A Cuban Photographer in France

Por Yanelis Nuñez Leyva

Yuri Obregon in Paris

HAVANA TIMES — Cuban photographer Yuri Obregon (1979), a graduate from the Higher Institute for the Arts (ISA), returned from his first trip abroad a few days ago. In his brief interview for Havana Times, he shared his impressions on this first “collision” with a different world, as well as his thoughts on Cuban contemporary art.

HT: You were in France from October 3 to 18 this year. What took you there?

Yuri Obregón: I had the opportunity to visit this country thanks to an invitation from the art gallery NegPos, where I exhibited my pieces next to those of two other Cuban photographers. The gallery specializes mainly in photo exhibitions, displaying the works of artists from around the world, to promote these in France and other countries in Europe.

HT: How would you describe the experience? Did it make a profound impression on you? What places did you visit?

YO: This was my first trip abroad and it involved strange sensations. At times, I lost all sense of where I was, I would wonder whether my experiences were real or not. I set out to search for the country’s representative codes or symbols, such as the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Moulin Rouge, even the metro, in short, something that would offer an unmistakable indication I was actually there.

You are perfect. (2012)

People also prouce this feeling in you, to a lesser extent, as one tends to look for points of contact with Cuban reality, with one’s life experiences, and this search makes you stop seeing others as foreigners (though, in this case, I was the foreigner).

Human beings tend to behave similarly, no matter what part of the world they live in. At a nightclub, I would see the typical superficial girl, the dunce, the stud, the drunk and the annoying fellow…I was quite simply among people. I had the same feeling when I visited the city’s humbler suburbs, they looked very similar to some places in Cuba, save for the distance, of course.

I believe this whirlpool of emotions has to do with the need Cubans have to explore things outside the country, which is why we consider traveling a supreme experience. It’s like the man who survives a shipwreck and is finally able to leave the island or small strip of land he was stranded on: traveling gives you a sense of indescribable freedom, even though going back is always an option.

HT: How was your work received?

An elephant singing to the moon.

YO: My work tends to be a bit shocking. People need some time to digest it, converse with it, understand it. I believe the French public had an easier time with it, mainly with the works from the series Sagradamente Obsceno (“Sacredly Obscene”), which I am still working on. Many of the people who approached me asked me about this series, they thought the pieces were impressive and creative. Their comments were positive, in general.

HT: What impression did the art you were able to see make on you?

YO: I believe Europeans have been exposed to a lot of art, in general and in all its forms, particularly France, which was the mecca of world art for a long time. They have powerful institutions that attest to this sensitivity, including the Louvre, the Pompidou Center, the Picasso Museum and others.

They have a solid arts background and that makes for an interesting public, for any artist, and especially for emerging artists.

HT: Do you see any kind of connection with Cuba in this regard?

YO: Sadly, no. In my opinion, what we appreciate isn’t art but fashion. Our art is heavily contaminated by extra-artistic elements that prevail over the love of art. We’re not interested in showcasing that most interesting developments on the island, only those things that have to do with personal benefit. Many a time, we come across exhibitions that claim to be novel, and you leave with the feeling there was no preliminary work, that the exhibition doesn’t include the best works but those of friends, the clique, those artists that will bring the gallery some financial benefit. This makes a lot of good art – or at least more sincere art – disappear.

HT: Do you believe that, following the changes that seem to be coming, more opportunities like these will become available for young artists such as yourself?

YO: I think many people are interested in Cuba now, for different reasons. We all feel something’s changing, for better or for worse, and that the Cuban people are entering a new stage in history. Artists are very sensitive to these changes and take advantage of them in their work. People who move within the art world know this very well, they see this as a good opportunity to present or acquire new art products.

HT: Do you wish to add anything about your experiences during the trip?

YO: I think traveling makes one see things more clearly, it’s easier to see both sides of the coin and to arrive at a sound judgement about our own situation. We are very small island that offers people very few options.
Visiting France gave me the opportunity to have new experiences, to realize the world doesn’t revolve around us, that there are many people who don’t even know Cuba exists, and sometimes aren’t even interested in knowing.

At the same time, I realized that not everything abroad is paradise, that there are many imperfections out there, despite the high levels of development. Before leaving Cuba, one has a vague notion of what the First World is like and what being an inhabitant of the Third World is like, and traveling changes that and makes you see things more clearly.