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Cuba basks in gay art

Once intolerant of transvestitism, Cuba recently basked in a homoerotic display by Robert Mapplethorpe.

india Updated: Dec 17, 2005 18:10 IST

Communist Cuba hasn't exactly been tolerant of homosexuality and transvestitism.

In the late 1960s, Cubans were sent to labour camps simply for being gay, with the state deriding homosexuality as an illness of the capitalist past. Even today, some Cuban transvestites are detained by police and threatened with prison for the crime of "peligrosidad," or "dangerousness."

But a new tolerance creeping into the system over the last decade helped contribute to what many believed they would never see on the island: a photo exhibit by Robert Mapplethorpe, an American photographer known for his homoerotic images.

Mapplethorpe's spirit comes to life in the Fototeca de Cuba, a recently restored gallery in the heart of Old Havana, through an elegant exposition of 48 images spanning the artist's career. The exhibit entitled "Sacred and Profane" opened to the general public Wednesday, after winning over dozens of Cuban artists and officials including Parliament Speaker Ricardo Alarcon at an invitation only event Tuesday night.

"I never thought I would have this experience in Cuba, to see Mapplethorpe's work firsthand," said Ricardo Rodriguez, a 35-year-old photographer. "When people told me this exhibit was coming, I didn't believe them."

Rodriguez said his surprise stemmed from the fact that Mapplethorpe was American, gay, and highly controversial even in his own country.

In 1990, the Contemporary Arts Centre in Cincinnati and its director were charged with obscenity for exhibiting Mapplethorpe. Both were acquitted. The case sparked a national debate on US government funds for the arts, with conservative lawmakers and religious fundamentalists attacking the National Endowment for the Arts for subsidizing Mapplethorpe shows.

"It's incredible to see him here," Rodriguez said. As for the images themselves, most agreed they were more serene than shocking.

"Pure sensuality," Farah Gomez, a 26-year-old art historian, said of the black-and-white images portraying flowers, various female body parts and nude black men.

Alarcon, one of Cuba's highest ranking officials, agreed. "Frankly, this really doesn't strike me as a 'sexual' exposition," he told The Associated Press. "Nudity is found in cultures dating much further back than the United States or Cuba. Classicism is full of the nude human body."

Mapplethorpe "achieves the transmission of a purely artistic message and sense," Alarcon said.

One potent image shows the profiles of an albino, in the forefront, and a black man with a shaved head. The eyes of the albino are open, his gaze drifting off the photograph; the black man's eyes are closed.

Mild, static hints of sadomasochism pepper the exposition, as well as images of love ranging from two men kissing, to a woman in this case, actress Susan Sarandon holding a young girl. Mapplethorpe's own self-portraits express some sadness, showing deterioration in health before his death of AIDS at age 42 in 1989. Other shots in the exhibit provoked laughter primarily one of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his bodybuilding days.

The exhibit, which doesn't include Mapplethorpe's roughest images, still embraces the man's internal contradictions, said Philip Larratt-Smith, a New York-based Canadian who curated the show with the help of Cuba-based Pamela Ruiz.

"His work toys with the polarities of masculine and feminine, insider and outsider, personal and political, subjective and objective, black and white and of course, sacred and profane," Larratt-Smith said at the Tuesday night opening.

Several Cuban artists have started tackling some of Mapplethorpe's themes in the last decade, including Rene Pena and Eduardo Hernandez Santos. They have likely faced unique challenges, but Pena is among a dozen photographers with an exhibit called "Descartes" opening Friday in a Cuban gallery.

The turning point of the island's newfound tolerance toward homosexuality, which came with the limited economic and social liberalisation of the mid-1990s, is often linked to the release of the hit film Strawberry and Chocolate.

The movie explores the friendship between a naive young Communist and a highly educated Cuban homosexual who is in love with his country but at odds with his government.

Larratt-Smith said he hopes the Mapplethorpe exhibit, which runs through February 15, will similarly spark debate on the island.

First Published: Dec 15, 2005 15:30 IST