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An Insider's Cuba

Iconic images of Castro are merely a starting point for a LACMA show on the nation's photographers.

April 15, 2001|LEAH OLLMAN | Leah Ollman is a San Diego art writer and critic

"You can't be neutral in Havana," Tim Wride announces. "It's impossible."

In the final stages of organizing the exhibition, "Shifting Tides: Cuban Photography After the Revolution," the associate curator of photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art reflects on the difficulty of putting together a show about a place he fell deeply in love with.

"Cuba's amazingly seductive. The whole outlaw aura of it has its own seduction, and it's the single most sensual place I've ever been in my life-the way the sun hits your skin, the way the music hits your ear, the smells in the street."

One pitfall Wride tried to avoid was making the show simply stylish, a reflection of Cuba's intense surface appeal. Just as incomplete would be the story of Cuban photography over the past 40 years told primarily in political terms. That approach would be unavoidably flavored by the curator's upbringing as an American "of the duck-and-cover generation."

We're conditioned in the U.S., says Wride, 46, to think of Cuba in adversarial terms, "as this monolithic Communist state, and to think of all communist states the same way. But it's a rapidly changing place-and always has been, which is interesting. One of the things you learn about Cuba, in looking at the art and how the art relates to the place, is that it's been a terribly fluid place-politically, socially and economically. It's anything but dogmatic."

Ironically, that image of Cuba as ideologically one-dimensional has been reinforced by several of the nation's own photographers, who, in the early years of the revolution, portrayed Che Guevara and Fidel Castro as monumental, heroic personalities. Their photographs are widely known, especially Alberto Korda's iconic image of Guevara in a beret, gazing intently into the future, an image reputed to be the most reproduced photograph in the world. Several portraits that play into this cult of personality, as Wride terms it, serve as a prologue to the "Shifting Tides" exhibition, which opens today. From these, the show moves into territory quite different and unexpected.

"We all have this sense that we know what to expect when we look at Cuban photography," he says, motioning to the office wall, where Osvaldo Salas' closely cropped portrait of Castro smoking is propped. "You know, black-and-white, photo documentary, the definitive Cuban style-which is far from the truth."

On the opposite side of the room, against the photography department's floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, stands a sequence of huge photographic panels by Manuel Pina. All texture and tone, the panels together read as a crumbling, abstracted stripe, an Expressionist gesture of urgency and simplicity. They constitute an image of the Malecon, the sea wall that fronts Havana. Pina's work, Wride says, "talks about the idea of the Malecon not merely as physical definition, but as a metaphorical one, as beginning and end, promise and restriction. The way the wall has weathered, sometimes beautifully and sometimes not, mirrors a lot of the ideas going on politically and socially and economically in Cuba. It all becomes part of the piece and allows it to resonate on more complex layers."

From the photographs of Guevara and Castro to the Malecon sequence, one can trace the trajectory of the exhibition, "from work that is localized in Havana to work that is broad-based and internationalized, visually and conceptually."

Wride's own trajectory in organizing the show has been nearly as dramatic. A curator at the museum for the past six years, he got a call one day in 1997 from his friend Darrel Couturier, owner-director of Couturier Gallery on La Brea Avenue, where numerous Cuban artists have exhibited.

"He said, 'Tim, I'm going to Cuba. Do you want to go?"' Wride's dark eyebrows scrunch in recollection of the surprise invitation. "What? It was so all of a sudden, but it was irresistible. I just couldn't say no.

"I went on 10 days' notice. I had very little time to formulate any game plan and very little time to do any research. I just went to observe and absorb. I really was going as a blank slate."

The focus of the trip was the Sixth Havana Contemporary Art Biennial. "I wanted to look at contemporary art in general, just poke around, get a feeling for what was going on and test what I thought I knew about work down there. What I found out was that I didn't know anything."

Just as his expectations of Cuban art dissolved upon exposure to the work, expectations that artists and other contacts had of him also began to break down when he took the second of what ended up being six trips. "The idea for a show was formulating so I went back with a purpose, and did studio visits day after day after day. My first trip there, I was just somebody else from America coming down to look at work, and it was no big deal. My second trip there, doors began to open, and people began to talk a bit more freely. Ideas began to become more complicated."

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