One hundred images in Cuba

Por: José Antonio Michelena

Photographic anthology in Fine Arts

The image without limits. Anthological exhibition of Cuban photography, was the title of the exceptional exhibition exhibited by the National Museum of Fine Arts (MNBA); it offered a tour, from the origins to the present day, of photographic art on the island.
According to its curator, Rafael Acosta de Arriba, The image without limits… it aims to coincide, simultaneously, with two phenomena: photography and history, by deploying a set of images of authors representative of the evolution of photography in Cuba.
“We do not intend to weave a history of Cuba from the images, but to mark milestones, trends, ruptures and continuities in the evolution of insular photography, and in that purpose the most representative artists are essential,” Says Acosta in the catalogue.
It is precisely the texts of the catalogue that allow us to read the avatars around this genre of visual arts on Cuban soil. Thus we can know that photography arrived on the island very early, in 1840 (third country in the world) and flourished rapidly since the nineteenth century. But we also learned of some events that have had a negative impact on collecting and displaying photographic images in Fine Arts.
In detailed article, Niurka D. Fanego, head of the Collections and Curatorship department of MNBA, makes a historical synthesis of the photographic collection in the institution referred to, born in 1913. Since then, and for eight decades, the National Museum has been treasured by that image file that began to be forged in 1910.
However, when the Fototeca de Cuba (FC) was created in 1986, the MNBA “had to cede almost all of its photographic funds, or at least a highly sensitive part of the best in collection”, Fanego notes, noting that the FC “did not observe the most appropriate policies for safeguarding photographic heritage”. As a result, the specialist argues, “a process was co-established that to this day lays down the institution’s projection with that language.”
Among other effects, this unhappy assignment made the historical presence of photography unworkable in the MNBA. That is why Fanego abounds, “at present, some authors appear in Cuban rooms, but in a very punctual way, without us being able to reflect our perspective on the height of photographic creation in the course of cuban visual arts itself”.
In turn, Jorge Antonio Fernández Torres, current director of the MNBA, alluding to these events, wrote: “The outcomes, conditioned by the avatars of Cuban cultural policy of every moment, have created an indisputable void in our collections with the visible fracture that it means to narrate the history of art of any country with the absence of photography”.
Being orphaned by his photographic treasure in 1986, the MNBA restarted his collection, thereafter, privileging artistic photography, according to Fernández, who advances a possible negotiation with the Fototeca de Cuba to work on a future museum design involving the presence of photographic art in the halls of Fine Arts; although, he squotes, it’s something that’s going to take time.

The exhibition inside
The image without limits… it consisted of one hundred photographs belonging to fifty lens artists (two works per capita). Apparently, the small exhibition space conditioned the sample. Obviously, it’s not all that they are, but it must be said that they are all who are.
According to the catalogue, the exhibition was structured into five sections: a) beginning of photography on the island (late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries); (b) the Republic (1902-1959), with the Photographic Club of Cuba as the epicenter; c) the 1960s, the epic and the 1970s; (d) the change and arrival of the postmodern; (e) the 21st century, hybridization of international visual codes.
The beginning of photography on the island was represented by two works by the Spaniard José Gómez de la Carrera, both related to the war of 1895 and of remarkable historical-social value. Interestingly, the war feud was absent in them because the soldiers (in the field) pose relaxed for the camera, and the troop marching towards the countryside from Villanueva station appears surrounded by a crowd that fires it as if it were a social event.
The six decades of the Republican period were covered by two dozen pieces covering nude, portrait of famous figures (in different planes, actions and attitudes), abstraction, the city, student demonstrations, the folkloric, architecture, the personification of spaces, and that unclassifiable jewel of Ernesto Fernández that transcends his time (1957): the Martí of civic Square.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the epic, the political figures, the brigadiers, the macheteros, the builders, the parades, the rallies, dominated the public scene, but the curator managed to provide a representation that synthesizes those themes and overwhelms the circumstances.
Periods ranging from the 1980s to the present day occupied half the sample and, in some images, the boundaries between postmodern arrival and continuity, hybridization of visual codes, were porous.
Postmodernity, as is well known, was late here, but the visual arts were at the forefront, brought it closer and represented. During the 1980s, the so-called plastic arts shocked artistic and cultural structures in a way that has not been repeated on the island. With their actions, young painters, sculptors, engravers, cartoonists, photographers, refreshed the air that creation needs, gagged in the previous decade. Just one of his most explosive samples, in Fine Arts, was called Soft and Fresh.
From then on, Cuban visual artists made the leap necessary to place the the same in their universal time. Therefore, the empathy of the curator of The Image Without Limits is understandable… with the last four decades of photographic art. In the half-hundred pieces that represented them, were the multiple codes and shapes that are common to photography in the orb, including digital manipulation; works that also share topics of global interest, but pay special attention to local issues, issues and motifs.
In the article under his signature in the catalogue, Rafael Acosta mentions the exhibition entitled Photography in Cuba. Retrospective exhibition, which occupied the National Museum in 1983. And it points to three aspects that differentiate that exhibition from this: (a) the large space at its disposal (the entire MNBA building), which allowed seven hundred works to be housed; (b) insufficient information in the catalogue; c) the thirty-five years between samples, a temporary space where new actors who changed the history of island photography were registered.
We will add an observation regarding the 1983 exhibition. The sample catalogue contained nine illustrations. One of them was Joaquin Blez’s famous nude. It seems that one of the curators felt modesty (or fear?) by including the piece and wrote the following: “Is the whole of Blez’s work paradigm of an aristocratizing and evasive worldview that, despite its high artistic quality – which, among other things, makes it recoverable for the heritage of our socialist culture – does not have a single point of contact with the convulsive reality in which it unfolded?”
Thirty-five years ago, those things were said. How much we must thank the visual artists who burst with their irreverent energy to change history, to break down the walls imposed on creation, to make possible an image without limits. Ω

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