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Tropical Paradox

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Shifting Tides: Cuban Photography After the Revolution

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through March 9

Lo que tenemos es escasez ran the graffito I saw a year ago in Cuba: "What we have is lack." Yet as any Yankee who's thrilled to the sound of the Buena Vistans or savored a contraband puro knows, whatever necessities Cubans may want for, the richness and vitality of their culture must curb the misery, at least to some extent. Suffering beneath a dream that has yet to come true and a regime that will not admit it, they are the world's most ecstatic sad people.

This is confirmed by an extraordinary exhibit of photographs now on display at the Museum of Contemporary Photography. In part that's the result of creative, wide-ranging treatments of often disturbing themes by the 16 photographers represented. But that exuberance is equally present in individual works.

Rigoberto Romero, beginning with his tendentious 1975 series "With the Sweat of a Millionaire," deploys an aesthetic that might be termed "sunny proletarianism" in portraits of workers at rest--of a woman beaming over her humble but substantial meal, of two field laborers grinning next to a stalk of sugarcane they've split open and written their names on (incidentally reminding us that literacy for all was one of the revolution's more successful bequests). "Marucha" (Maria Eugenia Haya--one of several artists best known by a nickname) in her 1979 sequence "In the Lyceum" shows older Cuban couples frozen forever at their most frenzied, mamboing to music whose soaring brass and insinuating rhythms one can all but hear. The contrasts Marucha draws between silence and sound, stasis and motion, appear too in the photos' setting: a grand beaux arts ballroom whose high ceilings, glassed-in portals, and marble walls serve as a glacial European counterpoint to the imagined heat of the band and the dancers.

While images like Romero's do conform to our expectations of work from the last and still heroic socialist experiment, cliches are refreshingly absent. Castro appears only twice in three floors of work. An extreme close-up by "Korda" (Alberto Diaz Gutierrez, whose indelible images of Fidel and Che and the masses who cheered their triumphal entry into Havana in 1959 are ubiquitous today on postcards) focuses on the wiry, shiny texture of el comandante's beard. The second instance takes the form of a painting in a tavern, the backdrop for more of Marucha's revelers. In the painting Castro gazes out from a cliff in his army fatigues, half guerrilla, half Olympian god; but the photo subtly mocks this deification, comically rhyming his stiff, at-attention rifle with a guitar's neck. The only cigar in the show is the one Castro holds in the Korda shot; the only antique car is drolly juxtaposed with a plastic kiddie car in a street scene by Jose A. Figueroa.

All of Figueroa's work, in fact, displays a mischievous wit--in one sequence of three shots he records the bemused sideways glance of a peasant on a donkey at a gigantic grader. Another, a deftly understated satire on the commodification of heroism, pairs a close-up of dozens of mass-produced figurines of Jose Mart' (Cuba's national poet, martyred in the fight for independence from Spain) with a shot of multiple Che Guevara photos draped across a bed in a lamp-lit room.

In contrast to Figueroa's pranksterism is the astonishing "It's Only Water in the Tear of a Stranger" (1986), a set of nine seamless color collages by "Gory" (Rogelio Lopez Marin) showing swimming pools giving onto gorgeous symbolic vistas, an enigmatic tour de force that somehow evokes the Cuban sense of exile. Series by other photographers are perhaps more expressive of personal sensibilities than of specific Cuban realities. Selections from Marta Maria Perez Bravo's great 1986 series "To Conceive," for instance, are cropped nudes of an extravagantly pregnant woman; in the most sensational, Neither Kill, nor Watch Animals Being Killed, she brandishes what appears to be a bloodied butcher knife above her swollen belly. Quieter but no less compelling are Jose Manuel Fors's sepia-toned assemblages of found images and photos he shot. The best of these, The Great Flower (1999), is a monumental wheel spiraling hundreds of passport-size images ranging from details of old master paintings to pinup bombshells, from fossilized seashells to feathers and caterpillars. Perfectly positioned opposite the gallery's entrance, this absorbing piece is alone worth the trip.

Fors, who considers himself more a painter than a photographer, said in a recent panel discussion that the most salient characteristics of his work--usually large-scale constructions made up of smaller pieces in gradations of brown--are due mostly to the lack of suitable materials in Cuba: the paper he could get had expired, so it changed color, and it was only available in small sizes. (I met a literature professor in Mantanzas, the "Athens of Cuba," who had to suspend work on his magnum opus because he ran out of typewriter paper.)

Making the most of what they've got also influences brilliant improvisations by two conceptually inclined artists, Manuel Pina and Carlos Garaicoa. Pina's simple, haunting window on the sea over the sill of Havana's famous Malecon boulevard is one of the show's masterworks, but he makes his boldest statement in Manipulations, Truths, and Other Illusions (1995) using found objects: small glass-plate negatives from a forgotten 19th-century photographer. Inspired by these family portraits and landscapes, he's juxtaposed them with his own contemporary views of Havana, which have provocative sexual and racial dimensions: for instance, a shot of a black woman in a culture that still has a racial hierarchy. Then he transforms these images into billboards with texts that propagandize not on behalf of the glorious revolution, as usual, but of tourism: the black woman becomes a symbol of the country's "rainbow coalition." Since the Russians pulled out and the pleasure seekers started rolling in, tossing around U.S. dollars, adjustments have been required in ideology as in everything else.

Garaicoa refers to Russia in a more direct way, recalling the productions of futurists like Vladimir Tatlin, who in the hopeful early days of the Soviet era drafted grandiose plans for utopian cities and dream palaces for the masses. Working with current Cuban realities, Garaicoa pairs straightforward snapshots of the ruins of Havana's once spectacular architecture with fanciful blueprints for its rehabilitation. In Regarding Those Untiring Atlases Who From Day to Day Support Our Present (1999), he pairs a photo of a crumbling street-corner building held up by ramshackle wooden scaffolding with a rendering of the titanic gods sitting in a row to support the same balconied facade. In The Initial Planting of Hallucinogenic Mushrooms in Havana (1997) he turns the rebar-sprouting pillars of a blasted building site into an Alice in Wonderland field of mind-expanding toadstools. Subtitled "Another Necessary Project," this wildly imaginative, meticulously drafted pairing suggests that such a whacked-out proposal might be no more crazy than some now being effected.

The museum's presentation is impeccable, markedly better than any of the recent Art Institute blockbusters. Complete with an exhaustive time line, insightful chronological and thematic rubrics, and polished written materials (in both English and Spanish), the show is augmented by educational events. On March 5 at 6 PM there will be a screening of Mikhail Kalatozov's I Am Cuba, a brilliantly shot and edited 1964 Cuban-Soviet coproduction. Admission to the show and this event is free--a paradoxical price for this embarrassment of Cuban riches.

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