Where artists operate in the shadow of government, one might expect to find image after predictable image of propaganda. In fact, Cuban photography has come a long way from Korda’s iconic portrait of Che Guevara, familiar from countless T-shirts and posters, which is synonymous with the revolution. Cuban artists of successive generations have carved out a space for expression and critique within the parameters of a collective society, and are a growing presence on the international art radar.
“Shifting Tides: Cuban Photography After the Revolution” opens with Osvaldo Salas’s Fidel, puffing on a cigar, followed by a series of populist portraits and vignettes that diffuse that heroic aura onto the Cuban everyman. Wizened cane cutters pose solemnly with hat in hand or perform spirited dances with their wives, compensating momentarily for a life of sacrifice. These images may be morale boosters, but they also offer a rare glimpse of Cuba as seen by Cubans, not the tourist’s romanticized shots of retro cars and colorfully attired prostitutes.
The next generation, working in the 1980s, begins to fuse collective identity with an enigmatic, often personal symbolism. Rogelio López Marín’s multiple-negative series merges a swimming pool edge with wistful ocean vistas and scenes of decay, while Marta María Pérez Bravo’s pregnant self-portraits with knives and belts put a darker spin on the pervasive sense of isolation and constraint.
Social criticism emerges with greater force and complexity in the latest generation of Cuban artists, many of whom have no memory of pre-Castro life. Carlos Garaicoa’s blueprints give fantastical form to the charged history of public spaces. Abigail González’s invasive shots of partially clothed women performing domestic tasks address the lack of privacy in a collective society. Their work reminds us that while art in Cuba is inherently political, it is not entirely delimited by politics.