Dignity preserved amid Cuba's dilapidation and drift

Cuba Sí | National Theatre Foyer, London
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The Independent Online

Organised by the Cuba Solidarity Movement, Cuba Sí is intended as a morale-boosting portrait of the island. To its credit, it reveals a reality which is far more ambiguous and interesting.

Organised by the Cuba Solidarity Movement, Cuba Sí is intended as a morale-boosting portrait of the island. To its credit, it reveals a reality which is far more ambiguous and interesting.

Certainly there are some well-known revolutionary images, such as Korda's iconic Che Guevara. The famous poster image is the supreme example of the photogenicity of the Cuban Revolution, a quality of which the revolutionaries seem to have been aware at the time. Korda's contemporary Raúl Corrales gives us The Dream, a skilfully composed - staged? - picture of a sleeping soldier in a bourgeois apartment whose posture uncannily echoes the nude in a painting on the wall, the gun on the wardrobe add-ing its own menace and glamour.

Most of the photographs are more contemporary, but all are exercises in black-and-white realism, such as those of Cristóbal Herrera who says: "Photographers of my age love Fidel and regard him as our father." One wonders, looking at his pitiless images of modern Havana's dilapidation and drift, its idling men. He reminds anyone who knows the city of the inescapable sense of waiting encountered there: not waiting for anything, though there is plenty of that, but waiting itself, using up Cuba's only surplus product - time.

It is there in the Interior Mirrors series by Lázaro Miranda. Look at the nude in the mirror. Slowly, and literally, the eye becomes aware of the decaying silver backing of the mirror, the bricks holding the bed up, the fussy doilies on the dresser. There is a Vermeer-like quality of time here that also suggests near-silence, the only sound some distant street noise. More, and the subject's nudity underlines this, one is reminded of the precious rarity of things in Cuba, where everything is scarce and must be saved and repaired. "Socialism is sadness," the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla used to say, "but it gives you shelter."

Trawling through the volume of work on display, one becomes aware of odd continuities. The poor man with his home-made statuette of Lazarus in Constantino Arias's photograph of 1958 is there again, 40 years later, in a shot by Raúl Cañibano; even stranger is the affair of the Man In The White Suit.

One of the most famous images of pre-revolutionary Cuba is the 1933 picture of a stylish black man in a white suit, probably a gangster, taken by the American Walker Evans. Could this really be him in José Figueroa's 1972 photograph of a man hurrying round a corner? And here he is again in 2000, snapped by Miranda: elbow on a bar, the hair and eyebrows now as white as the suit. This is a reminder that Cuba did not invent itself in 1959. Cuba Sí shows that, far from realising a leap into modernity, the Revolution has preserved the 1950s. Perhaps the organisers might have considered that most of what is good about Cuba doesn't photograph - the literacy and dignity, the humbling civility and patience of its people.

'Cuba Sí': National Theatre Foyer, (020 7452 3400), to 11 November

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