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Almendron: The car on the street

Almendron: The car on the street

Any living city—and who can say that Havana is not?—manifests its vitality in many different ways. A restless, playful and sometimes even demonic spirit feeds on the city’s tangible veins and blood (its objects, its sounds, its people), charms them and in exchange gives emotions, spirit, a jungle of different meanings, of myths and customs, of symbols and realities, which for a better name we call identity.

And among the many symbols, among the scores of daily living myths that keep Havana immersed in the magical reality of cities with charm, several of them have been captured in these photographs. As if just looking at these pictures, one could walk down any of the city’s neighborhoods and listen to their voices and their music, take in the heat and the colors, and feel how the city surrounds us with its bones and magic.

Almendrón, solo exhibition by the photographer Alain Gutiérrez, refers to symbols, but not as entrapped and mute signs or as the mere notice of directions, or the ??false total happiness and beauty more suitable for tourist purposes. Polysemy, the variety of interpretations and possible courses abound in these photographs for the simple reason that this multiplicity of scenes, contexts and meanings also abound in the streets of Havana. Out of many likely signs, Alain has chosen two, which he has combined—as the scholar Fernando Ortiz once described Cubans—into a spicy and rich stew of varied ingredients, and therefore of many flavors.

Almendrones and signs are juxtaposed, placed together with other neighbors, with other signs, such as occurs with the neighbors in any of the buildings that stand side by side in the old city. Almendrón is the affectionate name (with certain ironic and critical shades), which is given in Cuba to old cars, (rather, very old, according to the notion of excessiveness which also describes us). The name is suggestive of these cars’ hard bodyworks and the vital determination that they have to go on running and cannot break, just like the hard kernel of an almond. In the early 20th century and even a little beyond the 1950s, practically every car in Cuba was of US origin. Now, in the 21st century, the many survivors of those years (some are real museum pieces and others are absolute wrecks) continue to be in the very center of Cuba’s daily urban life. In a mechanical transvestism, under the chassis of a Ford, a Chevrolet, a Cadillac or a Chrysler, one may discover Bulgarian, Russian or Czech engines; Japanese or European gearboxes; adapted or home-manufactured parts; upholstery made of synthetic fabrics or modern seats…and tires wherever they can be secured.

Meanwhile, the signs are the relish of everyday life. In any corner, market or institution in Havana, there’s a sign. And although sometimes they actually fulfill their informational role, other signs are exquisite masterpieces of surrealism and Cuban wit.

Of course, the exhibition is not only about signs and cars. The photographer’s keen eye has caught the many essences of Havana and has integrated them wisely. Using a car as the basis for the possible representation of an imaginary Cuban who has settled down after many years of struggle, other faces of the city appear, some of unquestionable beauty and others with the rare charm of incantations, which are viewed from eyes of genuine affection…Accordingly, we find lattice windows with colorful panes of glass, colonial heritage and part of our best architecture; the exuberant colors of Cuba and Havana lights; the pockets on a pair of jeans, which may refer to the anatomy of a Cuban beauty; manifest provocative lips, as manifest as lust and sensuality are found in our streets, where love is at times shamelessly exhibited…doors upon doors that lead to deeper spaces, to the intimate heart of corridors and homes, or balconies, which, in contrast, help live outdoors; orisha necklaces and others that depict our heroes…a car turned into boat…

The wit, the metamorphosis, the mixture of meanings, the things that form and are a part of us, the legends that are the foundation on which our lives and our capital stand are reflected in these photos. These unveiled secrets will not go unnoticed (along with a measure of wonder) by the conscientious observer. If the viewer is well-informed and has been lucky enough to live in Havana, these everyday marvels will become memories, pieces of nostalgia. May this oasis of magical reality—or true fantasy—serve to bring the many labyrinths and experiences of our lives to the level of fine art.

After seeing these pictures, the viewer will most likely fall under their spell and many of Havana’s demons will accompany them from now on. So there’s no choice but to exorcize them—hop in your favorite almendrón, start up your imagination, step on the gas of love and, through any of these photographs, escape from reality and set your course for wonder. September 2011

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