator Tim B. Wride was guided less by the artists' ages than by their relationship to photography's evolving role on the island.

The show opens with a handful of 'heroic' images taken by the talented professional photographers who were enlisted to document the heady days of political organization, such as Korda (Alberto Diaz Gutiérrez), Raúl Corrales and Osvaldo Salas. These works include Guerrillero heroico (Heroic Guerrilla, 1960), Korda's now iconic shot of Che Guevara at a memorial for the victims of an explosion in Havana harbour. It's the image that, in stylized form, adorns T-shirts, postcards and posters worldwide.

Che's image, in fact, attained universal recognizability when an Italian publisher reproduced it on posters without offering Korda credit or royalties. As Cristina Vives points out in her catalogue essay, many photographers were also not credited for the work they did for Cuban publications, which often provided a relatively free hand for creative exploration. Works Wride defines as 'first-generation' include the series 'La Peña de Sirique' (The Sirique Club, c. 1970) and 'En el liceo' (In the Lyceum, 1979), by Marucha (Maria Eugenia Haya); the sensitive, straightforward portraits of elderly men in Iván Cañas' Los centenarios (The centenarians, 1969); and the gorgeously cinematic sequence No hay otra manera de hacer la zafra (There is no other way to harvest the cane, 1970), by Enrique de la Uz, which calls to mind Hans Namuth's images of Jackson Pollock slinging paint. Whether working independently or for revolutionary periodicals, these artists made photographs that focused on the lives of common people in post-revolutionary Cuba.

Wride admits that the subtly ironic work of José A. Figueroa, who was an apprentice to Korda, resists categorization. In Calle Linea (Linea Street, 1995), an image that might appear surreal to North Americans accustomed to billboards hawking consumer goods, a man and a boy drag what seems to be the wreckage of a piece of furniture past a wall emblazoned with Che's features; while Vedado (1992) depicts a bed blanketed with copies of Korda's Che photograph. A common thread among work emerging from the art school-educated 'second generation', on the other hand, is its intense introspection, as in the dreamlike manipulated photographs of a swimming pool in a changing landscape, by the painter Gory (Rogelio López Marín).

Work by younger artists can be startlingly oblique, such as Abigail González' randomly cropped surveillance-like shots of nude or half-nude women in intimate situations (one, for example, prepares to bathe her genitals while seated on a toilet). González's images appear to have been taken without the subjects' awareness, but are in fact carefully staged, at once undermining assumptions about the truthfulness of photographic representation and exposing the marginalized and invisible. Equally subtle are Pedro Abascal's minimal, high-contrast images, which resemble James Welling's abstract photograms, although they depict real architectural details. And then there are the paired drawings and photographs of Carlos Garaicoa, an artist whose work Gerardo Mosquera has called 'the great metaphor of collapse'. A structure shoring up a crumbling building is re-imagined as an Atlas; rubble metamorphoses into a grandiose triumphal arch. As Wride expresses it, 'The new generation provides a conception of Cuba as the site of truly integrated personal and collective identities. Their focus has narrowed to the most personal of meditations: their experience of real and conceptual space.'

Although the use of materials is often modest (only works by Gory and Ernesto Leal shown here incorporate colour), it seems to be accompanied by a deep-rooted respect for photography as a documentary, personal and conceptual medium. Not only did art in post-revolutionary Cuba never devolve into Soviet-style Socialist Realism, even during periods of greater ideological control, but it has remained rich with humanity.

Kristin M. Jones writes about art and film for publications including Film Comment and the Wall Street Journal. She is based in New York, USA.