Annenberg Space for Photography
Images Not Walls: Cuba Is
(September 9, 2017—March 4, 2018)
Cuba Is, the Annenberg’s contribution to Pacific Standard Time, presents an unblinking, eloquent, prescient exhibition of more than 120 images, as well as important films, that defy characterization. Together they expand exponentially the lens through which we see this island culture barely 90 miles from our southern shores. The exhibition, broken into sections featuring open and hidden elements of life in Cuba, captures a constantly adapting, exuberant soul.
This soulfulness is particularly exemplified by the gorgeous, bare immediacy of images by Michael Christopher Brown of “Los Frikis,” a defiant youth culture, hung next to scenes of the youthful elite, the sons and daughters of the one percent. Like their counterparts everywhere, these subjects openly present their experiments with drugs, music and adventurous lifestyles. Their portrayals run counter to the beautifully costumed and posed dancers in Leysis Quesada Vera’s images, which are often presented against a background of forced neglect. While at opposite ends of Cuba’s economic spectrum, all the people depicted gravitate toward the camera, as if hoping for recognition of their chosen place in the world.
This practice contrasts with a film about “El Paquete,” a revolutionary black-market packaging of information and entertainment content that quietly circumvents the Cuban regime’s stringent media restrictions. Films, television, apps and other communications are downloaded to a secret server managed by a wizardly, defiant 26 year-old entrepreneur, and delivered via thumb drive across the island on a daily basis for a few dollars per delivery. Usually, the content is received much more quickly after initial broadcast than can be accessed here in the States.
At one end of Cuba Is, a selection of images depicts the ingenuity of these Cuban residents, who use normally discarded materials to make new objects: gas lamps fashioned from cans and bottles; a lighter made from a rubber shoe, lead pencil and a stripped extension cord; and abstract ashtrays created from molten plastic. These objects appear almost like conceptual art in the context of the show, a kind of Dada existence that has become a normal part of life. At the other end of the show are conceptual photographs—an Adidas logo emblazoned on a Gloc 9 mm—one might expect to see in major art centers like Los Angeles or New York.
Tenacity to survive against high odds appears to be typical of these islanders, as demonstrated during the 1990s, when the country was abandoned by the disintegrating Soviet Union. Tria Giovan photographed the scarcity and isolation as the communities pulled together to make it through this difficult time. Another chronicler here is Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt, who was invited to Cuba to photograph Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in 1964 and returned to the island in 2015 to focus on contemporary life. Erwitt is featured in a film about the four photographers commissioned by the Annenberg for this exhibition.