Review: ‘Castro’s Cuba: Hardship and Opportunity’

Walking down Banbury Road in Oxford on a leafy Sunday afternoon, I chanced across Castro’s Cuba: Hardship and Opportunity. Hidden in one of the buildings of St John’s college, Castro’s Cuba is a collaborative exhibition between three photographers, coming together give the public of Oxford a unique and illuminating window into the lives of those living in Cuba today.   

As you pass through the paved courtyard into the open exhibition space, your eyes are drawn to the faces, the graffiti, the buildings, the life documented in the photographs on display. A very human influence in this exhibition is clear and it creates a fascinating space to explore. One aim of the exhibition and the artists involved is to subvert the romantic image of Cuba that many people have today  – ‘the lovingly restored 1950s cars, the grand, but crumbling buildings…’ Uwe Ackermann, Robin Laurance and Juan Manuel Cruz del Cueto have tried to tell the story of the people who live in this country, their everyday reality, and the place they very proudly call home.

There is a significant balance of perspectives in this collaboration between photographers of three nationalities. Within two separate but adjoining rooms we get a chance to see Cuba through the gaze of Ackermann and Laurance — two acclaimed photographers based in Oxford. Their photography is highly perceptive and sincere, opening our eyes to the youthful anticipation of Cuba, its politics and its opportunity — without ignoring the darker side of life faced by many people. They have captured the emotions of a bartender, the darkness of the sex trade, the morning rush hour, the life of school children, the hope of businessmen and women. Dreaming of a Better Life (Ackermann) and the photograph of a librarian in Bayamo (Laurance) both struck me because of the simple, everyday occupations they capture but in such a striking way.

In the second room, separated by two sets of doors and small passageway, this is balanced by the inherently human and explorative gaze of Cuban photographer Juan Manuel Cruz del Cueto. Equally acclaimed across the world, his photography takes an anthropological perspective of human life in Cuba. In particular the exhibition displays some of Cueto’s photography documenting the December 17th celebration in San Lazovo for Saint Lazarus – the saint of the poor and the sick. Julienne Lopez Hernandez gives an introductory insight into his photographic documentation on faith in Cuba, noting his approach ‘to this popular universe as a deeply thoughtful investigator.’ Devotion and Devotion II are a testament to this. I found both photographs to be vivid and emotionally moving images of the physical sacrifice made to Saint Lazarus. His photographs give an incredibly powerful image of Cubans; their intense relationship with faith, the local characters known by all, enduring and lost industry, a happy and content childhood.

By combining the gaze of the Ackermann, Laurance, and Cueto — the foreign and the Cuban — this exhibition has created a unique space and experience. It is through this combination that we are given the opportunity to visually encounter a beautifully honest and provoking reality of life in Cuba. The opening of the exhibition on the 10th October was timed to mark the Day of Independence, a celebration of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, known as Father of the Homeland. Unfortunately only on for a week, Oxford has been given a short but encapsulating glimpse into the heart of Cuba, and into the lives of its people.

Enid Still

For upcoming events at St John’s, please visit their website.

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