When I first started writing for The Independent in the late ’80s, multicultural in the Triangle pretty much meant you could see art by African Americans in February. We’ve come a ways since then: We now regularly see art by and about people from all over the world, and in the process have begun to see our culture as one among many, rather than the only one of importance–whether we thought that one was white or black or brown. And as the Spanish-speaking population in the area has burgeoned, we have seen a notable increase in the range of choices relating to Hispanic cultures that are available to us. This is occurring everywhere–think about popular music and dance, especially. But who would have guessed that Cuba would suddenly rocket into our cultural consciousness, as it has recently in movies, books and art exhibitions, including the one currently on view at the Center for Documentary Studies?
I was in the first grade during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion (when U.S.-backed Cuban exiles attempted to overthrow the fledgling Castro government) and, of course, didn’t understand what was happening. But all the adults were worried, mad or scared, and the word “Cuba” sounded in the air with an angry thump. We had regular classroom drills where we went to the interior walls and huddled down, arms wrapped around our knees, heads tucked, in case the bombs started falling on our school. The following year’s Cuban missile crisis was no more comprehensible and even more terrifying. My friends’ families were storing canned food and making bomb shelters in their basements; my father stormed around, ranting about Khrushchev. And, mysteriously, both these events seemed to be linked to the price of sugar. Consequently, no matter how much I’ve learned since, I’ve always experienced a rush of fear and confusion when thinking of Cuba.
Cuba has been closed to us for so long by our own government’s embargoes, by the Cold War and lingering fears of a socialist state right off our coastline, that most people probably have a better idea what the surface of the moon looks like than how life looks in Cuba. But suddenly that is changing. I first noticed the influx of images from Cuba about a year ago when an article about New Year’s Eve in Havana appeared in one of the upscale cooking magazines. Shortly thereafter I came across a new mystery story in which an American detective unravels a problem in Cuba–and this was no Cold War propaganda, either, although its descriptions were hardly flattering to the struggling country. Then came the documentary movie, The Buena Vista Social Club, with its apolitical stance and the gentle eye for the ravaged beauties and beauteous vitality of Cuba and its people. That film is surely the best ambassador to our country the Cubans have ever had.
And now comes Ernesto Bazan, with his black-and-white photographs made in Cuba that are currently on view at the Center for Documentary Studies in Durham. The exhibition’s title, El Periodo Especial in Cuba, refers to the period of economic austerity into which Cuba was thrust when the Soviet Union broke apart and its economic aid was withdrawn from Cuba, and Cuba’s guaranteed trading partners in the Soviet bloc were guaranteed no longer. Bazan looks at this Cuba as both an outsider and an insider: He was born in Palermo, Sicily, in 1959 (the year of the Cuban Revolution that deposed the American-backed dictator Batista, and brought Fidel Castro to power), but he now lives in Cuba. From his first visit there in 1992, he was fascinated, and in 1997 he moved to Havana and married.
If you have seen The Buena Vista Social Club, you’ll recognize many of the images in El Periodo Especial: the crumbling buildings, the gritty streets, the political posters and graffiti, the gregarious people apparently undiminished by the evident poverty. Some of Bazan’s images seem utterly exotic–literally outlandish–to the American eye, but many others remind me of photographs taken in the little south Arkansas delta towns where my mother grew up during the Depression. Others could have been made in the country right around here, just a few years ago when there was still some country left.
Dramatic summer clouds fill the sky in a picture that, except for the palm trees in the background, might have been made in North Carolina. The proud farmer in his straw hat stands before an unpainted barn, smiling behind a fine hand of cured tobacco leaves he holds toward the camera. Behind him stretches this year’s crop, still in the field. This man just does not look like an enemy of my country.
In another image, a farmer works on a slaughtered pig hanging from a low tree limb while a young boy with a hula hoop looks on. Again, this could have been made in the rural parts of the Triangle up until quite recently. And the happy photograph of a boy jumping to his smiling mother in the swimming hole could have been in any country, at any time.
But many of these photographs are very clearly made in Cuba, and could have been made nowhere else. While South Florida has a huge population with American citizenship that nonetheless thinks of itself as Cuban, I doubt you would see a poster of Fidel propped on a Santeria altar, where candles burn for him, if you visited there. In Miami’s Little Havana, you might see a wall painted with the words “Cuba vive” but it would mean something different from Bazan’s image, made in Cuba itself. And in the United States you’d certainly never see a cigar worker with a hibiscus flower behind her ear, an enormous cigar in her mouth, sitting under a graffito proclaiming “Viva el 1ro de Mayo.”
Four of the most striking pictures in the show are hung together. A large image shows an illegal cockfight, the shadows inky in the bright sunlight. A group of men watch expressionless, leaning on a fence of saplings and wire. In the fight pit the owners hold their birds out; the fight is imminent, the roosters ready to attack with their sharp beaks and spurs.
A dark-skinned woman holds her newly manicured hands up for the camera. The pale artificial nails gleam like talons. Behind them her pleased face beams. Just beyond her we can see a sliver of a boy’s face, suspicious, peeved.
A crowd of Catholic devotees makes offerings to the altar of St. Lazarus. In the foreground a man kneels. We see only his head, his face a little mad-looking, eyes rolled upward, and his arms extended overhead, holding a tray of flaming candles. In another image of a religious scene, what appears to be a two-headed chicken is held to the forehead of a person as part of a Santeria ritual.
Bazan’s photographs sketch some of the paradoxes of Cuba. It’s a communist state where religion thrives, both in straight Catholicism and Santeria, that tangled blend of Yoruba religious practice and Catholic imagery. It is a poor country where people wait in lines for coffee and that makes one of the world’s most sought-after luxuries: the Cuban cigar. Perhaps most importantly, as Bazan’s images of his own wife and family show, it is a country where ordinary people love and live with all the grace they can muster–just like we do.