Lonely Planet Writer

Everyday life in Cuba captured over 100 years in candid photos

Havana’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Cuban arts building) shines a light on 100 images taken by 50 Cuban photographers from 1895 to present. The exhibition is primarily a view of history through the eyes of the photographers, but it’s also a journey inside Cuba’s fascinating but contradictory history.

Jose Julian Marti, Spray. 2005. Photo courtesy of Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

The image without limits. An anthology of Cuban photography directly aims to compile as many concepts as possible, featuring authors as distant as Felipe Atoy with his sepia shots of everyday life scenes of the early 20th century, to Roberto Chile’s striking black-and-white’s from the 21st. Additional works present references to the first years of the Cuban revolution of 1959, such as Korda’s famous tribute to guerrilla leader Ernesto Che Guevara, or Osvaldo Salas’ “Fidel y Hemingway” picture of Cuba’s former president Fidel Castro and the American novelist Ernest Hemingway.

Expo catalogue. Photo courtesy of Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

Rafael Acosta de Arriba, art critic and essayist, curated the expo, now open until 25 November. “In a way, the evolution of this country is recreated: its history, its relevance, its conflicts, its aspirations, its poetry, its paradoxes,” he said.

Some of the not-to-be-missed exhibits are José Gómez de la Carrera’s group photo dating from circa 1895 of mambises (Cuban troops that fought against Spain from 1868 to 1898), and Jesse Fernández’ portrait of painter Amelia Pelaez (who is also featured in the museum).

Image without Limits exhibition. Photo by: Diana Rita Cabrera

For a twist in creativity, visitors can enjoy an art installation made with plumbing pipes and magnifying glasses that talk about the migration crisis of the 1990’s. Nostalgia has room in another installation, made from piles of printed portraits remembering the role of photo studios in the 20th century, now pushed aside by the digital kingdom of selfies.

Overall, The Image without limits… documents not only Cuba’s political, economic and social conditions for over a century but its struggles as an independent nation. It conveys how photographers went from recording pro-independence war armies, to picturing street scenes or featuring the bearded leaders at mass rallies, and it also chronicles the 20th and 21st centuries’ more abstract approaches.

Felipe Atoy, Espera, Sin Fecha. Photo courtesy of Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

The museum of fine arts of Havana hasn’t hosted an exhibition of photography made in Cuba since 1983, maybe because the Fototeca de Cuba did such a good job in highlighting the island’s creativity behind lenses. This expo offers Acosta’s personal anthology but, as he points out, “there are hundreds of excellent works, but I wanted to do a selection that was significant and representative of the extensive works available. I am convinced that there may be several other possible selections,” he added.

Find more details and samples of photos from the exposition at the website of Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (in Spanish).

By Diana Rita Cabrera