Published by Safe-T-Gallery Inc.
Don Burmeister: Owner/Editor
Barbara Confino: Associate Editor
While upstairs at ICP the Spanish Revolution is still raging in the images and films of the rediscovered ‘Mexican Suitcase’, downstairs an equally momentous revolution, occurring just 20 years after Franco’s rise to power, is being evoked. The exhibition ‘Cuba in Revolution’ is a scholarly and visceral exploration of the role of photography and film in propagating armed popular revolution. The lessons from this sliver of time are still applicable to both populists and reactionaries today.
As a prologue, the curators, Brian Wallis and Mark Sanders, make an attempt to put the revolution in context. Pictures of inebriated tourists in Havana and a woman apparently living on the streets in the 1940’s and 50’s are shown, but the exhibition lacks cohesion until the arrival of the primary protagonists, Ernesto Guevara and Fidel Castro. We see both as early as the mid 1950’s; Che, in a straight-forward street shot, clean shaven and disarmingly handsome in a Robert Redford sort of way, and Fidel after his release from prison. With his neatly trimmed mustache, he reassembles a local ward-healer, more than happy to fix that little problem with the police for you.
Soon however both were in the mountains in armed rebellion against the dictator Batista, where they adapted their signature style of beards and fatigues. And the photographers followed, from Europe and America as well as the homeland. Feature stories of the photogenic, bearded young revolutionaries appeared around the world. It is uncertain at this stage how much the two men were concerned about image and message, although both men appeared to be open to photographers at least to those who were sympathic to their cause. The photographic gods were on the side of the revolutionaries and even sent a dove to land on Castro’s shoulder in one of his first public speeches as the new leader of the Cuban nation. (Captured in an emblematic photo by American Flip Schulke.)
Once in power both Che and Fidel were more consciously concerned with imagery, and had photographers at hand on all occasions. We see Fidel, in big black glasses, hunting with Nikita Krushchev, receiving a fishing prize from Ernest Hemingway and pitching for his baseball team, Los Barbudos. In a set of insightful photographs by René Burri for LOOK magazine, Che appears for all the world like an intense student radical. (But, in one of those moments where photography is most revealing, we see Che’s Rolex peaking out from under his fatigue jacket.)
Many of the official photographs of the leaders were taken by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda, and it was Korda who took what has been described as the most reproduced photograph of all time, his “Guerrillero Heroico”. This is the photograph of Che Guevara that has bedecked the chests of millions of heroic T-shirt wearers around the globe. The show presents an early print of this picture as well as the un-cropped version, along with the contact sheet of the negatives, shot at a memorial service in Havana in 1960.
The most moving section of this exhibit however is in a little chapel-like space in the back, where the work of two photographers is presented.
Brian Moser was in the tiny Bolivian town of Vallegrande where Guevara’s body was flown after his execution by Bolivian officials. We see in gritty detail the examination and embalming of the body in a small laundry room. But it is the images taken the next day by the Bolivian photojournalist Freddy Alborto Trigo that bring this exhibition to an emotional peak. Che, lying half propped-up across some concrete tubs, naked to the waist, eyes still open, lies Christ-like while various uniformed men stand and poke his corpse. The heroic cycle has been completed. What was meant by the officials as a display to debunk the man, confirmed him as a martyr. Alborto’s bracketed, multiple shots of the scene (shown in beautifully printed photographs) only add to the emotion.
This is an uneven show on several levels: its focus is either too broad, (the suppression of Beatles fans in Cuba) or too slight (no mention of the suppression of dissidents, and only an ineffectual nod to the hundreds of thousand of émigrés.)
But there is a powerful story here how imagery can be as important as message. It was not a particularly new insight, even in 1959, but the rise of Castro on the world stage, and the secular canonization of Che Guevara are particularly salient examples that still reverberate today.