On January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro entered the city of Havana, effectively ending the regime of Fulgencio Batista. The new government placed an increased literacy rate and improved health care for the Cuban people at the head of its social agenda. It also advanced a commitment to the arts. Within certain parameters, artists were encouraged to experiment both technically and conceptually. Although the images made during this time are largely affirmations of the new social order, they were not without realistic commentary, in many cases even offering social criticism.
Shifting Tides: Cuban Photography after the Revolution focuses on the work of photographers in Cuba since 1959. It presents three generations of artists, grouped more by their similar pictorial and conceptual concerns, subjects, and processes than by their ages. From iconic portraits of Cuban revolutionary heroes to formal and psychological abstractions, from official commissions to personal investigations, the work of Cuban photographers speaks to both a Cuban reality and an international art awareness. Through their images, these artists have created a visual legacy of a people and a country during a momentous time.
Cult of Personality
Photography after the Revolution played a key role in forming the cult of personality that grew up around leaders such as Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Early revolutionary photographers helped to build the heroic stature of these leaders and define the national identity of Cuba itself. Their iconic images served as the model for photography in Cuba and remain for many the visual touchstones for Cuban photography as a whole.
Perhaps the most familiar of these early works is Guerrillero heroico (Heroic Guerrilla), a portrait of Che Guevara by the photographer Korda (Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez). Taken in 1960 at a memorial for victims of a maritime explosion in Havana, it shows Che dressed as a soldier, gazing ahead as if into the future with an expression of idealism and resolve. This photograph quickly became and, for many, remains emblematic of the Cuban Revolution, even of revolution in general.
Osvaldo Salas also created heroic and iconic images of prominent personalities. As a child Salas emigrated to New York. (Later, his work was regularly featured in Lifemagazine.) A strong supporter of Castro, Salas returned to Cuba two days after the victory in 1959. His iconic photographs, such as Fidel, established new symbols of national identity and pride and helped to sustain the early revolutionary resolve. Salas’s work has a decided photoessay quality, a sense that each image is a part of a larger narrative. It communicates both his Life magazine sensibilities and his dedication to the Cuban revolutionary cause.
The first generation of photographers to emerge after the early icon makers had a new focus. Although they continued to make images of the great revolutionary figures, they concentrated on a different sort of hero: the everyday Cuban citizen. Their portraits of common people suggested that to live and work in Cuba was to be an essential component of the Revolution.
In Central azucarera “Uruguay,” Ciego de Ávila (“Uruguay” Cane Mill, Ciego de Ávila), Enrique de la Uz portrays a cane cutter holding the instrument of his labor, a scythe. Along with tobacco pickers and other workers, cane cutters were at the heart of the Revolution. De la Uz has created an image of the ongoing political effort represented by this man’s labor. Like other photographers of this generation, he presents the Cuban worker as a hero.
In contrast, a photograph of two dancers by Marucha (María Eugenia Haya) brings into focus the lighter side of Cuban life, celebrating the festive pleasures that balance hard work and personal sacrifice. Both these visions helped redefine what it meant to be a revolutionary, positioning the common man and woman as vital elements of the new social order.
The second generation of Cuban photo-graphers, who emerged in the 1980s, included the first graduates of the new national art institute in Cuba. These artists carried on the legacy of the first generation in their depiction of everyday life. Instead of finding their subjects on the street and in the fields, however, they created sophisticated images exploring montage and tableaux (staged or created scenes). They began to incorporate autobiographical details and narratives in their work, creating images of Cuban life that were at once universal and highly personal.
Juan Carlos Alóm draws on the rich blend of Christian and Afro-Cubano tradition and symbolism that permeates Cuban culture in Sólo tú cabes en la palma de mi mano(Only You Fit in the Palm of My Hand, cover). The image of the fish—a Christian symbol and a reference to the sea that surrounds the island—suggests this merging of iconographies. Using such familiar natural and ritualistic images, Alóm appeals to the collective sensibilities of the Cuban people. But he juxtaposes the collective with the individual in the work’s composition, balancing the group of fish with the single fish held in the palm of a hand.
Gory (Rogelio López Marín) uses more secular symbolism in his constructed images. Es sólo agua en la lágrima de un extraño (It’s Only Water in the Teardrop of a Stranger) is one of a series of works that pair text with images printed from multiple negatives. Familiar luxury items in disrepair and an ever-present gaze to the sea function as symbols of social class, deteriorating economics, and migration. Gory’s images do not merely illustrate the accompanying texts (by Michael Ende) but extend them emotionally and psychologically. Second-generation photographers used symbols to communicate ideas that speak to both the specifics of Cuban life and to the broader issues of the human condition.
Siting the Self
The third-generation artists emerging in Cuba today have little or no memory of their country before Fidel Castro. Perhaps as a result, their work no longer reflects the need, visible in the previous generations’ art, to emphasize a collective Cuban identity. Instead, they assert their individual visions in a way that often borders on political critique. The works of two artists in particular, Abigail González and Ernesto Leal, suggest ideas of the personal and private in real and conceptual space. They examine the role of photography as evidence and artifact as well as raise issues of surveillance and the invasion of privacy.
Abigail González engages the viewer with strikingly intimate and seemingly candid images in his series Ojos desnudos (Blind Eyes). An untitled work from the series provides a glimpse into a private moment as two female figures stand in a cramped corner of a kitchen. They are caught preparing a meal while only half dressed. González’s use of exaggerated perspective, apparently random cropping, and grainy print quality contributes to a sense of space being invaded; a public intrusion on a singularly private moment. In reality, these scenes are carefully directed by the artist.
Ernesto Leal’s series of photographs Aquí tampoco (Not Here Either) more blatantly addresses the issues of private space and photography as evidence by bringing the viewer into hidden places: under beds, behind furniture, and in unidentifiable niches in the artist’s own home. The work’s title implies that a search is being conducted. The object of the search has yet to be found. Who is looking? What are they, or we, looking for? The pictorial strategies of both artists trigger in the viewer a sense of violation, of invasion. Each embeds in his work a social and political comment as well as a personal assertion of identity.
The act of making art in Cuba is inherently political. Depending on the situation, political content in work by Cuban photographers since the Revolution has been hidden or revealed, restricted or asserted, emphasized or ignored. Yet there are many other elements and issues besides politics embedded in these photographs. Political content is bound up with aesthetics, identity, personal statements, and social and philosophical convictions in an increasingly international art dialogue.