We continue our focus on the talented artists of Atelier 32. Through the lens of Conrad Gees, we take a trip to Cuba and Los Habaneros.
Los Habaneros (Havanans)
I have been fortunate that for a brief period of time, travel restrictions to Cuba from the US were eased and ordinary citizens such as myself could visit the island independently without a specified itinerary. The impetus for this series was to finally begin pulling together the images taken during several trips to Havana beginning in 2015.
Born at the height of the Cold War, I was eight when the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred. Fidel Castro was the enemy and Cuba became the isolated isle. The US embargo took effect in the 60’s and the collapse of the Soviet Union Left the Cuban economy hamstrung, the effects of which are evident today. My photographs reflect that, but that is not their intended subject. What fascinated me most was how the people living in three sections of Havana, Habana Vieja, Centro Habana and the Vedado, have developed strong, vibrant neighborhoods working and living together as a community. Their homes, the means by which they get food, their jobs, and even the newly sanctioned small private enterprise ventures, left me, an American with many privileges in life, awed and humbled by the resilience and ingenuity of the “Habaneros.”
What do you hope we as viewers take away from viewing your work?
The four images chosen here could be subjects of Norman Rockwell paintings (grabbing a snack, getting a haircut, enjoying cake with a friend, coming home to a brother) but the backdrop is Cuba. These are the universal human experiences we often forget about when visiting countries vastly different from ours. In my images I want to share the commonalities we share.
Tell us what is next for you creatively.
There are ten images in this show, but ultimately my goal is to make a book.
How the Atelier has helped you hone your vision as an artist?
My second Atelier proved to be as helpful as the first one I participated in three years ago. The project I am undertaking had me frustrated by its sheer size and scope, and I was struggling for a focus. Meg Birnbaum is an excellent facilitator, and even on line she brought together a group of eight individuals, each at different points in their development, and pushed us to think deeply about what each of us is trying to convey with our photographs. At the end of the Atelier, I was left with a very strong set of ten images which helped narrow my focus, yet at the same time have also given me a frame work to expand on for this project.
About Los Habaneros –
There is truth in the statement, Havana is a city frozen in time sixty plus years ago. This is clearly evident in the American cars from the 1950’s still traveling the streets, and in many of the storefronts with their limited consumer goods, but it is also a characterization, which can lead one to a false sense of sentimentality or condescension.
The 1961 US embargo did, in one sense, freeze Havana and cut it off from consumer goods progress, and severely limited its economic development, but the Havana of today is not the Havana of 1961. Havana today is the outgrowth of the 1959 Revolution, the US embargo and the Cold War which forced the inhabitants of this city, just 90 miles off the US coast to develop in ways they can speak of with great pride and in ways which leave them longing for more.
In 2015 I traveled through Mexico to Havana for the first time. Although restrictions on travel from the US to Cuba had just been eased, I was one of very few Americans on the streets of Havana not tied to a tour. The excitement and openness expressed to me by the Habaneros was infectious and led to my returning three additional times.
While concentrating on the sections of Havana known as “Habana Vieja,” and “Centro Habana”, now United Nations World Heritage Sites being renovated and brought back to life, I decided to document not only the buildings but the people living in these currently run-down sections of the city. Their homes, the means by which they get food, their jobs, and even the newly sanctioned small private enterprise ventures, left me, an American with many privileges in life, awed and humbled by the resilience and ingenuity of the Habaneros.
The images in this body of work grew out of, and helped me to develop, a deeper understanding of Havana and its people. Havana is truly a city of resilience.
See more of Conrad Gees‘ work on his website.