The Nathalie Obadia Gallery Brussels is delighted to present the exhibition Cuba, its second collaboration with Andres Serrano. In 2012, the American artist showed Sacramentum: Sacred Shadows in Brussels: images of the Holy works series that examined the symbols of Catholicism. Still topical in the Cuba exhibition, this question focuses greater emphasis on Man, incarnated in the twenty or so photographs on show as of 13 March in Brussels. The people of the island turn out to be the main subject and object of a trip made by the artist in the summer of 2012. This Caribbean saga has bequeathed images and a collection with a foreword that begins with: “I wanted to capture the Breath of a Nation, its land, its people, its future.”
Born in New York in 1950 to parents from Cuba and Honduras, Andres Serrano went to Cuba for the first time on 25 May 2012. He had accepted an invitation from Jorge Fernandez, Director of the Wilfredo Lam Institute, to be present at the Havana Biennale which the latter oversees. Andres Serrano seized the opportunity to spend some time on the island of his forebears, nurturing a secret hope to fathom its essence. To that end, he stayed in the centre of Havana, in the Hotel Nacional, haunted by memories of such prestigious guests as Nat King Cole, Ernest Hemingway, and cigar aficionado Winston Churchill among many others. He set up his photography studio not far from the hotel, in a guest house located at the very heart of a working class neighbourhood which he at first found agitated and worrisome, before he grew familiar with its inhabitants as they passed through his lens in turn.
The excessively bright local light during the day forced Andres Serrano to start shooting outdoors at dawn. He would then start roaming the narrow streets of the city lined by outmoded manorial homes and dilapidated shacks. His eye was drawn by the polychromy of the facades full of cracks and in general by the ravages of time that embrittle the buildings in the old quarters left derelict by the regime. The setting exudes a “poetry of ruins” bathed in nostalgia.
The photograph entitled Cristian, Miramar, Havana, another metaphor for the time that goes by, shows a young woman at a window whose theme, beloved of Matisse, borrows its narrative dimension from painting and reminds us that Andres Serrano describes himself as a “painter and portraitist first and foremost.”
Andres Serrano met his models whilst walking through the city. When evening fell, he invited them to his studio when he was not invited to their homes. These sessions were dedicated to portraits. The Cuban woman is given particular pride of place. The faces are weathered by the harshness of daily life. Irrespective of their age, some accept to pose nude for the camera, always with modesty and dignity. Andres Serrano depicts as truthfully in his photographs the campesinos whom he calls “Cuban cowboys.” This series of portraits of men with hats takes us temporarily outside the capital. They all share an extreme psychological depth rendered by the intensity of the looks.
Back in Havana, with the series of “colonial houses.” These erstwhile luxurious houses belonged to the Cuban and Spanish aristocracy before the Castro revolution in 1959. Dating from the 19th century, they were nationalised and turned into community housing dwellings. Curiously enough, one house escaped this fate: that of Jose Miguel Alonso and Josefina Grande (2 photographs presented in Brussels). It has been frozen in time since Fidel Castro came to power, as attested to by a series of interior photographs. The elegance of the woodwork is betrayed by the gutted bases of the furniture. An advanced sign of the decrepitude of the premises. This situation is reflected throughout the city whose charm oscillates between splendour and decadence.
This is the delightful paradox that Andres Serrano has managed to pull off in Cuba. This collection of images also features shots of contrasted atmospheres. Some are deliberately shocking, as in the case of body fragments photographed at the Havana faculty of medicine. In the same vein as Piss Christ (1987) which mixed human secretions, Andres Serrano extends the taste for the provocative albeit, as always, in an artful manner to raise awareness.