U.S.-Cuba negotiations through the lens of photography
So the second official round of talks to reestablish diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States wrapped up last week and the tricky bits are beginning to overshadow the initial excitement. Not surprisingly a huge hang-up is money, because banking in Cuba is hamstrung by its designation as a sponsor of terrorism. You can read all the details in this Reuters piece or this New York Times article, or just talk to any Cuban artist or American collector.
Even though it’s been legal to import Cuban art and photography ever since Sandra Levinson and her Center for Cuban Studies won a pioneering lawsuit against the U.S. Treasury Department in 1991, actually paying for pieces is still a hassle.
One amazing contemporary artist we met was willing to take a 10% down payment in Cuban currency, let us walk away with a $10,000 painting and work out the details later through the honor system. We don’t routinely walk around with $1,000 in our pockets and you can’t walk up to an ATM for extra cash in Havana so we couldn’t even consider the generous, trusting offer of an artist.
Turns out we were smart to sweat the small stuff. Art historian Rebekah Jacob, who sells vintage Cuban revolutionary photography prints from her gallery in Charleston, once had an entire shipment of purchased work impounded by U.S. customs and the legal bill to sort it all out would have been costlier than the photographs themselves.
Robin Blackman is another gallerist who fell in love with Cuban photography when she first visited the famous Fototeca De Cuba center in the 80s. She and her photographer husband were so impressed with the work of new generation of Cuban photographers that they opened an LA branch of Fototeca. She says it became the first independent gallery in the US to develop a relationship with the Cuban government and bring an exhibit of emerging photographers to LA. Eventually the Fototeka LA gallery closed but she still has a few vintage prints. Here’s the crazy part. She recently sold a few but can’t pay the photographer because, decades later, the embargo means he can’t accept US dollars and he doesn’t have internet access to keep in touch on a regular basis.
That’s how convoluted the unintended consequences become when Cuba is designated as a sponsor of terrorism. Ordinary people, and extraordinary art, suffer.
Trending now: the masters of Cuban revolutionary propaganda photography
Imagine being an art history graduate student invited into the personal studio of famed Cuban photographer “Chinolope” Lopez. One of the guys who shot the Cuban revolution for Life and Time. Not quite as famous as Alberto Korda or Raul Corrales but just as amazing. Reportedly got his nickname from Che himself. You fall in love with one of his prints. He goes to show you the negatives. But they’re a gooey mess, stuck together and irreparably damaged. You want to cry for what is lost to future generations.
That’s exactly how Rebekah Jacob remembers feeling when she was on one of her first trips to Havana. Chinolope shrugged it off but she never could. The experience represents the twin hopes and frustrations of dealing with revolutionary Cuban photography, the kind she now sells at her gallery in Charleston, South Carolina.
Sixty years after they were made, these images are still gasp-inducing. There’s the infamous Korda shot of El Che before it was cropped into the ubiquitous image emblazoned on coffee mugs and T-shirts around the globe.
My favorite though, is the epic image of victorious riders on horseback captured by the late Raul Corrales.
“Cuban photography was hot in the 90s,” Jacobs says. “In part because the revolutionary photographers were still alive and had access to American markets. Galleries like the one in Mississippi I worked for at the time would come to the island in the Spring, bringing the photographers chemicals and paper they couldn’t get on the island, and then come back in the Fall to pick up the work. ”
The other part was the tireless lobbying of Sandra Levison who, in 1991, won a pioneering lawsuit against the U.S. Treasury Department that made it legal to import original Cuban art. (Read more about her in this article.)
While the second generation of photographers who apprenticed under the masters (like Korda’s printer Jose Figueroa) were moving on, doing conceptual work and documenting the lives of ordinary Cubans, American collectors were still gobbling up vintage prints of El Che and Castro.
Then Cuba stopped accepting payments in U.S. dollars and the Bush administration clamped down even harder on travel restrictions. Art collectors today could theoretically walk into darkrooms like Lopez’s and take as many prints as they like back to the United States — if only they could spend dollars or pay with credit cards in Cuba.
“Access dried up, right at the time the old masters were dying or losing their negatives to the incredible humidity,” Jacobs says. Because of Cuba’s uniquely isolated situation, they didn’t have access to photography’s digital revolution – losing out on technology that might have saved the likes of Lopez’s gooey negatives, or at least help him market those that did survive.
“Cuba just didn’t have the bandwidth and the photographers got left behind.” By 2004, Jacobs wasn’t selling nearly as much work by Cuban photographers. “The Cuban photography market stalled and the inventory just contracted.”
The good news is that change is coming. On February 27th, 2015, the second round of talks to normalize relations between Cuba and the United States gets underway in Washington and that, Jacobs says, is renewing interest in the market for Cuban revolutionary photographers. The inventory of vintage prints is still low but ever since President Obama announced the move to end détente in December, collectors have perked up. Jacobs predicts prices to skyrocket in the next six months, regardless of how long it takes for travel to return to pre-embargo levels.
So what makes the work of Lopez, Corrales and Korda so collectable years after its propaganda value faded? It goes beyond the images themselves, a by-product of the unique access they had to Che and Castro during the revolution. “These were great craftsmen. They improvised everything and had to print in their bathroom sinks but each one had their own unique style. The tones were all very different. You can look at a print and know who made it.”
Jacobs isn’t alone in her appreciation for and confidence in the market for Cuban photography. Here’s an excerpt from a recent piece in the Seattle Times.
That pipeline of art lovers is about to grow, predicts Alberto Magnan, whose Manhattan gallery Magnan Metz specializes in Cuban art. Magnan, who is currently in Havana, received 25 calls from collectors on Dec. 17, after Obama announced that the two countries would move to restore diplomatic ties. He is now booked through March with Cuba visits.
“It’s absolutely crazy,” he said.
Even though Americans can visit Cuba under rules dating to 2009 that allow “purposeful travel” intended to foment contact with Cubans, many shied away, Magnan said.
“It’s a hassle,” he said, referring to the need to get a license from the U.S. government and pay for works without using a U.S. credit card. Now, however, “they’re saying, ‘I want to go before everyone else does’.”
Cuban photography: the positive of negatives
I fell in love with Cuban photography the moment an elderly street photographer in Havana handed me the still-wet, paper portrait he shot and developed inside a wooden box camera painted bright blue with duct-taped bellows. There was something hopeful about the process – a primitive machine that can only produce a negative and an artist who manages to make a positive from a negative of a negative. That an image so fragile and beautiful could emerge from an outdated chunk of history seems prophetic. That I willingly forked over twenty dollars-worth of Cuban currency for my first piece of Cuban photography even more so.
My print hadn’t even dried before the photographer packed up his box and moved further down the street, closer to a crowd of approaching German tourists fresh off a cruise ship. Remember we Americans are the only ones forced to put ourselves through contortions of travel gymnastics to visit Cuba. According to the New York Times, only 90,000 Americans visited Cuba in all of 2012 and 2013 combined (compared to the 21 MILLION of us who visited Mexico last year alone or the 12 million Americans who traveled to Canada) The rest of the world has a huge head start on exposure to, and appreciation of, Cuban photography.
Which is why the photographer I had planned to visit in Havana was on his way to Germany, via Brazil, when we stopped by the Havana International Photography Gallery. Here’s the video that got my attention –
Brayan conveys the street-savvy sense of a new generation of Cuban photographers, influenced by the iconic images of their revolutionary forerunners but eager to move beyond documentation. But the Internet being what it is in Cuba means his gallery doesn’t have a working website. He has no Facebook page to follow. He has to rely on foreign galleries to get his images in front of American eyes.
A relative of Brayan’s was on duty when we arrived. The rest of the family lived in the upper levels of the gorgeous but dilapidated building. Some images are framed and hang, slightly tilted, along the cool, crumbling plaster walls.
But most are loose eight-by-tens, clumped together in bins or suspended by plastic clothes pins. The humidity inside the non air-conditioned gallery is palpable; the prints tacky to the touch. I shudder to think of the condition of the negatives, wherever they’re stored.
We buy a print for a ridiculously low price. This isn’t about sophisticated tonal qualities or limited editions likely to increase in price.
It’s about sending a signal to young Cuban photographers that yes, Americans will support their work. When we’re free to travel without the encumbrances of “people-to-people” tours or special purpose visits with over-managed itineraries we will wander through the galleries and talk to the artists. We will learn. We will listen to the stories their photographs share. We will be inspired. We will buy. And we will spread the word.
Starting here. Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing about Cuban photography, beginning with a piece on collecting vintage revolutionary photography before it becomes unaffordable. Stay tuned.
Zombie Kids To Invade Cuba!
Visit Cuba today and you’ll find boys riding on homemade sleds, girls braiding each other’s hair in the plazas, teams playing handball in the cobblestone streets and teenagers thumbing through stall after stall of used books in the Plaza de Armas.
Imagine, instead, a Cuba filled with kids like ours — staring vacantly into devices, faces lit up in garish blue, thumbs flying, vicariously connecting with actual friends snap chatting back from the other side of a dance floor.
It reminds me of a line from one of my favorite Cuban movies, “Juan de los Muertos,” when Juan faces an oncoming horde storming the Malecón.“Those aren’t Americans. They’re zombies!” Which is probably why one headline in the mainstream media’s coverage of this week’s détente negotiations in Havana gave me pause.
“U.S. Goal in Cuba: Open Up Internet.” – Wall Street Journal 1/21/2015
Despite my nostalgia for face-to-face interaction, I understand the power and place of the Internet in the modern world. From the U.S. government standpoint, access will hasten the demise of the secretive Castro regime and young people connected to each other and the larger world via social media might well lead the charge.
But it isn’t that simple. Access isn’t the same thing as affordability. Take the case of the young man I blogged about a few weeks ago. We met Alex in 2012, back when it seemed like U.S. policy involving Cuba would never change. Alex has a degree in English but the only job he can find involves convincing tourists that his uncle owns the Buena Vista Social Club and he can get them a good ticket. He wants to be a tour guide, thinks Raul Castro is awesome for allowing cell phones in Cuba and asks me how to build a website. But it all seems futile. Alex can’t begin to afford the $6 an hour it would take in an Internet café to build the website he hopes will provide a better future for his wife and baby girl.
I couldn’t help thinking of Alex when I spotted that Wall Street Journal Headline. He needs Internet access but who will pay for his screen time, let alone a laptop or smart phone of his own? Even if access is truly free, will it guarantee a decent job for him? Cuba’s free education system hasn’t, not for Alex or any of the dozens of Cubans just like him that we met. Hotel clerks who speak five languages. Janitors with engineering diplomas. Street corner hustlers who can quote Shakespeare. Everyone has access to education in Cuba but not to opportunity.Yet somehow, even in the face of generations of isolation-driven poverty, education still has pull here. I credit Cuban parents for instilling discipline and hope in their kids when the economy can’t even support those with advanced degrees.
Meeting Alex made me wonder, even before President Obama’s executive actions, how much longer Cuban kids will buy into the dream that education will set them free. If we handle the rapprochement with capitalist greed instead of genuine goodwill, the Internet will be just another dangled disappointment.
Travelers and Sanctions: Should We Wink And Go Anyway Or Wait Them Out? Clues in Cuba and Myanmar
This is a true story of travel, sanctions and two optimistic Millennials: Amuh is from Mandalay, Myanmar and Alex from Havana, Cuba. One has come of age after Americans began traveling to his country, the other has never known a world without sanctions.
Amuh drives a taxi owned by his mother and chatters freely about politics. Right now he’s pissed that elections in Myanmar have been delayed until late 2015 but thinks Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s party will win a majority and change the constitutional amendments that prevent her taking her rightful role as president. He worked legally in Malaysia and realizes that his philosophy diploma from a Burmese degree mill university system is useless. He plans on starting a business before starting a family.
Alex is also a college graduate. His degree is in English and he spends all day trying to convince tourists that his uncle owns the Buena Vista Social Club and he can get them a good ticket. He feels sorry for Americans because we don’t get free healthcare and education, thinks Raul Castro is awesome for allowing cell phones in Cuba but can’t afford the $6 an hour it would take in an internet café to build the tour guide website he hopes will provide a better future for his wife and baby girl.
Amush and Alex’s stories explain why travel is so important to a free society and why even the most principled tourists have doubts about the effectiveness of sanctions.
As someone who grew up in South Africa during the era of Apartheid, I have complicated feelings and experiences with international sanctions. I applaud the humanitarian ideals behind them. But I’ve seen, first-hand, the economic misery they create when immoral, corrupt governments use sanctions to dig their own hole deeper.
I’ve also seen how inflated Americans perceive our importance to be. And how hypocritical we can be. Myself included. We Americans somehow think that visiting Cuba under the special exemptions of guided photo clubs or university tour groups is okay, but that skirting the rules and arriving on our own via Mexico or Canada is somehow immoral. We’re okay with pilfering baseball players from their $100-a-month island teams but buying Cuban cigars is evil. On a good day we can see across the Florida straights but people are forced to risk their lives to reunite with their families. The original intent of the sanctions might have made sense 54 years ago but the way we dance around modern-day Cuba is nothing short of ethical contortionism.
I’d like to think that the heavy, well-intentioned hand of American sanctions will help, like they eventually did in South Africa. But Alex is still hanging out in Plaza Vieja, gratefully counting his egg and sugar rations and waiting for Raul’s next handout. I don’t know whether to be comforted by his naïve optimism or heartbroken.
But what about Amuh’s more cautious hopes for a better future? Again, I’d like to give credit to sanctions. But for the last twenty years, European and Chinese tourists largely ignored them and visited in well-heeled droves. The surface changes evident in Myanmar today may have had as much to do with Internet access, Chinese and Indian economic investment and the diplomacy and well wishes of ordinary tourists.
I’ve dreamed of visiting Myanmar ever since working/traveling in three of its bordering countries: Thailand, Laos and China. I stood on the banks of the Mekong, my tattered, beloved copy of “The Piano Tuner” in hand, wondering if I could look myself in the mirror if I crossed that river to the land once known as Burma. The beloved daughter of its national hero was under house arrest, the military junta was killing monks and jailing journalists.
I couldn’t do it. I waited until the sanctions were lifted and “The Lady” was free. I waited until my old agency, Ogilvy PR Worldwide opened an office in Yangon. I waited for my conscience to be clear. And guess what? I still have mixed feelings. I’ll be writing about my travels in posts to come but I have no answers. I could buy an Aung Sang Suu Kyi T-shirt, made in China of course, and not have to look over my shoulder or worry that the shopkeeper would be arrested. But I was still not allowed to venture out West, where Rohingya Muslims are still kept in what are essentially concentration camps.
If anything, I feel like I waited too long. Not because Myanmar is already so tourist-savvy and overpriced. But because by staying at home I could not be a witness – to its triumphs or its tragedies.