Since the U.S. loosened American travel restrictions to Cuba, boutique hotels, Wi-Fi hot spots, and restaurants have popped up in Havana. Tourists flock to the country in hopes of getting there before the arrival of McDonald’s or KFC. But the Americanization of Cuba is not a concern for North Carolinian photographer Elizabeth Matheson.
“The Cubans have such a proud sense of their own identity that they are going to remain Cuban no matter what,” Matheson says.
From October 1 through November 5, her photography collection, Cuba Now, will be on exhibit at the Craven Allen Gallery, portraying the boldness and complexity of Cuba.
Her photos capture the very things that most tourists miss. While the average visitor would eye the books or furniture in the Hemingway House, Matheson snapped photos in the bathroom. An especially transfixing photo of toilet paper rolls, a bowl of change, a deep blue wall, and a red table hangs in the gallery. Not only do the colors almost perfectly mimic the Cuban flag, the photo demonstrates that even the most popular tourist destinations maintain local customs, like a fee for toilet paper.
From rooftops and purple scooters to boys at play and beautiful beaches, the works in Cuba Now depict a variety of subjects. They capture the contrast Matheson saw between images of melancholy and enchantment, acting as windows into a world that is irrepressibly Cuban.
“People have hard lives, but there is such resilience, radiant resilience,” Matheson says.
Cuba persevered in the aftermath of the Cold War and the U.S. embargo. This resiliency will not falter simply because a few more tourists will be walking along the streets of Havana.
Matheson intends for her photos to be bold and honest portrayals of a culture that espouses the qualities of boldness and honesty.
“Many of these pieces, they have these really interesting moments in time,” gallery owner John Bloedorn says. “If she waited another five minutes, or one minute, who knows? Everything about the composition would change.”
Matheson’s photos force viewers to pay attention to the details of Cuban life, from the parrot in the corner of El Campesino’s window to the barely visible ensemble of cats on a rooftop at dawn.
The Cuba Matheson portrays in her photos isn’t likely to be subsumed by America’s cheap-eats culture any time soon. Although globalization has leaked into nearly every country on Earth, Matheson knows that Cuba is just a little too resilient to worry that American fast-food joints will appear on every corner.