Rebekah Jacob Gallery
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.
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’.”
“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”
In interviewing both artists whose joint show opens this Thursday at the Rebekah Jacob Gallery in Charleston, it struck me how seriously Tom Nakashima and Gary Geboy take inspiration. I’m not talking about the refrigerator magnet affirmation kind of inspiration, but the demanding mistress kind that compels them both to create.
That light bulb moment most of us imagine as how artists “get” inspired — the way the light hits a pile of upended trees or the delicate symmetry of the veins in a single crinkled leaf – that’s the natural, organic part for Nakashima and Geboy. Art is how they make sense of the world around them but transforming that inspiration into paintings and photographs requires less mysterious tools.
For Nakashima, the tool is often a photograph he makes to capture the textures, details and compositional possibilities of an image. Here’s an example he shared with me for the upcoming “Organic Legacies” show:
Other times, inspiration demands that he build a still life to begin the process of transformation.
“Any fool can be happy. It takes a man with real heart to make beauty out of the stuff that makes us weep.”
Nakashima’s Treepile series got its start with a chance encounter: a huge mound of trunks and tree limbs near rural Berryville, VA. “He begins with nature – piles of dead branches silhouetted against the ground or sky,” wrote Joann Moser, Senior Curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, “and transforms them into monumental compositions redolent with meaning.”
For Geboy, the tools of inspiration include the camera and the negative itself – simply starting points for the image he sets out to create. For one collection he took digital snapshots of a different kind of still life: a museum diorama.
For some of work debuting Thursday, he’s framed both the wet glass plate collodion negatives and the final image for patrons to literally see behind the scenes.
“You might not recognize the process by name, but if you’ve ever looked at Civil War images by Matthew Brady’s photographers you’ve seen wet glass plate collodion,” says Rebekah Jacob, gallery owner and southern art historian. “Gary breathes new life into a forgotten process and preserves a part of the South that is truly universal.”
“Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.”
Where other photographers spend thousands of dollars on lenses and cameras, Geboy often shoots with a $20 plastic Holga. Nakashima says his favorite canvass is actually news rag.
“I really don’t have a favorite piece of equipment,” says Geboy. “Each camera I use has a specific purpose and frankly if I could get what’s in my head on a piece of paper without a camera, I’d be a happy guy.”
It’s not surprising, then, that neither artist is fussy about discussing their technique. They know it’s just a tool for expressing something only they can see.
“One eye sees, the other feels.”
There’s a Southern art exhibit opening in Charleston SC next Thursday, but don’t expect the two featured artists to drop blessed hearts or gardens and guns into their art speak. In fact, don’t expect art speak at all. Both painter Tom Nakashima and photographer Gary Geboy would rather discuss just about anything than how you should interpret their work.
It’s not that they’re shy about it. Nakashima exhibits internationally and has work at the Smithsonian and The Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Geboy’s work has shown from London and Barcelona to the CD cover of a Czech Republic country band.
“If I could put what it means in words,” Nakashima says, “I’d try poetry instead of painting.”
Actually, poetic might be the best way to describe both artists’ work. Geboy’s wet plate collodion and platinum palladium photographs are haiku: formal in their sparseness. The complexity and nuance in each work on handmade Japanese paper is evident only up personal and close – in the textures he creates as backdrops, the elegance of the shapes and the nuance of the tones.
Nakashima is more free verse: an Allen Ginsberg howl of color, collage and rhythm. He sees what ordinary people see when we pass a pile of up-dug trees, even hops out of his car and takes photos of them. But then he paints layer upon layer of interpretation, repetition and abstraction until the image is reborn as something only he could see.
Geboy and Nakashima will meet each other for the first time on February 12th, the opening night of their joint show “Organic Legacies.” Geboy lives in Beaufort, SC and Nakashima is the William S. Morris Eminent Scholar in Arts at Augusta State University. Geboy says his work is most influenced by the photographers W. Eugene Smith and Matt Mahurin, where Nakashima returns to Picasso and Matisse for inspiration. They both come from practical, 2nd generation immigrant fathers who couldn’t imagine their sons becoming professional artists and both have spent more years in Washington D.C. than the Deep South they now call home.
So why the pairing at the Rebekah Jacob Gallery in Charleston, curated by a Southern art historian who describes her gallery as focusing on contemporary painters, sculptors & photographers from the American South? Because the South is more than Paula Deen, shrimp boat docks and carefully pruned azaleas. It’s also the burning mattress from which sprung Flannery O’Connor, the muddy Mississippi that floated up William Faulkner. In Nakashima and Geboy, she found seekers of that deeper South.
“Neither artist grew up in the South so both Nakashima and Geboy tend, by default, to strip the nostalgia and find treasured, celebratory beauty in the landscape and architecture in an objective way,” Jacob says. “They highlight and preserve the natural beauty that makes the South so unique: abandoned houses, tree piles, foliage. But they do so with intellect and exploratory richness. Artists who don’t have their intellect and artistic skill-sets could never get what they get.”
In the art-buying world that translates into a shared collector base — those who have wide knowledge of art through collecting and global travels yet have some connection to the South. And most likely a sense of humor. Both Nakashima and Geboy have poked fun at what it means to be a “Southern” artist. Geboy uses quirky, dark narratives to accompany images in his decidedly unsentimental “Carry Me Home” collection.
“Some of these things actually happened,” Geboy insists. “The stories have just been changed to protect innocent names.”
And when Nakashima set out to make his first deliberately “Southern” painting, he picked a dilapidated building he imagines the Devil would call home.
“It’s a big hit in Georgia,” Nakashima says. “Smart people like to laugh at themselves.”