The Truths My Camera Observes

by Dariela Aquique, photos: Ruben Aja Gari

Ruben Aja Gari

HAVANA TIMES, Feb 13 — Young Ruben Aja Gari is the vice president of Santiago de Cuba’s Asociacion Hermanos Saiz (AHS), a government-funded youth cultural organization. He is also the leader of the audio-visual section of that organization.

Always with a camera in hand, he wanders the streets of the city in his hunt for every detail of daily life, which he later gives back to us made into art. It’s a sort of magical realism that breaks with time and space to become a memory and a testimony to the truths that the camera observes.

HT: Why did you choose photography as a medium of expression?

Ruben Aja Gari: It was for the immediacy it allows me. I had really wanted to devote myself to sculpture, but that’s even more expensive, and photography lets me express myself.

Also, with me it’s a complete process. Ever since I held my first camera (a Soviet Zenit), which back then cost me 120 pesos (about $6 USD), I knew that was what I wanted to do. That was when I was 18, and now I’m 32.

I owe all of this to my teacher and friend Rene Otero Solomon. I remember how we used to spend hours and hours at nights in the lab developing pictures and movies, on 35 mm and 120 mm reels.

Believe me – any camera is cheaper than putting together a sculpture studio. And now with digital cameras and technology getting cheaper — and all of them in high definition — you can take pictures with the assurance that you’ll come out with sharp images.

HT: In many parts of the world, photography constitutes a university program and is not a matter of certain additional higher education courses. We have that limitation, which is obviously due to economic issues. Nonetheless, many Cubans have devoted themselves to photography. Despite the lack of resources and thanks to innovative technologies, they’ve been able to achieve some fine work. What do you think about this?

RA: I think that photography is a phenomenon that hooks anyone who practices it to a greater or lesser depth in Cuba and elsewhere. If there had existed a Cuban university or polytechnic program in photography, and I (using myself only as an example) hadn’t been able to enroll in it for whatever reason, having come to know it like I do today, I would have still devoted myself to it body and soul.

That’s what I think happens to Cuban photographers. They have learned photography and have seized on it to channel their feelings, thoughts and ideas. Consequently, today they are photographers who are leaving a mark on the history of this noble profession as art, even in the history of Cuba. Why not? We have to remember that photography is also a testimony for the capacity it has to freeze time in a two dimensional image with the full level of total reality that it captures.

HT: “Pa’mi pueblo” (For my people) is a photo incorporated into the set of images of your personal exhibition displayed for nearly a month in the gallery of the Francisco Prat Puig Center here in Santiago. Why that title and why precisely this photo?

RA:Pa” Mi Pueblo” is the first picture I took for this exhibit that was inspired by the work of Ernesto Ocaña Odio, who was the photographer for the Cronica Roja (a crime series section) of Bohemia magazine prior to 1959.

We are talking about the person who took the photo of Frank Pais, the leader of the urban underground movement, shown dead with a pistol planted in his hand by police officer Cañizares of the dictatorship.  He also captured those images of the very young Fidel Castro being held under arrest in a station with the portrait of Jose Marti in the background; and who photoed the assault on the Moncada Garrison, where the photo shows one of the armed revolutionaries, Jose Luis Tasende, moments before his death.

The genre that he exploited most was the photography of social commitment, so my photo exhibit is a tribute to his work as a photographer. To me this exhibit is shows a very high level of commitment.
Pa ‘mi pueblo is an action of counter-attack, one of hand-to-hand combat against giving up ground. It’s a testimonial aimed at preserving and advancing what is worthy.

It’s necessary to advance more and back down less. You have to look at the world with air in the lens and not a lens full of air, otherwise it will break. Pa ‘mi pueblo is about those who succeed at that but who don’t brag.

It’s also something I owe to my people, something I owe to myself as well as to Ernesto Ocaña and Jose Joaquin Tejada – to him and his gamble on the new 21st century in which we live today, as I express the truths that my camera observes. There are no half measures. There are desires that must prevail.

HT: The photos graphically express certain things; on the other hand, the interpretations they provoke can be very different. As such, do you think they fulfill their roll?

RA: For art to be art, it has to be polysemous, with many different meanings. No matter what the interpretation given by the viewer, the work will always fulfill its roll. I always pay close attention to this in realizing works that can be read by various types of audiences and thus reaching a larger number of people.

HT: “Pa’ mi pueblo” essentially records actions, critiques. It displays them to us, and it doesn’t try to make them look good. These days they don’t go overlooked, they’re not commonplace. They make us feel concern. They make us reflect either for or against. Is that your super-objective?

RA: That should be the super-objective of any artist. A work, apart from being illustrative, should be questioning, haunting, reflective. My goal is to propose the image and for the viewer to give their interpretation for or against it. If I succeed with this — achieving a work that’s ambivalent, questioning, restless — then I feel very proud of what I’ve done.

Art is an instrument of communication between the creator and the viewer – regardless of race, gender, ideology, political view, sexual preference, etc.

I think art in general is a universal language with which all people who communicate through it understand perfectly well.

HT: The issues addressed have been well covered by Cuban photographers, especially by the younger generation, which has set to one side the so-called epic photos of the early years of the revolution. They capture shots of ordinary people showing the worker, the child – in short, the people! Why this path and not nudes or landscapes, for example?

RA: Because it’s very easy to take pictures of Cuban landscapes, whether urban or rural, or of slender and naked men and women, not to mention that these styles are of the most exploited by all visual artists.

I’ve gotten beyond an initial concern about nudity and sexuality through photography. Back in June 2002, I had an exhibit that was a sample with this topic; it focused on sexual paraphernalia and aberrations. It had nothing to do with beautiful representations of the body, rather the darker side of human sexual life.

The locations were outside, with a heavy emphasis placed on open shots to highlight some landscape and soften the image of the foreground, in this way killing two birds with one stone, presenting pictures of landscapes and of nudes.

I would like to do a respectful and sober exhibit of nudes and I’ve thought about this several times, but it would take a little more of a budget to pay for the models I would need (laughter). I thought about this previously, like I said, but this would be an exhibit that would have nothing to do with what I’ve seen so far in Cuba. I went down the path of social commitment photography because I felt I had a lot to say, it’s kind of catharsis. It’s a proclamation… a proclamation!

HT: The exhibit is divided into four series. I’ve ventured to name them: graffiti, faces and architecture, and objects. Could you explain this series?

RA: The series that you call graffiti is “Pa” Mi Pueblo,” whose name was used for the entire exhibition. Just like you’re saying, it has to do with showing how in recent years posters in Cuba have moved away from graphic propaganda, be it “white propaganda” (officialist) or not; and with all the good and bad points associated with this.

The series of faces and architecture is “magical realism,” as the title suggests, and is based on the great work of the writer Alejo Carpentier. It’s the representation of that mixture generated by the diaspora.

This has resulted in my way of seeing the reality that surrounds me, considering that my reality is not the same as that of some white guy born in the relatively upscale neighborhood of Vista Alegre. I was born in the Van Van neighborhood, in a hole on the edge of the edge (pun intended) here in Santiago de Cuba. The first settler in that hole in the wall was my grandmother, in a place they call “El Hoyo de Josefa” (Josefa’s Hole in the Wall), referring to her first name.

Still living there are everyone from the descendants of Haitians, people from Baracoa, Guantanamo, emigrated campesinos, very low class workers and a large population of marginal elements (common criminals, the mentally ill, prostitutes, etc.). Therefore, my work cannot be representative of Santiago’s pretty face. I would be denying my roots, those of a white guy who grew up in Van Van.

Whenever I have the opportunity, I always say that learning art changed my life (it saved my life!). If that hadn’t happened, I don’t know what my life would have been like today.

The other series, “Identidad,” has to do with the things that I can identify with closest: my flag, Jose Marti, the rocker in which my grandmother would sing me to sleep when I was very young. She would sing the song “Lo Feo” (the ugly), that’s why the photo is named after that song, or “Tribute to My Grandmother.” It also has to do with the state in which the rocker is now in, which we still keep despite its deteriorated state, even if it’s on the roof. She lulled a lot of grandchildren to sleep in it.

All the images from that series were treated in the same personal way based on my own experience and because each one of them played and still play a significant part in my life.

HT: From the technical point of view there’s a little bit of everything in the display. Tell us about this?

RA: That has to do with my devotion to diversity. One should not over simplify things. Perhaps it has to do with my youth, but I still don’t think that an artist can find their work style and undertake their entire career without variation. I’m a constant seeker.

By navigating various themes, styles, genre and the many varieties of techniques, one can experiment so that their work is always innovative and impressive, that’s what I’m talking about.

I can give examples of the classics, from Da Vinci and Michelangelo to Duchamp with his works of object art, the Dada movement, Picasso and his various stages, and more recently Andy Warhol, Basquiat, Ives Clain; the Cuban artists Ana Mendieta and Tania Bruguera, who are already a part of the modernist and postmodernist art world. None of them schematized their work. They constantly transformed their art through experimentation.

To me they are models, which is why my work will never suffer a uniformity of technique, color, or format. I’m trying to fully exploit all artistic resources so that when the viewer goes through the gallery they’re not saddled with a monochromatic display.

This selection was conceived for enjoying with all due fullness the variety of techniques and colors that are employed in it.

HT: The photo named “Suerte” was the one that caught my eye for having such an evocative title. It’s of a small paper boat in the water. How much that is implied in this picture is metaphorical, ironic or utopian?

RA: Suerte” has a bit of everything, as you yourself said. It has an innocent childlike nostalgia for being (like the song) a “little paper boat: my faithful friend, taking me to navigate the open sea.” Eusebio said it well when he noted that looking at and wanting to transcend the physical horizon that separates us from the world forms a part of the idiosyncrasies of those of us who are islanders, always looking to the horizon with hope.

Suerte” also has to do with my childhood. My family members on my mother’s side are open-sea fishers. They go out on barges and boats for weeks at a time, sometimes whole months to fish, and then they sell their catches to bring a little home for the table.

I was a child when the 1993-94 exodus occurred, when many people took boats from fishermen at gunpoint. That’s an image I’ll never forget. Many fishermen lost their boats in that chaos, which often failed tragically.

To defend what is ours, “El Hatuey” raises up our arms us with machetes. It shows my uncle, my two cousins ??and me along with Pantera, who back then was our dog, a pretty mean German shepherd.

Suerte” (English: luck) is a tribute to men and women seafarers, whatever their relationship to that effort: work, coexistence, migration, profession, etc. It’s also the synthesized translation into an image of a song by my Santiago troubadour friend Ruben Lester, who wrote:

“To only see the sea and the sky, the salt turns into fear, and memories that surface break one’s heart, and those who mourn…because of this: I wish them luck, luck compadre, strength and luck…luck…”

All my work is closely linked to my childhood, which like for many people of my generation was unusual…very atypical.

That said, there are images that I’ll never forget, and now a way of indebtedness to life in trying to translate and bring those images into my work so that others can reflect on them, approvingly or disapprovingly.

HT: I learned that you experienced some setbacks with censorship. Could you tell us about that?

RA: I’ll be very brief in this response: “Pa” Mi Pueblo” opened on December 17, on San Lazaro Day here in Cuba. On the 26th I showed up at the gallery with a few radio and newspaper journalists for a small press conference they had organized, which was something that would serve to promote the exhibit.

What I found was an empty gallery and my photos stashed away in an adjacent office. When I asked for an explanation, the director of the Prat Puig Cultural Center told me that the photos had been taken down because the gallery was having some kind of activity for “vanguard” educators and that those who were organizing the event said the exhibit wasn’t in keeping with that kind of an audience. I was left speechless behind such an injustice.

Quoting the greatest of all Cubans, Jose Marti, when he wrote his review of the play “Perro Huevero aunque le quemen el hocico (Barking Dogs Don’t Bite), every work of art passes along poetic paths, no matter how explicit they may be, reality will always be rawer.

People scratch because they’ve been bitten… I hope that answered your question.

HT: Tell me about your previous exhibit.

RA: My previous exhibition was in braille and entitled “La Imagen que Emerge” (The Picture that Emerges). In it, I manipulated communication by displaying it backwards.

It all started one day when I got together with some poet friends and asked them to each give me one of their writings or a piece of writing that alluded to a certain image or a situation. I wanted to base myself on poetry as a source of inspiration, availing myself of the power of synthesis that it presents.

Putting this into braille, I used the dots to emphasize the machine giving me the color black, thus giving the image of an abstract work while it was just a paper with random black spots, which in an experimental manner formed one or another kind of image in a kind of constellation.

This in turn had another image that inclusively carried another image which, to decipher it, required the breaking of the barrier whereby you “don’t touch the works of art.” This had to be touched to be enjoyed. Therefore, we relied on people who were blind to serve as the bridge between the work and the viewing spectator.

In this way, I managed in a performance art manner for all of us there to be blind in that same place. That was one of the messages I wanted to come across with – that we’re all blind; and we act as if we’re blind in many situations that we’re exposed to throughout our lives.

The writings that were chosen were unpublished (unpublished at that time). We also suggested poems that would suggest to us questioning images that would invite us to deep reflection of certain social problems that couldn’t have been exposed here otherwise than through this code (braille).

HT: Are you working on any new projects?

RA: There are always new projects; I’m about to start working on one that has to do with the world of silence, where people live with hearing impairments. That’s very close to me because my younger brother who is now studying at the Academia de Artes Plasticas is deaf and non-verbal.

I have a date scheduled to exhibit in June 2012 at the Galeria de Arte Universal, and — God willing — I’ll be able to use photography, but as a tool, not as an artistic end, but as a part. I can’t give you any more of a preview; I have to be prudent. At least they’ve assured me that this exhibit won’t be taken down and put in a corner (laughter).