An eye to Cuba

Published : Feb 25, 2011 00:00 IST

Makeshift classrooms in the wake of hurricane Flora (1963) at Minas de Frio. - PHOTOGRAPHS FROM EXHIBITION: V.V. KRISHNAN

Makeshift classrooms in the wake of hurricane Flora (1963) at Minas de Frio. - PHOTOGRAPHS FROM EXHIBITION: V.V. KRISHNAN

An exhibition in New Delhi of Rodrigo Moya's photographs of the Cuban revolution and the transformation it brought about.

EVENTS make people and people make events. The exhibition of Rodrigo Moya, the Colombian-born Mexican photographer, seen by the world for the first time some 45 years after it began as a project for a book that never materialised, and shown recently in New Delhi at the Instituto Cervantes, the Spanish Cultural Centre, brings home this profound truth. The project of a young man not yet 30, which began as a four-week tour to take journalistic style photographs of Cuba in 1964 ended up with a series where the emotions that struck me day after day somehow filtered through from the neural byways of my vision straight to the silver plates of my camera. In turn, this transformation inspired two young curators, Marta Nin and Claudi Carreras, with a powerful presence [that] speaks of Cuba that is real and attested, and they went on to curate an exhibition of reproductions of gelatin emulsion plates on fibre paper.

The most powerful thing that strikes one is the remarkable capacity of a revolution, through its mass impact, to transform people's lives. Moya's photographs of the 11th anniversary of the Moncada struggle of 1953 in Santiago de Cuba catch the electric current of a mass rally and the easy and relaxed manner in which its leaders are one with it, as in the photograph showing Raul Castro, his wife Vilma and Che Guevara. And, of course, in the definitive address of Fidel Castro, whose prophetic words History will absolve me came alive in the revolution of 1959. Moya's images of the speech, shot in sequence, bring that time to life in a manner that no single journalistic photograph that might have been picked to be printed then could.

What is striking is how the immediate impact of those revolutionary times is still fresh. This could not have been so had revolutionary Cuba not persevered over the years and kept its innovative developments alive over the decades. But that is the character of a revolution as it grips the masses as nothing else can.

This electric current of the revolution is visible in many different places. In the makeshift classrooms at Minas de Frio after hurricane Flora (1963) had swept through the island, in the shipyard of Camaguey, in the national tobacco factory, in the school of ballet in Havana, and in the green forests of the Sierra Maestra where the final struggle of the revolution began. No one was left untouched: workers, peasants, city-dwellers, the militia, and descendants both of the colonists and of the former slaves. So how could it leave untouched the photographer who witnessed its early years?

As Moya confesses, Whilst even the most skilled photographers frown upon sentimentality and ideology as selective factors in an image, in my case these are the determining factors which decide the subject and circumstances for the camera to focus on.

One can see this in a comparison of his snapshots of public events and his sequence of 12 photographs of one of the icons of the Cuban revolution, Ernesto Che Guevara. The photographs show him at work, with a myriad of moods reflected on his face, and give one a chance to appreciate the open, vibrant and restless revolutionary who had committed his life to changing the world and making it a better place to live in.

One can only be grateful to Moya for freeing Che of that single image by Alberto Korda we see on T-shirts all over the world. Aesthetically, his multiple photographs of Che enrich our visual appreciation of what made him an icon of the youth of the world as a flesh-and-blood presence and not merely a symbol stamped across one's chest. It also brings home to us how iconic figures do not develop out of the photographer's lenses alone. The life and times of the subject have a lot to contribute to this process as well.

In fact, the whole exhibition reflects the many facets of the slogan To be cultured is the only way to be free that we see shining out of the photograph of a school canteen at lunch time in Minas de Frio. The informality with which students and workers share their meal is a reminder of the fact that the essence of being a part of society is to share its fruits with others. As with food, so with culture. After the revolution, culture was no longer the right only of those who could pay to access it.

It was, in fact, something the people got along with political power, control over their daily lives and the right to determine their future.

There were many steps besides education to free the people from their pre-revolutionary bondage. Not the least of these was to make them the owners of things they could only hanker for and which were only limited to the elite and the wealthy.

Throwing open huge malls with a notice outside declaring the free distribution of capitalist goods was perhaps the best way to inoculate people against the disease of consumerism. It is perhaps these simple and ingenious methods that give people the strength to resist the blandishments of the crooked.

I had a chance to see this myself 30 years later. In 1994, I saw the devastating effects of one of the most inhuman blockades in history, which has lasted for over half a century, and ordinary Cubans' fitting response to it. I saw people raising chickens in their homes even in the city of Havana. There were families rearing goats so that their children did not miss eating meat, whose import from neighbouring countries had been prevented. I saw families pulling up buckets of water from below in central Havana to cope with water shortage. But nowhere did I see a sense of despair and deprivation. It was as if I was in a country that was at war.

One has to appreciate that a blockade is an act of war against a people and not merely against a government. And it is the Cuban people who dared to revolt against U.S. tutelage in 1959, and who continue to resist successfully its blockade on, among other things, food items, life-saving drugs, exercise books for schoolchildren, pencils and crayons, and almost anything one needs in daily life, who are the target of the U.S. administration's hostility.

This hostility is supported neither by the people of the U.S. nor by those of Canada, Mexico and the rest of Latin America and the other countries of the world. The consistent support in the United Nations every year for the demand for the lifting of the blockade, which is opposed only by the U.S. and one or two other countries, is proof of the international community's feelings about the U.S. administration's unilateral actions and of its support for the right of the Cuban people to have the government and the social system they want.

But no amount of outside support can keep a society going as the Cubans have done for half a century. The mainstay of the survival of the Cuban republic is the fervour of the revolution, which continues to keep Cubans on the path they chose to take. It is this fervour, in all its freshness and simplicity, that Moya and the curators of the exhibition communicate to us in many different fields of life from road-building and school-building projects and working in factories and dockyards to farming and livestock rearing, and from gossiping over a cup of coffee and having a quiet smoke with friends to passionately playing a musical instrument or dancing. The viewer lives through the many facets of one of the rare experiences of the recent history of humanity, which still continues.

Indeed, whether it is the images of Cuba's political leadership, trade unionists and workers, farmers, scientists, doctors, educationists or cultural activists, one sees a remarkable lack of walls between them, reminding one of the aim of this revolution, which was to create a new man equipped to deal with any problem in a systematic and ethical way.

In the process, from its very beginning, the revolution was changing people just as they changed the old society around them. It is to the credit of Moya and the curators of this exhibition that they have communicated this message effectively to us.

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