What is beauty, anyway? Is it symmetry? Is it surprise? Is it just a kind of inexplicable rightness? I don’t care. In the Cal Poly University Art Gallery exhibit “Cuban Photography,” it’s here, in the wisp of smoke from an old man’s cigar in Anciano Fumando, or the white figure moving through the frame like an apparition in La Santa.
- PHOTO BY ARIEN CHANG CASTAN
The exhibit’s title implies an all-encompassing look at the island nation’s approach to the medium, but “Cuban Photography” is actually far more specific, and far more personal: a showcase of black-and-white images by Arien Chang Castan and Leysis Quesada, a married couple living in Havana. Theirs is a shared world, and their settings and subjects—Quesada’s young daughter Avril among them—occasionally overlap. Even in the same environment, however, the two seem to see things very differently, each finding beauty according to his or her own logic.
Quesada has a day job giving tours of her city to visiting photographers, so it makes sense that her own work concerns itself very little with classic cars or Old Havana street corners. Family life is instead a very prominent theme, with particular emphasis on children and the elderly. In fact, the frequent juxtaposition of these two groups in “Cuban Photographers” invites contemplation. Quesada looks most deeply into the faces of the young and the old, sometimes seeming to capture her subjects after they’ve noticed they’re being observed but before they’ve had a chance to rearrange their features accordingly. The resulting images feel intimate and unguarded. Sometimes, the same expression of curiosity and innocence plays across the faces of both groups, highlighting their similarities, maybe (as people grow old, don’t they in fact become more like children?). Elsewhere Quesada uses the light to great effect in making wrinkled skin look like a parched desert, somehow majestic in its own way.
If this exhibit is any indication, however, light in Quesada’s work is invariably used to great effect—especially filtered through pale, gauzy materials, causing them to glow as if holy.
The saintly figure kneeling at an elderly woman’s bedside in Sor Taimi is the most obvious example: a nun, her habit a gleaming, supernatural white, clasps the hand of the ailing woman as if beckoning her to heaven. The spiritual iconography is less apparent in other pieces, but the whites still seem to evoke the sublime. Quesada’s Avril en la Ventana, a portrait of the photographer’s daughter framed symmetrically in a window, does it, too.
Oddly enough, both Castan and Quesada appear to have been inspired by the elegant simplicity of bed sheets hanging out to dry, and the curious sight of children’s heads peeking over them.
Castan’s images are sometimes identifiable by their visual tricks, little jokes of perspective that place a boy’s head inside a birdcage or make a man seem to be coming out of a tuba. A palette of black and white seems most conducive to this approach. In his Si Te Cojo, two boys appear engaged in a kind of play warfare, one with a gun (which is surely a toy, but cuts a menacing profile nonetheless), the other armed with a stick, hiding around a street corner. The pursuer wears a look of disarming play-menace, like a housecat readying to pounce, in his eyes the trace of the tiger. In a nearby window, a trysting couple turns out to be a mere photo, perhaps part of an ad. Things are not what they seem.
Castan captures intimate moments, too. A photo of a little ballerina in the arms of her mother is a breathtaking and remarkably unfussy expression of love. The figures in Brothers—one big, one small—share a peaceful, womb-like, infantile sleep. A beautiful young girl looks out the window of a train in Tren Pa, seeming to ponder the horizon, and somehow, the future.
Though far more focused than its name implies, “Cuban Photography” nonetheless has a few things to say about the medium and the still-isolated country, seen through the microcosm of a single neighborhood, kitchen, or bedroom. One needs only glance at Quesada’s image of a woman in an elegant, old-fashioned bathroom. Seated on a wooden chair between the toilet and the tub, she gazes out at the world outside. The work’s title: La Isla de Cuba. ∆
Arts Editor Anna Weltner feels no pain and never cries. Contact her at email@example.com.