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Views of Cuba in a New Light

Thursday, May 14, 2015
It’s one of the most famous photographs in the world, endlessly reproduced and valorized. The portrait of Che Guevara by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda shows him as a prophet, a romantic idol, a man of action, but also a man of thought. He’s a freedom fighter, a Marxist guerilla who sanctioned violence, and a moody, existential hero. It’s one of those enduring images onto which we project our own ideas about defiance and rebellion. Korda titled the photograph G uerrillero Heroico, but throughout the world it became known simply a s Che.

There are two versions of Guerillero Heroico on view in the recently opened exhibition “¡Viva Cuba!” a fascinating show of photography about Cuba, dating from the 1950s through the present, which continues through July 11 at Big Town Gallery in Rochester. All but one of the photographs are for sale. Some of them (see correction below) have come from the Coutu rier Gallery in Los Angeles.

Korda, who was then working for the newspaper Revolucion, took the picture on March 5, 1960. The occasion was a service honoring dock workers and crew who had died in an explosion of the French ship La Coubre in Havana harbor the day before. La Coubre was bringing in munitions when it blew up. Fidel Castro declared the explosion a CIA plot; the U.S. denied it. Hundreds, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Castro acolytes, turned out for the memorial.

When you enter Big Town gallery, look to the wall on the left. There’s the familiar image Korda shot that day: Guevara, who boasts long, tangled black hair, a beret sporting a star and a zipped leather jacket.

What the uncropped photograph is not, is an icon, which is what Korda made of it when he eliminated the framing devices of palm fronds and man, and zeroed in on Guevara’s face. Castro was the leader, but he didn’t have Guevara’s smoldering glamour . Sex sells, even revolutions.

Ironically, the portrait of a dedicated Marxist became, in its transmission around the world in the 1960s, a totem of entrepreneurial capitalism. Che Guevara was a revolutionary, but his image also sold millions of t-shirts, posters and caps. He sold cool.

Guevara, who was shot to death in an ambush by Bolivian troops in 1967, might have approved of the proliferation of his image, but it’s hard to imagine him approving of the capitalist production methods that made it possible.

To emphasize the durability of Guevara’s image, Big Town gallery owner and curator Anni Mackay has placed underneath both of Korda’s photographs a melancholy color photo by Virginia Beahan, a lecturer in photography at Dartmouth College and a frequent documenter of contemporary Cuba.

Beahan shot a bakery, its exterior wall painted with a fading mural of Che, and his fellow revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos, who died in a plane crash in 1959. It’s a subtle metaphor for the way past and present are so inextricably linked in Cuba — or at least in the Cuba depicted in these photographs. You can’t get away from history: It taps on your shoulder, glances at you from around a corner, and, on occasion, comes too close for comfort .

“¡Viva Cuba!” features photographs by Beahan, Korda, Susan S. Bank, Raul Corrales, Janis Lewin, José A. Figueroa and Alex Harris, and Hanover resident Jon Gilbert Fox and Bethel resident John Fago.

What’s compelling about “¡Viva Cuba!” is the way it shows the divide between the hopes of the revolution and what it produced; its accomplishments and its failures; its violence and the aftermath. Implicit in nearly all the photographs is the decades-long relationship between Cuba and the U.S., which has been marked by as much festering tension and resentment, and can’t-live-without-each-other closeness, as any marriage. There’s a seductive give-and-take between the two cultures that informs every photograph.

Take the famous photograph shot by Raoul Corrales, a peer of Korda’s and, like him, sympathetic to the revolution. Caballeria (The Cavalry), shows Guevara, Fidel and Raoul Castro, and other riders, dressed in military fatigues, trotting on horseback toward the camera. Men carry the Cuban flag. The sky behind them churns with clouds.

It’s not difficult to see this as something out of a Hollywood Western, undoubtedly the iconography they were going for. The year was 1960, not 1860: cars were available. But men in cars wouldn’t have telegraphed victory as stirringly or authoritatively as men on horseback, as the ancient Romans well knew when they erected equestrian monuments of their generals and emperors. The liberators have won and they’re unmistakably in control. This is the triumph of the revolution, the end of the corrupt and brutal regime of Fulgencio Batista.

But triumph isn’t the mood that emerges in the photography of Virginia Beahan and Susan Bank, whose work, along with that of John Fago, is particularly affecting. These photographers have spent enough time in Cuba to become intimate with its people. There’s a sense of melancholy and loss . The era of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Batista was deposed and the Castro brothers took power, seems frozen in time, but the photographs also give off an electric current of vitality that emanates from the Cuban people.

Beahan is most interested in how the Cuban landscape evokes the country’s recent history, while Bank documents the lives of rural farm families. Beahan shows large-scale color photos of the Bay of Pigs, and the North Coast of Gibara, one of the launching points for Cubans trying to sail to the U.S . There are no people in Beahan’s photographs, but you feel their presence in the faded billboards, the derelict buildings, the quiet waters that belie the history of imperial conquest and desperate emigration.

Susan Bank’s photography hews most closely to the social realist aspect of documentary tradition. There’s an evident commitment to her subject. The black-and-white photographs aren’t obviously showy, but they are revealing of the family life of campesinos, subsistence farmers who live without the modern conveniences Americans take for granted. They’re shown going to their cistern for water, sifting rice, cooking and resting. The strain of their manual labor is written on their faces and sinewy bodies.

There’s one extraordinary photograph, titled T he Healer and Chengo, that shows a healer laying hands on an older man lying in bed; through a window we see a horse, which seems to be listening attentively.

Like Bank, John Fago has a series of photographs that show how Cubans get by, and make do. There’s one titled Empty lot, urban organic farming that depicts what, at first glance, seems to be a typical, crumbling urban lot. Look more closely and you’ll see neatly lined rows, a scarecrow and a man, himself scarecrow-like, holding up his hands as if to say, “Look what I have made here.”

Alex Harris’ large-format color photographs of Cuba are spectacular. Harris, the founder of the Center for Documentary Photography at Duke University in North Carolina, shot pictures through the windshields of the old American cars, dating from the 1950s, that seem to be as integral to the landscape as the billboards of Guevara. The colors are saturated, the views of Havana through the windshields panoramic, and there’s a tension between the meticulously maintained cars, beloved relics of the Yanqui colonizer, and the Latin religious and cultural icons that give the country its particular texture and character.

In conjunction with the exhibition, Mackay has organized a symposium on the history and art of Cuba that takes place this Saturday at the Rochester High School Auditorium at 3 p.m.

William Craig, author of Yankee Come Home: On the Road from San Juan Hill to Guantanamo , will speak on Cuba’s road to revolution; Lisa Baldez, professor of government and Latin American studies at Dartmouth College, will speak on Art and Revolution; John M. Carey, also a professor of government at Dartmouth, will talk about U.S.-Cuba relations through a local lens, and Vermont Law School professor Jared Carter will talk about the embargo.

A public reception follows at 5:30 p.m. at Big Town Gallery. For information call the gallery at 802-767-9670 or go to

Openings and Receptions

There’s no shortage of artists working in textiles in the Upper Valley, from weavers to quilters to felters, as well as knitters and rug hookers. A wide-ranging show of such art goes on view Friday in the mezzanine gallery at the Norman Williams Library in Woodstock. There will be an opening reception from 4 to 5:30 p.m., and a demonstration Saturday from noon to 3 p.m.

The 14 artists featured are: Janet Andersen, Ellen Banker, Elizabeth Barret, Ruth Buchanan, Deborah Ellis, Wanda Huff, H ali Issente, Hal and Wyfy Issente, Rachel Kahn, Vassie Sinopoulos, Diane Stott, Julia Watson, Betsy Wing and Eve Winslow. The exhibition continues through June 30.

The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction holds its commencement Saturday, at 94 South Main St., with noted cartoonist Jeffrey Brown, author of Darth Vader and Son, and its sequels Vader’s Little Princess, Goodnight Darth Vader and the Jedi Academy series, as its speaker. The ceremony is open to the public.

Immediately after commencement the CCS thesis exhibition opens with a reception in the Public Gallery, at 94 South Main St. The show runs through June 14.

ArtisTree in Pomfret will show art by local elementary school students in grades 2 and 4 through May 23. A reception, with pizza, kicks off the show at 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Of Note

Bonnie Clause, who wrote the book Edward Hopper in Vermont, will give a talk about the artist on Friday, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Royalton Memorial Library. The talk is given in conjunction with an exhibit about the time Hopper spent in Royalton in the late 1930s, painting the White River Valley. The exhibit and talk are open to the public at no charge.

Call for Entries

In honor of its new hardwood floor, which debuted this winter, the Library Arts Center in Newport is asking professional and amateur wood workers to submit their work for an exhibition that will run from June 27 through Aug. 6. The show will include furniture, sculpture, carvings. Entries are going to be judged by New Hampshire craftsmen Ted Blackly and Terry Moore. The deadline for entries is June 1. Entry forms and full entry details can be found at

Field Trip

The AVA Gallery is offering a one-day bus trip to the New York Botanical Garden on Wednesday, June 17, to see the exhibition “Frida Kahlo: Art. Garden. Life,” which includes works on paper and paintings. The Mexican artist drew on her own gardens and her love of nature in her work. The charge is $95 for AVA members; $125 for non-members. The fee includes transportation and refreshments on the bus, plus on-bus movie, and admission fee to the botanical garden in the Bronx. Depearture time is 6:30 a.m., and return is scheduled for 5 p.m., with an estimated arrival back at AVA of 10 p.m. For registration call 603-448-3117 or go to

O ngoing

A rabella , Windsor. The gallery exhibits works by local artists and artisans in a variety of media including jewelry, oils, acrylics, photography, watercolors, pastels and textiles.

AVA Gallery and Art Center, Lebanon. Works by Joan Morris, Stephanie Suter, Helen Shulman, Ernest Montenegro and Jonathan Sa’adah are on view through Wednesday.

Chandler Gallery , Randolph. Regional art is on view through June 14.

Converse Free Library , Lyme. The Betty Grant Gallery exhibits mosaics by Greg Gorman until July 31.

Aidron Duckworth Museum , Meriden. The museum has reopened for the season with a show of Duckworth’s “Early Passages in Color,” which continues through July 26 , and paintings and works on paper by Bert Yarborough, through June 7.

Great Hall , Springfield , Vt . “Fibrations! New England Fiber Art & Mixed-Media Invitational Exhibition” runs through spring.

Hood Museum of Art , Hanover. Works by Nigerian artist Victor Ekpuk are on view through August 2. “Allan Houser: A Centennial Exhibition,” a show of sculpture by the late American artist, in honor of the centennial of his birth, continues through May. “About Face: Self-Portraiture in Contemporary Art,” is on view through Aug. 30.

Howe Library, Hanover. The 55+ Art Show continues through May 27.

Library Arts Center, Newport. The juried regional exhibition is up through June 11.

Long River Studios , Lyme. The intaglio prints of Bradford artist Ann Eldridge are on view through May.

Lyme Inn . Flower pastels by Mary Jane Morse are up through May 31.

Main Street Museum of Art , White River Junction. The museum’s permanent collection is on view

Norwich Public Library . A retrospective of work by Rebecca Gottesman, “Sweet Memories: 25 Years of Making Art,” runs through June 30.

Royalton Library . A show about Edward Hopper, who spent time in South Royalton in the late 1930s, is on view through June 13.

Scavenger Gallery, White River Junction. “Tropical,” a show of paintings by Sigrid Lium are on view.

Tunbridge Library . Works by Laurel Vail Tobiason of Barnard, and Patricia Warren, from Tunbridge, are on view through May 24.

Two Rivers Printmaking Studio , White River Junction. “Print Garden” runs through May.

Zollikofer Gallery , Hotel Coolidge, White River Junction. Enamel works by Matthew Wolf are on view through Wednesday.

Nicola Smith can be reached at


Only the works of three Cuban photographers, Raul Corrales, Jose A. Figueroa and Alberto Korda, and the Brooklyn, N.Y., photographer Janis Lewin, are on loan from Couturier Gallery in Los Angeles to BigTown Gallery in Rochester, Vt. The number of artists whose work is on loan from Couturier Gallery was incorrect in an earlier version of this column.

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