We’re on a sunlit stretch of a city block. From the architecture it could be any city center south of the United States, or someplace in Europe. That the building in the foreground is worn down helps narrow it down. But not as much as the subjects. There’s a policeman on the corner, looking vigilant. To his left, a group of musicians, guitars, shakers, an upright.
It’s Havana, and this image, for photographer Hank Paper, encapsulates his experience of Cuba as much as any picture he took.
Make no mistake, he said — Cuba is a dictatorship, and “when you have police on every corner, you’re not going to have crime.” But then “there are these musicians who convey a whole different spirit about the place.” The repressive politics and widespread poverty; the deep and vibrant culture that fascinates the world. “These are the two forces that we’re contending with.”
Paper’s photographs and the works of painter Roberta Friedman and quilter Sue Millen are presented side by side by side in “Cuba Adrift,” the latest exhibition at City Gallery, which runs through April 29.
Each of the three artists visited Cuba — Paper first in 2000 and again in 2011, Friedman and Millen both in 2016 — and their experiences there both gave them a more nuanced understanding of geopolitics and shaped their art when they returned. When Freidman was there, she said, “I knew it was going to resonate, and it has.”
For Americans, the relationship with Cuba is defined by the long-standing U.S. embargo against it. It defines national-level politics between the two countries and has a powerful effect within the Cuban-American community, particularly in Miami, famously only a couple hundred miles away from Havana. One of Paper’s photographs, Shrine for Absent Daughter, gets at the human cost from the Cuban side. The picture, Paper explained, was taken inside the apartment of a Cuban photojournalist Paper met on his first trip. Paper took the picture during a party, while people were dancing and grilling food outside. The girl in the picture is the photojournalist’s daughter. She and the photojournalist’s wife “left for Miami,” Paper said. “He was able to make a phone call once a month to his daughter and that was it.” At the time, it was quite possible that the father would never see his daughter again.
But signs of people’s resilience — of “making do,” a phrase each of the artists used — were everywhere. Paper captured it in Capituolo, which showed not only the extent to which people helped each other, but also the constant ingenuity on display in keeping Cuba’s fleet of old cars running.
Millen’s trip to Cuba influenced both the subject matter of her quilting and the methods she used to create her piece. “I was taken with the textures” she saw in Havana and elsewhere, she said, “the peeling, the decay, and the beauty” of the colors of houses. “In doing this piece, like Hank said, ‘make do,’ I made do.”
She used dryer cloths and cheesecloth to create the textures she wanted, in a nod to the way she’d seen people in Cuba using and reusing things. One of the cars in her piece juts out from the border. “I realized the canvas wasn’t big enough” after the fact, she said, “so I just added it.”
In another of her pieces, of a guitar player, she kept the edges ragged and added an actual broken guitar string to the piece. She learned before her trip in 2016 that guitar strings were hard to come by in Cuba, so she brought several sets of them to give to musicians there.
For Friedman, the main effect of her Cuba trip was that “it allowed me to paint in a color palette that I always loved” — the vivid blues, oranges, and greens that proliferate on buildings and artwork in warmer climates but are (sadly) in shorter supply in New England. Before her trip, she had been painting on large canvases using encaustic — that is, using pigments with hot wax. She realized that this technique was pretty ideal for capturing the same kinds of textures that drew Millen’s eye. It let her explore an issue that stretched beyond the cultural experience of Cuba and headed into politics and economics.
“What struck me most,” she said, “is that everything is decaying, neglected. They’re trying to keep things up, but it’s a losing battle.”
Just like the title of another of Friedman’s pieces suggests, it’s complicated. Paper, Millen, and Friedman all dug deep enough to avoid the pitfalls that many Americans fall into when visiting places like Cuba. They neither romanticized nor overplayed the poverty they saw there. They spent enough time there to find the human stories that make generalizations impossible. Their experiences and their artistic practice allowed them to reflect on the complex situation in a country that has seen a lot of changes — and, at the same time, perhaps not as many changes as one might have thought — in the wake of Fidel Castro’s death and the relaxing of the U.S. embargo under the Obama administration, a relaxation that has come under fire in the Trump administration, leaving it in a kind of limbo.
Especially in his first trip in 2000, Paper came away with a keen sense of the repression of the Castro regime. Friedman and Millen, meanwhile, visited at almost exactly the same time as Obama (and the Rolling Stones) did, and found a hopeful country getting ready for the possibility of a surge in tourism and the money that could follow. Did the Cubans they talked to fear the loss of their culture in the face of the onslaught of Americanness? Paper found that some Cuban artists did. Millen found others who were less concerned.
“Don’t worry about us,” Millen recalled them saying. “If McDonald’s comes here, we’ll have them renovate the buildings on either side of them. They’ll get what they want, and we’ll use them for what we want.”
And all of them pointed out the ways in which the embargo wasn’t ever as complete as we might think. Cuban-Americans sent clothes, shoes, and lately, even car parts to their relatives in Cuba — sometimes for the relatives to use them, sometimes to sell them. And despite the Trump administration’s retightening of Obama’s loosening of the embargo, there are still several flights to Havana from several U.S. airports each day, and organizations that will help you get there. In some ways, Paper said, “it’s the easiest time to go in the last 60 years.” The pieces in “Cuba Adrift” suggest that those who visit will find a country moving and changing in some ways, staying the same in others, with a culture as rich and vibrant as ever.
“Cuba Adrift” runs at City Gallery, 994 State St., through April 29. There will be a concluding artists’ talk on April 29 at 2 p.m, free and open to the public. Gallery hours are Thursday through Sunday, 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Visit the gallery’s website for more information.