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“Homosexuality is not a disease, but homophobia is.”
Mariela Castro Espín
This series of photographs is an inventory of people who are subject to rejection or exclusion because of their sexual preferences. It is a denunciation against homophobia. Symbolically, it is also a demand for the respect of political, ideological, religious differences.
Conducta Impropia [Improper Behavior] is divided into two parts: close-ups made during the celebration of the World Day Against Homophobia (May 17, 2008) and portraits taken during a gay pride party on Mi Cayito beach (June 14, 2008). In the portraits (close-ups), I show faces of people and try to “erase” the features that identify them in terms of gender.
The photos taken at the beach describe the festive atmosphere in a celebration of the Cuban gay community (a part of it) through alien eyes (mine), which try to capture the spirit of the event. These pictures were taken almost scientifically. Some of these photos reveal a certain clichéd view of the gay world. With this I aimed to expose the prejudices (mine, too) inherited from the macho and heterosexual tradition that prevails in our society.
This photographic essay pays tribute to all of the activists who fight for and defend the rights of people who are discriminated due to their gender or sexual preferences.
Alejandro González Born in Havana, Cuba in 1974, Alejandro González learnt photography in workshops directed by photographers like Diego Goldberg, Luis González Palma and Edgar Moreno. He was later invited to an artist-in-residence program at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne in Germany. In 2009 he was awarded the Cuban Casa de las Américas prize in the photography section. His work has been exhibited in Cuba, as well as Mexico, the United States, Spain and Italy.
González envisions photography as necessarily documentary. Even more so today at a time when he, like the rest of his generation, is watching the world he was promised as a child disappear, and witnessing the emergence of a new generation completely different from his own. So he documents. Not by waiting for the world to come to his camera—he admits to being unable to capture that Cartier-Bresson “decisive moment”—but by building rigorously thought-out, meticulously edited series.
He doesn’t produce very much and each series is followed by a break devoted to preparing the next one. Using a muted-tone approach, González observed plants rescued from concrete, clinging onto crumbling walls, emerging laboriously through asphalt, as a metaphor for a complex day-to-day life. Then, borrowing his aesthetic from 1970s Soviet magazines, he revisited his city, from Lenin Park to the monumental embassy of a country that used to be Cuba’s close friend—a world intended as a foretaste of a Socialist victory. Nowadays nothing works anymore; rust and weeds have taken over the dream. Fortunately, however, a few families come on Sundays to picnic. Perhaps this is why a younger generation has appeared on the Malecón—the seafront in Havana—eager to invent a new nightlife, complete with American baseball caps, t-shirts and skateboards, atypical styles and energy to burn. González captures them in square frames, using a flash, creating a gallery of effective, truthful, non-judgmental portraits.
He does not wish to judge, only to document.
Homophobia is not an exclusive condition of Cuban society. “It is odd and even surprising that a revolution like the Cuban Revolution, which set out to transform the social structures that it had inherited and to create new social ethics, would at the same time, and passively, inherit homophobia from the previous society.”
Foreword by Cuban writer Antón Arrufat for the book The Complete Stories of Virgilio Piñera, published in Cuba in 2002
Descriptions of works
In 1999, Alejandro González debuted with a highly disturbing exhibition, putting forward a poetics whose most striking component was the risk that a virtually unknown creator was taking. The series of photographs, which was called “Quién” [Who], in principle delved into the almost mystical relationship that man establishes with his city. Through these photos, the people of Havana recover essential spaces where momentous events in their lives may have taken place. The presumed protagonists are atomized by an effect that very explicitly states the intention of each piece. The subject is reduced to an anonymous presence. “Quién” makes reference to the fleeting passage of individuals through space, and at the same time makes clear the effect of the imprint, or trace, contributed by each of them.
A year later, in 2000, another exhibition seemed to follow up on “Quién.” Under the title of “Dónde” [Where], the artist now focused on a sort of archaeological view of one of the most fascinating and commented on edifices in Havana: the Girón Building, located a few meters off the Malecón and G Street. In this series of photographs, González’s starting point is details, giving them an abysmal depth, a kind of hole through which the viewer’s curiosity will always be able to enter. The photographer cleverly takes over structures; he practically makes them talk. He shows the desolation and decay they express, focusing on striking parts of the building. He knows he is not dealing with just an inert object, this huge mass of prefabricated concrete that somehow is immersed in its background, in the meanings that during the passage of time it has gained, both in the urbanistic and in the ideological sense.
In the same year 2000, he exhibited “Vacío” [Vacuum]. Here he abandoned the use of black and white and used color to comment on different public spaces, in which some recent human activity is discovered but, at the time of being captured by the camera, are empty, resulting in an inanimate composition. It is here that minimalism emerges. Each thing means too much, and confronts the adjoining object aspiring to a naive hierarchy.
In his series “Memorias del Subsuelo” [Memories of the Undersoil] (2001), he makes a fortunate return to black and white. For those who like associations, the title can be understood as a play on words with the title of one of Cuba’s most famous films, Memories of Underdevelopment. The approach is arid, literally at ground level, conceived where the weeds impose their dominance and accentuate a touch of desolation. Dirt roads, abandoned places, dry eroded surfaces, discourse without any interference or clarification by the artist.
“Puramente Botánica” [Purely Botany] (2002) seems to be in every sense of the word an experiment. The photographer uses a technique that is rarely used in professional photography—a Polaroid camera—to produce images that bear witness to the survival of the plant kingdom faced with any kind of hostility. The pictures show plants claiming their right to exist, whether on the edge of a sewer or in the hollow part of a pole for street lighting.
Alejandro González prepares his photo projects from a profound intellectual condition that accompanies his poetics. This is clearly seen in the types of metaphors he uses and the parallels he establishes with other fields of knowledge and public life. The artist has stated that 2005 was a turning point in which his work underwent a change of direction, which is the one that Alejandro now reaffirms, expressing it as an organic means of declaring his contact with reality. From that moment, he seems to have become more intimate with people, with their behaviors, taking on a responsibility that places him, repeatedly and devoid of any mask, in the midst of incalculable unrestraint.
In his series “Ciudad Habana: futuro” [Havana: Future] (2005), the use of color regains a fully essential sense. He revisits city sites that were emblematic for several generations. The first merit of these pieces lies in the choice of locations, which in a rather underground way end up by having some kind of contact among each other. What Alejandro González undertakes in these shots is a kind of theme poem, whose greatest lyrical content has a marked political nature when it becomes a claim of collective memory. The central irony of these images is hidden in the very title, when one comprehends that the longing for each of these places is based on their past splendor, a splendor that can no longer be recovered. Most of the places in these photos are connected to the Soviet presence and collaboration in the island: the Russian Embassy, several sites at Lenin Park, Moscow Restaurant and Ciudad Escolar Tarará.
In recent years, Alejandro González’s interest seems to be centered on faces, in scrutinizing through their diversity and the contexts which they are inserted in. It is indeed an intense and almost unfathomable universe. Those who have taken a day or two during their travels to study the faces of the people in any city in the world, have understood that the matter is fascinating. Faces express the circumstances in which they find themselves; they are almost ideological, and this carries a visible ethical content.
Along this same line, other exhibitions by González have attracted much attention: Conducta impropia [Improper Behavior] and Am-Pm. The latter is a stark account of some social groups who burst into Havana’s nightlife with their contentious—although in some ways legitimate—habits.
Most recently he prepared Cuba, año cero [“Cuba, Year Zero”]. He describes the project as follows:
“This millennium’s mass media outlets have homogenized urban subcultures to the point that a teenager in modern-day Havana resembles a teenager in Shanghai.
Adolescence is a period of search, discovery, and confrontation, as well as a period of ideological formation. In these processes, the conflicts experienced by young people are the same regardless of regional differences.
Twenty years ago I was almost the same age as the young people shown in my pictures. The doubts, satisfactions, and longings were the same. The only thing that separates us is the political-geographic situation of that moment: the Socialist Block was disappearing and Cuba was left on its own.
The young people I have portrayed did not experience the period of economic welfare that resulted from exchanges among socialist countries. They were all born during the Special Period, a moment of moral and economic crisis. This social transformation affected political discourse in light of the chaotic reality.
Cuba, año cero [“Cuba, Year Zero”] is a sociological registry of the various adolescent urban tribes: frikis, emos, repas, mikis….It’s a dialogue about the past, present, and future of Cuba through this “post-Berlin Wall” generation to express its rebellious condition, pleasures, worries, ingenuity, doubts, frustration, hopes, and joys…”
May 2014 This article formed part of the may 2014 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.
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