THE ACUTE CHARM OF RUIN & DEVELOPMENT
Cuba has long presented a radically different version of a North American dream—and that dream now undergoes a dramatic transformation. In “The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development: Havana, Cuba,” I document the development taking place in Havana, the country’s economic, cultural, and ideological capital, in April 2017, prior to the devastation of Hurricane Harvey later that year. A rapprochement had begun briefly between my country and theirs, I went to the country wondering what Cuba’s new economic and tourism rules and practices were bringing to Havana and its people. What is being transformed, how, and for whom?
With development as the prism for examining these questions, my photographs focus on people and places precariously situated on the economic and social edge of touristic Old Havana or located within Central Havana, a traditionally proletariat district now undergoing large-scale structural and socio-economical change, particularly along the Malecón. Development has been progressing speedily in the opening of 2017. Historic structures holding dozens of families are slated to be knocked down for parking structures to facilitate new hotels. Some properties appear already abandoned, but people live in the crumbling hulks, by now stripped of marble detailing and once-exquisite ceramic tiles, even stairs gone. Signs announcing Se vende crop up on every block. Many were regal establishments. What does future regality look like? Where do the inhabitants go?
“The Acute Charm of Ruin & Development” will comprise 25–35 large- and medium-scale prints combining image and text (“field notes”). Its aesthetic approach plays with the codes of neoclassical ruin painting. Within that painting tradition, ruins are utopian, just as modern Cuba has always been a utopian endeavor. A solo exhibition in Oklahoma City is planned for July 2018.
Approaching midnight. In the darkness, right of the Museo de la Revolucion, lights flicker in a series of elegant windows as trees sway in the breeze. This is the Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet.
Upon presenting myself at the door, I am given a tour. The guard lights an inner staircase with his phone. We climb. He is tense, emphasizing the need to be quiet, the need for speed. This visit is off the books. The amount requested for this privilege is low: six CUC. Six dollars. I am unnerved that six dollars alone might change his life enough to balance the risk of us being found. This is one face of survival in Havana in a post-Fidel Castro, post-Obama temporary US rapprochement with Cuba, and while he doesn’t speak to me about this challenge, other Cubans do. They leave jobs as doctors or accountants to work car and bicycle taxis because with tourists they earn in a day what they made before in a month. And the people shut out of the tourist economy can be fatalistic, sometimes bitter, waiting for the changes that will come from outside to sweep them out of their current lives. A worker-artist living on the Malecón says the government has abandoned them; he wants to know how to get inside the new economy. The ballet-school guard has found his answer to that question, taking hesitant, stressful first steps toward enterprise.
Quietly we go room by room. Classrooms with desks, classrooms with barres, the cafeteria, the makeup loge. The presentation is egalitarian; every space is worthy of a foreigner’s photo. Che and Fidel smile from walls and instructional bulletin boards. The guard proudly announces the names of the dancers as we pass photos in the corridor. One frame, oddly, is propped against the wall in a classroom corner, obscured by a table. The picture is of Carlos Acosta as a child dancer, his port de bras taunt, his gaze internal. He studied at the school before leaving Cuba for an international career, and now he rests on the floor. Is there any connection between the two?
This collection of photographs continues the exploration begun in The Acute Charm of Ruins & Development. This series focuses specifically on the condition and transformation of the Malecón, Cuba’s iconic ocean-front boulevard.