Cuban Photography Exposed

By Meyers, Laura | Art Business News, October 2001 | Go to article overview

Cuban Photography Exposed

Meyers, Laura, Art Business News

Journeying to Cuba, photographers, curators and art dealers are bringing revolutionary images back to America's heartland

A new face of Cuba is capturing America's heart. We see it on television: Wim Wenders' documentary film, Buena Vista Social Club, continues to air on public television. We hear it on the radio: the Ry Cooder-produced music album of the same title has attained worldwide success, and the sound of Cuban-style jazz is everywhere. We even toast it: the mojito, Cuba's famous mint-infused cocktail, has become the hot drink throughout the nation.

Indeed, after four decades of socialism, U.S. trade embargos and resulting isolation from this country, Cuba is once again at the forefront of U.S. popular culture. The island nation's architecture, dating from its 16th-and 17th-century Spanish colonial heritage, and its pristine white-and-black sand beaches now draw millions of tourists each year--a growing number of them American.

"Cuba is definitely hot" said Jack Kenny, a photographer from Plymouth, Mich., who has traveled to Cuba some 25 times since 1996, when Fidel Castro decided to rebuild his nation's finances on tourist dollars. "There's a growing awareness of Cuba. It started with the Pope [visiting Cuba in 1998], then CNN opened an office. People are realizing it's an interesting place, a Caribbean island with 4,000 miles of beaches, and it's close to the United States."

This burgeoning interest in Cuba has also generated a growing interest in the island's art--particularly its post-Revolutionary photographic works--from both art dealers and collectors. This interest got a jump-start in the 1990s when art dealers successfully sued the U.S. Treasury Department "for the right to import art" from Cuba--an action allowing art dealers to legally become licensed and bring Cuban art into the U.S. Last November, almost 4,000 American tourists attended the 7th Havana Bienal, among 15,000 international visitors, according to the art exposition's director, Nelson Herrera Ysla. And exhibits of Cuban photography--from iconic portraits of revolutionary leaders like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara to street scenes, portrayals of everyday Cuban citizens and even cutting-edge conceptual photographs with a Cuban twist--have been on view throughout the U.S.

And according to art dealer Milly Moorhead, "The interest here isn't about politics--it's about art."

A Growing Audience

This past spring, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) mounted "Shifting Tides: Cuban Photography after the Revolution," an exhibit from several discrete artistic "generations" of Cuban photographers. Currently on view at the Grey Art Gallery in New York (through Oct. 27) and slated to open in November at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, "Shifting Tides" features images that not only trace the development of this fine art form in Cuba since 1959, but also images that track the political and social changes in Cuba during the same period.

The museum exhibit in L.A. prompted several Southern California commercial galleries to showcase related works--hence giving more exposure to contemporary Cuban photography. Couturier Gallery exhibited "Three Cuban Photographers: Jose Figueroa, Jose Manuel Fors and Carlos Gariacoa." Gallery owner Darrel Couturier has visited Cuba numerous times in recent years (he has even organized trips for groups of art dealers and collectors) and has organized many exhibits of Cuban photography and painting. One such exhibit, featuring 80 works by Figueroa and Alberto Diaz Gutierrez (Korda), has traveled to Roy Boyd Gallery in Chicago, Grimaldis Gallery in Baltimore and Govinda Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Also in conjunction with the LACMA show, Iturralde Gallery presented the work of two artists included in "Shifting Tides." The gallery, which specializes in Latin American art and has organized several Cuban art exhibits in the past decade, presented photographs by Marta Maria Perez Bravo and a video by Juan Carlos, Alom, one of Cuba's most important contemporary photographers. …

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