“Avril and Thalia on the rooftop, Havana, 2017” by Leysis Quesada Vera. (Courtesy of the Annenberg Space for Photography)

The almost yearlong, greater-L.A.-wide Pacific Standard Time LA/LA Festival, showcasing Latin American and Latino art in L.A., officially ends this month.  

But there’s still plenty to see, including, through March 4, an exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography called “Cuba Is.”

The images promise a peek inside and beyond “aspects of Cuba not easily accessed by foreigners, and sometimes not even by Cubans themselves.”

Well, sign me up. 

It’s all here: Cuba’s indigenous African and European roots, the enforced exile of its citizens, its poverty, sugar cane fields, classic cars and love for ballet and baseball.

But what’s also here are race divisions, class conflicts, the uncertainty of the future and up-close-and-personal looks at people’s kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms.

Sections include the “Sexual Revolution,” “Being Black” and “Cubans in the Arts and Sciences.”

“Cuba In the Special Period” considers the years 1990-1997 when, following the loss of trade with the Soviet Union, Cuba’s economy suffered a near-disastrous downturn.

“Ingenuity” features photos by Ernesto Oroza: lamps made of soda cans; fences fashioned from birth control pill blister packages; a lighter made from electrical parts, pencil and home-made plastic sandal.

Michael Christopher Brown hangs out with urban tribes of “frikis”: young, louche, drug-using partiers who, in spite of their poverty, still somehow come off as glamorous.

Elliott Erwitt is famous for his 1960s photos of Castro and Che Guevara. His black-and-white images of mangy dogs, primitive open-air markets and people simply hanging out, waiting, are a world away from the frikis’ faux glitz.

Michael Dweck’s subjects are the “1 percent”: artists, actors, filmmakers, restaurateurs and models who enjoy lavish homes, luxury goods and “late-night escapades” that are light years away from the severe hardship of most citizens. “The creative class is in its own bubble,” said Dweck. “Cuba is an island of hypocrisy and an island of survivors.”

Luis Gisbert captures the exaggerated sexuality of the young women who call themselves “Chonga Girls.” Henry Eric Hernández and Maryse Gaudreau photograph teenagers who alter their Catholic school uniforms in order to prostitute themselves to tourists. (Girls! No!)

Raúl Cañibano, self-taught, grew up in the countryside hundreds of miles east of Havana. “I think being a photographer is putting your heart into it,” he said of his images. A peasant stares at the camera with a mixture of humility and defiance, his slender body wrapped in a huge trussed crocodile. During a power outage, a group of women, one holding a makeshift fluorescent lamp, help groom a young girl for her quiñceanera. Barefoot pilgrims, dragging chains and heavy rocks, each December crawl almost five miles to the St. Lazarus Church and Leprosarium just south of Havana.

Leysis Quesada, a native of Havana, has two daughters who are growing up in a “very changing” Cuba. In “April and Thalia on the Rooftop,” the budding ballerinas — one wearing a tutu of peacock blue, the other in black with pink shoes — resemble a pair of royal egrets. The grimy rooftop on which they’re posing overlooks a potholed alley and a tangle of jerry-rigged, possibly live, electrical wires.

Tria Giovan has been visiting and documenting the changes in Cuba for close to 30 years. Her photos — a makeshift beauty parlor, a Tropicana dancer, a close-up of a pair of battered pink satin toe shoes — capture the combination of being wounded and strength, fierceness and vulnerability, that seem to emblemize the soul of this precariously positioned country.

An original documentary film, following five of the featured photographers as they capture images of life in Havana and beyond, accompanies the exhibit.

A further offering is “a virtual reality experience that delves into Cuba’s current dynamic music scene, allowing visitors to virtually stroll along the storied Malecón.” That would be the five-mile esplanade and seawall, sometimes dubbed “the world’s longest sofa,” along which Cubans promenade, preen, flirt, gossip, debate, pray, gaze out to sea, fish, play music and sell their bodies. I skipped that part, not being dressed for it.

There’s even a pop-up café serving Cuban food from the famous Porto’s Bakery in Glendale: Guava cheese rolls, coconut strudel, La Llave coffee.

But in the end, it’s the images that compel: a dance academy that has been converted from a former prison; Bobby Carcasses, one of the founders of the Havana Jazz Festival, playing piano in his elegantly crumbling apartment; deteriorating gingerbread building façades in hues of faded seafoam green, turquoise and Pepto-Bismol pink; a kitchen, tiled in moldy blue, with a bucket for a sink.

In fact, my primary question, after observing so vivid a blend of squalor and spirit, the sacred and the profane, was this: How do so many people manage to look so heart-rendingly, exuberantly, seductively gorgeous with very little money, spotty electricity and those hovel-like bathrooms?

As Cañibano summed up, “I love my country and all its complications. I always come back to the same thing: to tell stories.” 

 

Heather King is a blogger, speaker and the author of several books.

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