A new arts centre in a metropolis like London should not make the news. But when the arts space in question is made up of five floors that teem with creativity, then one ought to stop and pay attention.
The Rich Mix, located in Shoreditch, east London is a good example. With a varied programme that encompasses films, performing arts and exhibitions, it has quickly become a first-stop for those who enjoy the British capital's cultural and vibrant diversity.
It was to this centre where I made my way last Wednesday 27th January. I had been invited to the private view of the centre's new exhibition, 'Cuban Stories', an excellent and inspiring collage of images by three very talented photographers: Claire Boobbyer, Angel Gil and Helena Smith. And whilst at the centre I also had the privilege to chat with the three exhibitors about their work, their motivations and their inspiration*.
Helena Smith’s black and white images capture the Cuba of 2009, 50 years on from the Revolution, with reportage-style portraits and cinematic street scenes.
Angel Gil explores the relationship between people and place. We follow 27-year-old Michel Palacio Colina as he discovers a passion for rearing and training messenger pigeons for racing, and finds his peace within the hustle and bustle of Cuban life.
Claire Boobbyer recently made a 5000-kilometre road trip round Cuba, in the process capturing striking propaganda images that adorn walls, billboards, workplaces and roadside hoardings across the cities and fields.
(Artists' profiles taken from the Rich Mix website)
A Cuban In London (ACiL): Thank you very much for kindly giving me the opportunity to talk about your work. My first question would have to be: Why Cuba? Why did you choose Cuba as the theme for your exhibition?
Helena (H): I had a set of black & white images I wanted to show and by serendipity Angel approached Rich Mix at the same time. They decided to mount a joint show, and I brought in my friend/colleague Claire who was my road-trip buddy and tour guide in Cuba.
Claire (C): We had all travelled in Cuba in 2009 and Helena and Angel first approached Rich Mix with the idea for an exhibition. Cuba is a highly photogenic country and I have been fascinated with the country and its culture and history ever since I first went there in 1998.
Angel (A): This was my first visit to Cuba and I was looking for a project to photograph, something or someone special. Cuba is one of the most photogenic places I've visited and even though I did arrive with a couple of ideas for projects, I tried to keep an open mind and see what was beyond these ideas.
Bar in Santiago de Cuba by Helena Smith
Christlike Che by Claire Boobbyer
ACiL: You obviously have travelled extensively. Do you have preconceived ideas when it comes to photographing a place and its people or do you have a more flexible and relaxed attitude to it?
C: Well, I have photographed Cuba from many different angles but I particularly wanted to document, if you like, the political billboards as they are unique to Cuba and ubiquitous and some are already disappearing so there is almost an historical urgency about it now too.
H: I was extremely relaxed in Cuba as I was on holiday and not taking photos on assignment for a travel guide, which is my usual job. For that I have to follow the brief provided by the author, whereas in Cuba I had my very old Olympus camera and a stack of film, and no worries about taking pictures to order. I did no research before I went. It was a bit like going to a film when you don't want to know the story so everything is fresh and a surprise. I had no preconceptions.
A: I think that the more you travel, the more you learn not to have any preconceived ideas of what you would like photograph. Even after doing some research and reading guides before visiting a new place I try to keep an open mind, I like being surprised.When I arrive somewhere new I enjoy mixing in with its people; I talk to them, stay with them, and I ask them about what it feels like to be from there and what life is like there. I often find that this stimulates creativity.
Red Car, Red Mural by Claire Boobbyer
ACiL: When I've said to some people in the past that I love photography, sometimes they have reacted by saying that that's not real art because the photographer already has his or her work cut out for them. It exists, so they don't have to make it up. What's you take on this assumption?
H: That the three of us went to the same country and came back with three varied sets of images. I think Angel's work shows a sensitive and observant quality in him, Claire's demonstrates her interest in and knowledge of Cuban history, and mine reflects a nostalgic love of old cinema and early/mid-twentieth-century photography. In fact Claire and I photographed the same subject at the same time - the headless statue at La Guarida, and came up with two very different images.
A: I think people that say that may not necessarily know much about photography. Just like a paintbrush or a chisel, the camera can be a creative tool too, its all about where you aim the lens. Some people don't understand that the difficulty with photography is to try to see right through all the visual clutter.
C: As Angel said, the camera is a tool. Three people could look at the same scene and view it differently. In fact, a guy at the private view who lived in Havana for three years said of the headless marble statue figure in La Guarida that he had photographed that courtyard many times but he had never seen the angle I had photographed before. The photographer always needs an 'eye' for a picture in the first place otherwise he/she is lost.
ACiL: I recently read an interview with the artist Chris Ofili in which he said, in reference to his 1998 Turner prize 'No Woman, No Cry' that he thought this painting 'might say something'. Did you ever feel like that when you were taking photographs in Cuba? And if you did, what do you think that (those) photo(s) said?
H: I don't feel my pictures have a particular agenda, but that they depict a cinematic quality in Cuban streetlife. Coming from a culture where so much is thrown away, I was struck by how many things in Cuba have been nourished and have survived from a more glamorous past - I'm thinking of the beautiful cars and the architecture. I felt that using film rather than digital technology was a way or mirroring this. Also that darkroom prints have a handmade and archaic feel that seemed appropriate.
C: I think mine speak of the power of widespread political messaging.
A: I did, I constantly thought if it was possible to capture the passion I saw in what Michel was doing. I felt it whilst I was there and that's what drove me to share it with everyone. If the viewer feels something whilst looking at the photographs then it has been a success.
Girl with Sausage Dog in Havana by Helena Smith
Messenger Pigeons by Angel Gil
ACiL: And finally, is there any other theme you would like to explore in Cuba in the future?
C: I have some lovely images of older Cuban men who seem to be particularly photogenic and I would like to continue with that theme as well as general portraits in Cuba. I also particularly like photographing the Art Deco and modern architecture and signage in Cuba.
H: I would love to go back to Cuba, and I concentrate entirely on portraiture, perhaps focussing on dance, or photographing one community.
A: I find Cuba and specially Havana very photogenic, there is so many subjects I would like to explore photographically.People are what make a place so I would love to start there again and see what adventure this will lead to again.
*This conversation was actually taped and a transcription of it would have formed the backbone of my post tonight. Alas, technology let me down and I had to e-mail the same questions through to Helena, Claire and Angel. They very kindly responded promptly and, thus, saved the situation. Many thanks to you three, Claire, Helena and Angel, it was a pleasure meeting you and seeing your exhibition.
Celebrating Cuba VISUAL ARTS / Cuban Stories by Angel Gil, Helena Smith and Claire Boobbyer Date: 27 Jan - 27 Feb 2010 Venue: Rich Mix (Mezzanine / Free)35-47 Bethnal Green RoadLondonE1 6LATel: 020 7613 7498
Next Post: 'Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum', to be published on Thursday 4th February at 11:59pm (GMT)