By Kristina Wirtz
Published in the catalog "Laurence Salzmann: Imagining Cutumba" (2002, Lafayette College, Easton, PA 18042)
Laurence Salzmann’s photographs of the Ballet Folklórico Cutumba, Imagining Cutumba, give a unique, highly individual window into life in late-Socialist Cuba. His rich, smoky monochromes are fantasies of light and movement that do not immediately locate themselves on an imagined, sunny Caribbean island that is already the tantalizing subject of so many American fantasies. Who are the often-shadowy, often-blurred subjects layered upon one another in these mysterious images? Salzmann beckons us to a fresh encounter with Cuban culture, one whose mystique is refracted through his lens and his imagination. One part artful exploration of light, one part dance photography, Salzmann's photographs include a dash of social consciousness from his long experience as a documentary photographer. These images are also ethnographic, although not in the usual way and not on the surface. And yet, in presenting an exotic subject, the collection necessarily raises questions about representing Otherness.
As unidentifiable as these images' location and subjects might be at first glance, they have profoundly shaped Salzmann's entire project. The Ballet Folkórico Cutumba is one of Cuba’s oldest and most highly respected folkloric dance companies. Cutumba's progenitor, the Grupo Folklórico del Oriente, was founded in the year of the Revolution, 1959, and embodied the new mission of culture in the new Cuba: to preserve and celebrate the people's culture. The people—in the Socialist sense of the masses of working poor were and are disproportionately of African descent in Cuba. Cutumba's principal material, then, has always been the Afro-Cuban traditions alternately denigrated and exoticized by dominant sectors of society. Since Cutumba is based in the provincial capital city of Santiago de Cuba, its repertoire specializes in traditions unique to the Oriente, or eastern half of the island.
Cutumba rehearses in a grand, decrepit, old theater called the Teatro de Oriente, one of a string of pre-Revolutionary relics along the principal commercial street of Santiago's historical district. One walks downhill toward the bay on Calle Enramada, under hanging signs, many advertising long gone shops and hotels to the antique sign announcing the Teatro de Oriente. Up the steps past the wrought-iron gates, one enters a cool marble lobby, and from there leaves the brilliant tropical light behind to enter the theater's twilight. The large performance space is stripped bare: bare rows of folding seats, a bare stage, bare racks of dormant stage lights. During Cutumba's morning rehearsals, the only light pours in through windows and doors. Three large windows behind the stage are thrown open, lighting the dancing dust particles into glowing shafts so that the dancers are backlit to anyone sitting in the audience. Salzmann captures this dramatic lighting as washed-out spaces that often dominate the entire photograph.
Indeed, much of the distinctiveness of these images is due to the technical demands of capturing the dancers' movement in low light. Salzmann used long exposures and multiple exposures to give us composites that capture the flow of movement or create layers of images. The process of making long and repeat exposures produces unpredictable, strange, and mysterious effects. In some cases he has heightened the effects or combined separate negatives using digital imaging technology. The results are often highly abstract, drawing one's eye to the prints' thickly textured surfaces of light and shadow. One does not look at these images and "get it" at first glance. With each viewing, more layers reveal themselves; details emerge or resolve into new patterns.
Another distinctive element of this body of work is his portrayal of the human figure. In many of these photographs, there is a sculptural quality to the dancers' bodies, which are almost completely anonymous. When a face is in sharp focus--for example, when a female dancer's face smiles out of the swirl of motion--it gives the entire image an emotional charge. But more typically, the images encourage the viewer to identify the universal in these faceless bodies, which are sometimes distilled to abstraction. Crisp details shine through to ground what would otherwise be purely abstract art: part of a costume, even a telltale gesture that evokes an entire dance.
In this abstract and impressionistic shell game of bodies, light, movement, and detail, Salzmann’s work evokes and challenges three genres of photography--social documentary, dance, and ethnographic--in which he has previously worked
Much of his recent work prior to this exhibit has fallen well within the canons of social documentary photography. His project on relations between Jews and African Americans in Philadelphia typified his consciousness-raising approach to social documentary. Crisp, empathetic group portraits invite the viewer to examine his or her own biases and assumptions. Even the companion project to Imagining Cutumba, La Lucha/The Struggle, gives us straightforward images of young Cuban wrestlers learning their sport.
In contrast, Imagining Cutumba is a departure from the conventions of purist clarity typical of social documentary photography, which often hides its craft to give the illusion of transparently presenting a spontaneous reality. Salzmann instead gives us artfully ambiguous images in place of photojournalism. Their complexity draws us below the surface to ask what these dances, this music, mean to us and what they mean to the dancers. To paraphrase Salzmann's own description of his project: he tired of showing everything like it is and instead wanted to open up the imagination, to show things as they might be.
The juncture Salzmann creates between art photography and social documentary is fresh and novel. However, if these photographs immediately evoke any genre, it would be dance photography, a wide-open genre defined by its central concern with representing the possibilities of human movement in a still medium. Salzmann's images, never static, move in several ways. In some, successive moments of exposure stretch a sequence of movements across the image. A man gestures toward a woman, over whose shoulder the camera gazes. Leaping blurs of dancers seem to topple the central pole to which each is attached by a ribbon. In other images, juxtapositions pull the eye across the surface and through the layers of images to reconstruct a choreography in the relations among the elements, as in the composite image of two dancers with arms stretched overhead layered over other faces.
Salzmann's camera-work itself has an improvisational quality, which nicely parallels the improvisations in which his subjects were engaged. He chose to photograph the rehearsal process rather than the polished spectacle of performances. Without the elaborate costumes and props to distract attention, the focus of the images is on the actual work of experimentation, collaboration, and rehearsal among musicians and dancers, the moments in which they elaborate their own staging of traditional forms
What is the viewer to learn about Cuba, about Afro-Cuban culture, about
Cutumba's work from the photographs? In asking this question and raising the
issue of representation, we are approaching these photographs as ethnographic
images. The central problem of the ethnographic genre is how to present the
Other as subject without exoticizing, but also without eliminating or ignoring
difference. But Salzmann's images of Cutumba do not conform to the conventions
of ethnographic photography any more than they do to the conventions of social
documentary photography. Ethnographic photos usually offer themselves as
transparent windows onto something whose strangeness or exoticism is the
focus. Perhaps Salzmann's approach is the more honest in allowing
the viewer to see how his light-craft shapes his imagination of a scene. In one
photograph, men gather around a central figure who blows smoke from a cigar.
However much the image seems to have captured an Afro-Cuban religious rite, the
image can be no more than Cutumba's stage enactment of a religious rite, or
perhaps merely a photograph of some very different moment that draws upon the
viewer's own imagination of the sacred.
Salzmann's photographic representations of Cutumba’s stage representations make us question exactly what is ultimately being represented. Is there an original, or only a series of refractions and imaginings of identity and culture that create the illusion that, somewhere, an authentic source exists?
Cuba is already an exotic subject to most Americans, and these images are doubly so, in their representations of Afro-Cuban dance. Even within Cuba, Cutumba's repertoire is exotic material to many. There are many ensembles who perform the religious dances of Santería and Palo, the competitive games of rumba, the festive Conga of Carnival. Cutumba stages all of these, but also has its specialties, including many religious and social dances of Haitian immigrants to eastern Cuba. The first wave of Haitian influence in the Oriente arrived in the years after the 1791 Haitian Revolution. Haitian coffee farmers emigrated with their slaves and re-created their coffee plantations in the high reaches of the mountains around Santiago. The second wave came with Haitian laborers who settled in Cuba in the 1920s and 1930s, along with Jamaican and other West Indian immigrants. Among all the ethnic groups of Cuba, the Haitians were arguably the most denigrated, bearing the triple burden of prejudice against their immigrant status, their language, and their race. Their rural traditions, as often happens with marginalized groups, have now come to represent the most colorful and exotic of Cuban folklore.
In one highly impressionistic image, details of balletic posture and lacy ruffles on a dress stand out, identifying the dance being performed as the Tumba Francesa. In its original form, the Tumba Francesa was the slaves' imitation of French quadrilles, mimicking (or was it parodying?) the stiffly elegant posturing of the Europeans' upper bodies, but with feet shuffling and shoulders bobbing to their own, vastly more exciting drums. If we follow the refractions of the Tumba from some ideal original and Salzmann's ghostly image, there would be at least these: the cultural associations that kept its memory alive in places like Santiago and Guantánamo, the re-staging with period costumes by Cutumba, and now Salzmann's representation of the Tumba as stage spectacle.
These layers upon layers of representations matter, because the folkloric re-enactments of groups like Cutumba play a central role in Cuban imaginings of Cubanidad, or Cubanness. That which is folklore in Cuba is fundamentally understood to be historical, portraying the original sources of a common Cuban heritage. The essence of Cubanidad is hybridity, admixture, and syncretism, and in particular, the fusion of African and Iberian contributions into something uniquely Cuban. "We are an Afro-Latin nation," Fidel has declared on multiple occasions. Long before the Revolution, since the early years of the Cuban Republic, which emerged after winning freedom from Spain in 1898, Cuban artists and intellectuals had mined African influences, and in the process buttressed an emerging national origin myth of cultural fusion. The great Cuban intellectual Fernando Ortiz, who inaugurated the field of folklore in Cuba, also inspired the afrocubanismo movement led by artists such as Wilfredo Lam and writers such as Nicolás Guillén. Ortiz also helped to organize the first folkloric performances of Afro-Cuban religious music and dance. The link from Ortiz to Cutumba is direct, because founding members of Cutumba turned to Ortiz's books to study the folk traditions they would present.
But the price of emphasizing the hybridity at the core of modern Cuban identity is that the distinct strains of African, Iberian and other influences must be relegated to the past. That which continues to be stubbornly African or stubbornly immigrant is forced to the margins of national culture, then "re-discovered" and rescued as folkloric treasures from the past. The Revolution's attention to cultural tradition has brought national and international attention to cultural practices on the margins: Cutumba is one example of its success. Cutumba has, in fact, taken great care in its stewardship of disappearing traditions. But perhaps inevitably, such practices have been folklorized, presented as theatrical spectacle.
Salzmann was drawn to this fabulous spectacle, as many of us have been, but once inside the theater he lingered, and in doing so caught rawer moments of rehearsal. He made the most of the very conditions of scarcity in which Cutumba works, finding drama in the low, ambient light streaming through the windows across the stage. These are emotional images, distillations of Cutumba's representations of the Afro in Cubanidad achieved through the serendipity of light and angle and instantaneous moment. They ask us to pause, to look again, and to ask ourselves what we expected to see.
© Kristina Wirtz 2002
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