Socialist Surrealism

While Cuban photography of the 1960s and '70s was characterized by epic imagery and heroic representation and sentiment, "The New Generation: Two Decades of Contemporary Cuban Photog-raphy from the Island" clearly shows that today, 35 years after the Cuban Revolution, a different artistic sensibility is expressing itself. A new generation of Cuban artists has spent over a decade debunking imported Soviet Socialist Realism and the dogmatism that went with it. In the process, they seem to have returned to individual concerns -- less with the history of the whole people and more with the story of what is within each one.

FotoFest is presenting "The New Generation" in conjunction with Photography Houston/Spring '94 at the Menil Collection's Richmond Hall. Curated by FotoFest artistic director Wendy Watriss and president Fred Baldwin in cooperation with Cuban artists and the Fototeca in Havana, the exhibition of works by 15 photographers spans two decades and is one of the first major presentations of contemporary Cuban photography in the United States. The importance of this kind of collaboration is underscored by the request of the artists, the Advancement of the Visual Arts in Havana, and the directors of the Fototeca to take this show back to Havana for presentation at the internationally known Havana Biennale arts festival in May.

The exhibition includes personal, analytical and experimental work that represents a departure from the earlier Cuban documentary tradition. As Watriss observes, "The work of the new generation is more internalized and personal. Ambiguity has replaced clarity. Younger photographers are struggling not only with an extreme scarcity of all photographic materials, but with a 25-year tradition that perceives photography more as mass communication than art."

The exhibition is strange enough at a time when travel to and from Cuba is still severely restricted and surveilled. In the difficult "siege mentality" brought on by the collapse of the Eastern European Communist bloc and worsened by the dissolution of the USSR, Cuban artists have been finding strategies to deal with severe shortages of gasoline, food, medicine and other supplies. The FotoFest presentation seeks to provide Cuban photographers with an alternative arena in which isolation can be broken down and where, through exchange and comparison, a collective dynamic might emerge. For the most part, younger Cuban photographers turn away from overtly political work in favor of an inquiry into memory, relationships and identity that plays off mythologies. As the Cuban critic and artist Antonio Eligio has remarked, "With interested eyes you can find political content in their work, but it's not on the surface."

In many of the photographs at Richmond Hall it is difficult to find elements that identify the artists as Cuban. But would we know Cubania -- Cubanism -- if we saw it? We may recognize familiar elements in the new Cuban photography and see them as "ours" -- the visual ironies of public life and street photography, or perhaps critical readings of how architectural forms and urban spatial configurations reflect social contradictions. But the unfamiliar elements, those which form the truly Cuban character, are harder for us to perceive.

In Cuba, the predominantly black-and-white photography that relies on strong images drawn from an almost surreal reality may not be a matter of aesthetic preference, but of practical necessity. Good photographic papers are difficult to find, some films and lab processes are unavailable, and the cost of working with color

s exorbitant. Many images deal with nostalgia -- not necessarily for better times, but for times at least believed to have been more romantic and mysterious.

Dozens of images show us a younger generation caught in limbo, experiencing little joy and even fewer hopes. Manuel Pina and Jose Ney, for example, treat Havana as a decaying, even ghostly landscape whose disturbing details counter its official image as a tourist haven. But these, too, feed our expectations of an isolated, poor, fiercely nationalistic society that has been vilified almost daily by the U.S. government.

On the other hand, more than half the work in "The New Generation" is concerned with the structure of myths -- colonial, contemporary and Afro-Cuban. Photographers such as Juan Carlos Alom and Marta Maria Perez try to discover their own island, its history, themselves and their individual biographies, then link the two by reworking indigenous or vernacular themes. The subject of these photographers is spirits -- spirits of ancestors, spirits of the dead, spirits of nature, spirits of good and evil and, implicitly, spirits of the Cuban Revolution. Perez's exploration of Santeria myths and beliefs -- a religious synthesis of African deities, Catholic saints and magic -- involved exhibiting herself in some of the first nude photos ever shown in Cuba. Her cropped images make earth-body-history references and show a passionate identification with the Cuban land.

The Cubania of this new photography emphasizes national identity and the quality of everyday life, re-examining nature in light of personal memories and superstitions. At the core of this fusion is the mestizaje, the mixed culture that has burst through the cracks of dictatorship and is so much a part of Cuba's nationalization. If anything, these powerful images of transformation show us that magical-mythical thought is a familiar, daily experience in Cuba.

A few photographers, however, represent a given social situation within a world of contradictions. Katie Garcia Fayat, addressing the private ironies of the marriage ritual, photographs a young woman on her wedding day. Her lavish dress, really more like a frilly Barbie-doll costume, is garishly out of place in her poor village. Such an outlandish display of past customs isn't realistic for her family, which probably spent every last penny it had on the ceremony.

Alternately, Eduardo Munoz's series uses the zoo and slaughterhouse as critical metaphors for the nature of life and society and a reflection on the horrific realities of Cuban life. The most shocking works in the exhibition -- shocking because they are unflinching -- are his images of horses about to be or already slaughtered as food for a few monkeys and a wolf in the zoo. In One Day Yes, One Day No, Munoz creates a visual narrative by moving quickly from a photograph of a horse with its head covered by a burlap sack to a closely cropped shot of a single terrified eye. At the beginning and end of the series are images of severed heads: Monday is suspended by its ear, and Friday, mouth slightly ajar, rests on top of a brick wall, blood dripping down the sides. According to Munoz, the heads are thrown in the trash rather than used for food. Munoz's series is not only an effective parable for suffering, sacrifice and violence, it is also commentary on the tenuous balance of life in Cuba -- not to mention a total derangement of the basic food chain.

"The New Generation" is an assemblage of photographs that bears witness, frame by frame, to a passionate state of affairs. By raising fundamental questions, it also opens a door that may be very difficult to close.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Susie Kalil