Architecture and the City, Part 2: Cuban Photography and the Havana Cityscape

Photographers turn a questioning lens on historic façades, monuments, and the Malecón, Grethel Morell Otero writes in this article for Cuban Art News.

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Manuel Piña, from the series Water Wastelands, 1992-1994

Courtesy The Farber Collection

Beyond the walls of the old city, other districts of Havana also appear in a wide range of images that are guided by a shared intention and visual language. Façades of modernist buildings, intact or ruined, façades of “revolutionary” (re)constructions, suggestive interiors (such as the Interior of Havana series by Juan Carlos Borjas, 2006-2007), and bits of glory summarized in solemn stones (as in certain pieces found in the Vedado district) have sprouted like grass for more than ten years in the visual landscape of the island, thanks to the magic of Photoshop or the photo laboratory. Nor can we overlook the vision of foreigners, such as the exquisite images of Andrew Moore in Inside Havana (2002), which incredibly finds little echo in contemporary photographic production.

The area of the modern city that emerges most strongly and frequently in contemporary visual art is the Malecón, the most significant seaside promenade found in the Cuban capital. Havana’s Malecón is both character and object, plot and material for the most versatile expression of the image, from Manuel Piña’s stark imagery to the exuberant public art exhibition Detrás del muro (Behind the Wall), presented at the 2012 Havana Biennial. Other works that draw on the Malecón include Homage (1993) by José Alberto Figueroa and Humberto Mayol´s Deborah Soriano and her husband Franco, on the Malecón watching the sea (1995), about the Jewish community in Cuba.

In its various meanings—social, urban, cultural, political—the Malecón became the theme of one of the most forceful series in the creative landscape of the island. The early 1990s photographic series Aguas Baldías (Water Wastelands) by Manuel Piña is a substantial indictment of the personification of this urban “belt.” The subject is a young man facing a dark and impassive sea during the most difficult years of the so-called “Special Period” following the collapse of the Soviet Union. From another conceptual perspective, the Malecón functions as an instrument of expression in the work of Alfredo Sarabia, which establishes an equitable relationship between an external element, a character, and the wall (a bicycle, a child, and the promenade) in an image bordering on the fictional.

Monuments

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Liudmila and Nelson, from the series Absolut Revolution

Courtesy Noordelicht

The memorial sculpture is another motif in photo documentaries of the urban landscape. These city landmarks are presented as a way of reflecting on questions that are not strictly architectural. These memorials have been exploited for their symbolism, engendering cultural or social debates. Their appearance has been accented by the manipulation of the photographic works—collages, inversions, and other technological handling—or by encoding the content in suggestive images or ambiguous, nontraditional compositions.

The depiction of some important monuments—such as the center of the Plaza de la Revolución in the series Absolut Revolution (2002), by Nelson and Liudmila, or the Monument to the Maine in the series Destituciones (1999), by Eddy Alberto Garaicoa—is the result in many cases of the alteration and re-evaluation of the monuments’ function and historical significance. In such works as Las Meninas y el Águila (The Meninas and the Eagle) or La Pietá y el Águila (The Pietá and the Eagle), Eddy Garaicoa uses montage to establish a play of archetypes with allusions and parallels between a paragraph of Cuban history and the history of Western art.

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Liudmila and Nelson, from the series Absolut Revolution

Courtesy Noordelicht

But again it’s in Manuel Piña´s work where the presence and meaning of monuments and urbanism are at their most paradigmatic. In photographic milestones like the series De construcciones y Utopías (1996–2002) and Sobre Monumentos (1995–2000), Piña´s primary focus is the relationship between the city and its inhabitants, and between spaces and their paradoxical absences.

In the first series, the main objects are austere buildings on the outskirts of Havana. They are standardized architectural works, built by a popular construction movement of the 1970s known as the microbrigades. In Piña’s images, they are portrayed in the full monotony of their structures—a strategy through which he questions the material, social, and aesthetic validity of these state-sponsored projects, which by the 1990s were already deteriorating.

The city for Piña is a pretext. His areas of convergence (the Malecón and the plantings along the great avenues, like the famous Avenue of the Presidents or the Paseo de Carlos III) are split into a system of multiple meanings that place the message amid different levels of discursive complexity. His series Sobre Monumentos (On Monuments) offers representations that refer more to what is not in the picture than to the significance of the sculpture itself and its context. It´s the street (G Street, formerly known as Avenue of the Presidents) and its memorials (such as the mutilated statue of president José Miguel Gómez or the uninhabited column of Queen Elizabeth II) that are converted into a metaphor for a social reality. These works highlight bare areas, split spaces, empty pedestals, and imply isolation, deprivation, imposed ignorance, or disdain of fragments of national history.

Grethel Morell Otero (Camagüey, Cuba 1977) is a historian of Cuban photography, curator, and art critic. She has written extensively on the body, the nude, and eroticism in contemporary Cuban photography; on the woman in 19th-century Cuban photography; and on the photodocumentary trends of the 1970s. Founder of Photography-Cuba, co-curator of the exhibition The Lost Gaze, Cuba 1970-1984. Member of UNEAC and the Internacional Association of Art Critics (AICA).

For the original report go to http://www.cubanartnews.org/news/architecture-and-the-city-part-2-cuban-photography-and-the-havana-cityscape/2997

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