Cuba, the Violet Isle—a name known to few for the rich color of its fertile soil, is an island that has captivated the imagination of the world through a tumultuous history that has played a significant role in the political machinations of the twentieth century. It is a land has emerged in the twenty-first century as a complex nation coming to terms with a fate that is yet unforeseen. As we reflect upon the country’s future, we may look to its recent past, to its people and its landscape.
Over the course of 15 years, photographers Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb made 11 trips to the Violet Isle, each of them documenting different corners of the country. While Alex Webb focused on the country’s street life, Rebecca Norris Webb turned her attention to the displays of animal life, exploring tiny zoos, pigeon societies, and personal menageries. Together, they published Violet Isle in 2009 with Radius Books and while the book has since sold out and gone out of print, they continue to share the work in exhibitions around the world.
Currently, Violet Isle is on view at HistoryMiami Museum through January 15, 2017, as part of the annual Miami Street Photography Photo Festival. The photographs reveal a side of Cuba that is not traditionally shown, one devoid of the classic cars and crumbling buildings. Instead we find ourselves walking barefoot through the countryside, taking in the exquisite beauty of the flora and fauna that are a part of everyday life.
Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb set the stage for their superb images of a deeply felt world in the book’s introduction, writing: “Night begins to fall, and you can hear the sound of laughter from the lawns of the Hotel Nacional up above. Girls in tight dresses, smooth-hipped boys are pushing through little doors into barely lit clubs along La Rampa. There’s a sound of strumming guitars coming across the near-darkness towards you, and the night offers a delicious sense of promise without responsibility: nothing seems to change here, which means anything (illicit, below the radar) seems to go. You start to wonder what is keeping this island afloat, in the midst of its arrested development. You remember the rooster clucking its way across the little apartment in Havana (dinner or a sacred talisman of sorts?) whom some wag has dubbed ‘Reagan.’ An arm slips around your waist, and you don’t know whether it represents a request, a promise, or, most likely, both.”
These ambiguities are ever present in the work, made all the more mesmerizing by a soft light that envelops us in the warm, welcoming embrace of tropical life. The photographs take a distinct perspective, offering an immediacy of the experience, creating the sensations of being there rather than simply documenting the environment. They evoke the classic dictum of writing, “Show, don’t tell,” allowing us to perceive intense sensations of sound, smell, and touch using our eyes and imagination alone.
The Cuba of Violet Isle is heavily perfumed with magic and mystery, where art by Crave faves OSGEMEOS decorates an otherwise nondescript strip of white buildings; where painting the exteriors of buildings with scenes of an island paradise occurs alongside the comings and goings of street dogs, tropical birds, and monkeys. It offers up surreal scenes like a helicopter hovering over a never-ending field of yellow flowers, where government agents frisk random men for reasons we know not.
The photographs of Violet isle capture the sumptuous colors of this sultry country in surprising spots like the regal red head of a rooster cast against a perfect blue sky or a scene where the sun sets, creating a pulsating sensation of rich vermillion skies against a wall painted pistachio green. It is an alluring world of sensations that will sweep you away, doing what photography does best: capturing the moment that we feel but never quite see. By crystallizing these experiences into perfect composition of color, shape, and form, Violet Isle gives us a fresh take on a much-photographed land, offering us a new way of perceiving the beauty that is Cuba.