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Photography A most tender declaration of love

This is Cuba like you’ve never seen it before, captured stunningly by former welder Raul Canibano, writes JOHN GREEN

Absolute Cuba
by Raul Canibano
Edition Lammerhuber
£60

THIS is a fabulous album, and I don’t use superlatives lightly. With his images, Cuban photographer Raul Canibano is not attempting to give us a message, political or otherwise, but captures the exuberance of Cuba as no other photographer has done to date. Even though the images are all in black and white you can’t help but feel the heat and strength of the sunlight bouncing off the images.

In his introductory and illuminating text, the Cuban journalist and novelist Leonardo Padura Fuentes writes that Absolut Cuba is “Raul Canibano‘s declaration of love for his native country. His surprising, caring, yet incredibly precise, take and his lightning-fast, instinctive and gripping intellect let him capture moments that might seem totally familiar: normal everyday life in urban or rural settings. This makes him one of the most gifted photographers in Latin America.”

Canibano was born in Havana in 1961 and worked as a welder. He had no artistic training, but got himself a camera at precisely the time when life in Cuba was hardest – in the 1990s, when the island was left to its own devices after the collapse of socialism in Europe and descended into poverty and even extreme destitution.

Lacking an academic training, he was free of any definitive aesthetic concepts and could develop his own aesthetics, based on two gifts: talent and sensitivity. From 1984 onwards, he started to teach himself photography, developing his own style, which he calls “somehow surrealist,” by studying the works of great painters.

Today, after 30 years of creative work, Canibano counts as the photographer of what is Cuban, doubtless one of the most remarkable of his generation.

Canibano presents us with a picture of his beloved homeland that scarce an outsider could achieve. They are far removed from the stereotypical images of Cuba that we are used to, whether of heroic guerillas or run-down colonial-style housing and poverty.

His images have the feel of captured moments of daily life, shot with love and sympathy. Every photograph refers to a story that began before he pressed the shutter release, and captured that exact moment, and will continue towards an unknown end.
 
Whether a trio of wedding guests on the beach, posing, but snapped through the wind-blown veil of the bride, children relishing a downpour or playing with home-made toys. A boy is fixing his home-made pterodactyl launched on a steel wire, beside him a small girl holding the battered frame of an umbrella above her head with unaffected naturalness.

Many do indeed have a surreal quality, the juxtaposing of incongruous elements: a peasant carrying a trussed crocodile over his shoulder, looking at the cameraman with an expression as if it is the most natural thing in the world to be doing, a pig roasting on a spit in the street as a man, pushing a wheelbarrow holding a chair, walks past indifferently.

Padura again: “Jose Martí, Cuba’s national poet, called Jose Maria Heredia ‘the first poet of America’ because he was the first Cuban to express a sense of a homeland – which at that moment in history did not even exist. Since then the search for this idea, the defining image of Cuba, has become a lifelong quest for Cuban artists.

Throughout the 20th century these artists made it their goal to strengthen this national essence born from within the great traumas of this island: conquest, colonialisation, slavery. Occasionally these efforts ended in stereotypes like that of the tropical island with dark-skinned women dancing on the beach under coconut trees.

Other results became political mottos like the country of the revolution, the image of Che Guevara as saviour, the battle-hardened grateful people. Others still found their definition in rejection and accusation: hungry peasants, prostitutes and gamblers up to 1959; poor black people, even more prostitutes, decay and shortages in the succeeding years.

All these images, visions, realities – and not just these – which we have seen, read and heard, are true and are part of Cuba, but they are not the sum of what makes up the country … A country defines itself through its soul. And Canibano captures that.

This book presents a selection of his photographic oeuvre from nearly three decades, creates a possible image of Cuba, without triumphant noise, without pessimism, without loaded comment.

Here the artist moves in contexts that he sees as the expression of an identity and of the eternal human drama. He gives us real people, who never appear manipulated or contrived but are netted from life. The people in his images reveal themselves as they are, expose themselves – often unknowingly – to the gaze of the artist, allow us a look into their inner lives.

Cuba and the Cubans as they are, as they can be, in everyday situations in their lives, their houses and their streets, their fields and their cities. You can taste and feel the grittiness of reality in each picture.

For more on Absolute Cuba, see here: edition.lammerhuber.at/en/books/absolut-cuba.

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