The “Special Period”: Cuban Artists in the Tsiaras Family Photography Collection

Alex Méndez, the Colby Museum’s Linde Family Foundation Coordinator of Academic Access, shares interpretive content that she developed for Act of Sight: The Tsiaras Family Photography Collection.

Curator Beth Finch has referred to the exhibit Act of Sight: The Tsiaras Family Photography Collection as a show of photography that encompasses many potential shows. One such group features art by the contemporary Cuban photographers Pedro Abascal, Lissette Solórzano, Arien Chang Castán, and Alejandro González.

Working during and shortly after the euphemistically labeled “Special Period”—a time of socioeconomic crisis in Cuba following the collapse of the Soviet Union—Abascal, Solórzano, Chang Castán, and González made art that commented on their lived experience during a time of immense social change.

The object labels I wrote for each of these works are meant to further contextualize the visual legacies each artist is responding to while also teasing out the stylistic intricacies of each work.

–Alex Méndez, Linde Family Foundation Coordinator of Academic Access at the Colby Museum

Pedro Abascal

Pedro Abascal, Untitled, from the series, Dossier Habana, Galiano #209, 1995. Gelatin silver print, 9 x 13 3/4 in. Gift of Dr. William and Nancy Tsiaras, 2020.090

Photographed from an elevated vantage point, Pedro Abascal structured an image that plays with visual parallels. The street tiles and the wooden boards that populate the margins of the image mirror the much smaller clusters of domino pieces captured in this one instance. Abascal’s Dossier Habana series celebrates the synchronicities of everyday encounters in the city. Photographed in 1995 during an unprecedented socio-economic crisis for Cuba known as the “Special Period in Times of Peace,” Abascal’s images speak to a city undergoing rapid transition with the withdrawal of Soviet subsidies and the opening of a touristic sector. Although these changes made many long term residents of Havana feel a sense of dislocation, Abascal’s images find poetry in the specificities of the city, providing a sense of grounding if only for a moment.  

Pedro Abascal, Untitled, from the series, Dossier Habana, Calle de los Mercaderes, 2001. Gelatin silver print, 12 x 16 in. Gift of Dr. William and Nancy Tsiaras, 2020.089

 A musician carries a double bass on his back through the streets of Havana. Behind him painted on a wall is a mural of an Egyptian pyramid, which appears to be cradled in the hollows of the instrument. Pedro Abascal is interested in the poetic exchanges between Havana’s citizens and their city.  Created six years after Abascal began his Dossier Habana photo series, Calle de los Mercaderes showcases the artist’s abiding interest in the serendipitous occasions that punctuate a city that is often stereotypically depicted as being stuck, underdeveloped, static, and unchanging. 

 Lissette Solorzarno

Lisette Solorzano, The Corridor, from the series, Metaphors of Silence, 2012. Archival pigment print, 19 3/4 x 23 5/8 in. Gift of Dr. William and Nancy Tsiaras, 2020.219

The Corridor focuses on a rupture in Havana’s iconic sea wall, El Malecon. The indentation in the pavement, partially filled with water, becomes a reflective surface in which appears the silhouette of a figure. El Malecon, which runs through the entire perimeter of Havana, acts as the boundary between the city and the sea. As the title of the series Metaphors of Silence connotes, Solorzarno seeks out symbolic apparitions in the everyday built environment. The Corridor speaks to the interpretive possibilities found in easily overlooked details. 

Alejandro Gonzalez 

Alejandro Gonzales, Untitled, from the series, Improper Conduct, 2008. Archival pigment print, 26 1/2 in. x 26 1/2 in. Gift of Dr. William and Nancy Tsiaras, 2020.114

Alejandro Gonzalez’s series “Improper Conduct” consists of portraits made during the celebration of the World Day Against Homophobia. In creating these extreme close ups, Gonzalez sought to foreground faces, de-emphasizing features that would assign a gender to subjects. The title of Gonzalez’s series is a reference to a 1983 documentary by Néstor Almendros and Orlando Jiménez Leal that recounts the persecution of the LGBTQ+ community in Cuba following the revolution until the early 1980s. The film, like Gonzalez’s photo series, challenges the legacy of Castroism and its emphasis on the “New Cuban Man.” Gonzalez turns the lens of his camera towards activists fighting against gender and sexual discrimination and challenging a long visual and political legacy that prioritized an ideal hyper-masculine revolutionary subject. 

Arien Chang Castán 

Arien Chang Castán, Untitled, 2011. Archival pigment print, 19 in. x 12 1/2 in. Gift of Dr. William and Nancy Tsiaras, 2020.095

Two young children stand arm and arm in the foreground of the image gazing slightly up towards the photographer. Waves are up to their calves and their facial expressions are intent but serene. The textured ripples in the water caused by the waves reaching shore begin to subside as they near a large metal boat that looms at the furthermost edge of the photo. Chang Castán has composed the image to be strikingly vertical, yet neither the boat or the young children are emphasized; rather they both seem to balance on the edges of the image. The title Baracoa alludes to the easternmost Cuban city where the photograph was taken. In emphasizing the city, Chang Castán also references the history of this site as the place where Columbus first entered Cuba. The rusted boat, heavy and unmoving, carries multiple references and speaks to a long history of colonialism, military intervention, and migration.