Tuesday 2 February 2010

London, my London (Cuban Stories at the Rich Mix)

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.

Messenger Pigeons by Angel Gil

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)


  1. what a great post - I would love to go and see that exhibition - my favourite image is the girl with the sausage dog - wonderful shot!! and am pleased to hear that a new arts centre has opened in the Big Smoke - will come and see it in the summer. Greetings from Mexico..

  2. This is a fantastic post, Cuban! I love the photos and the interview format is brilliant. My favorite photo? The first one of the bar in Santiago...but it was really hard to choose - they all have so much merit.

  3. ...and oh, I completely agree with Angel's comment about leaving preconceived notions at home when you are traveling. An open mind is the key to a great trip.

  4. What vivid images, I love the different perspectives. Cuba is memorable on so many levels. This serves as another reminder of my vow to go this year.

  5. Hello London,
    I sometimes wish I lived in London. The plethora of cultural events, museums, concerts...all that is very tantalizing and seems a long way from the Provençal countryside.
    I was interested by the three very different perspectives, and by the photographers responses to your question about the validity of their work as art. I love photographic art and enjoyed the ones you posted. What an interesting life you must lead!

  6. The interview is interesting.

    I think it is hard not to have a preconception about a country. What is nice is to discover how wrong your preconception is. And this can happen only if you have the opportunity to get to know the people.

    I like all the pictures and I feel like I could put my fingers through the blinds of the art centre and look inside.

    Gracias Amigo.

  7. This post reinforces my sense that each of us has a unique perception. Even when we witness the same events, we see them differently through the lens of our own perceptions.

    This is fantastic post, Cuban, especially the contemporary feel of a Cuba that is so often measured from the past.

  8. Thank you, Cuban. You are very gracious.
    Taking photographs in Cuba would be an exceptional experience.
    Have you been to exhibits by Cuban photographers? Or Cubans who are in London who have been back?
    Of course, we have this dreadful, stupid, non-productive, ridiculous prohibition about doing to Cuba...I have seen one book by a woman photographer who took very stylized documentary images in Cuba. It made me furious. I wrote a blog about it...it did have a very interesting forward, though

  9. Rich Mix is great- went to the Poetry Olympics there recently.

  10. Cuban, your interview with these three artists offers a fascinating new look at Cuba. And yes, I did mean artists, because photographers are artists. Your question regarding that particular subject was of interest to me, and the answer that Helena provided was very insightful and true. We are not all attracted to the same subject matter, nor do we see things the same. And the camera lens of the photographer sees and captures what the photographer sees.

    You are lucky to have had this opportunity to interview these three very talented people, and they are very lucky to have had the opportunity to be interviewed by you. And, Cuban, I am lucky to be a follower of your blog, and to come here and experience some of the world from your eyes. Thank you for sharing that. It was a delight!


  11. Wonderful photos and interview. I’d go see the exhibit if I lived in London. It was interesting to hear of their artistic journey. I like the photographers’ defense of photography as an art. It’s easy to take snapshots but artistic photos take more skill and creativity. Art is all about seeing and vision.

  12. very good blog, congratulations
    regard from Reus Catalonia
    thank you

  13. tnx for blessing us w/ your journalistic skills & hard work. I've never seen photos of Cuba before, it does make me wish to go.
    The idea that photography is not art is annoying, but understandable. A good photo often LOOKS like it's "merely documenting" the world. The uninitiated don't always have eyes to see the perspective, or ask ourselves what wasn't photographed. Kinda like journalistic reporting, it's easy to assume that there's such thing as a neutral perspective. Good for you for articulating the difficulty, and giving the artists a chance to reply.
    Hope I can some day see Claire's photos of older Cuban men. I feel the same way about Indonesian old people ... just fascinating.

  14. What a marvellous post, Cuban, many thanks. I hadn't heard of The Rich Mix for a start, and the interviews and photographs were revealing on many levels. I was particularly drawn to Helena's work, but thank you for the introduction to these three artists.

  15. Interesting post about something I wouldn't have heard of otherwise. Although the building looks very much like my office, so had me wondering at the start.

  16. Fabulous! I'll have to stop by there when I'm next in London and have time to breath! I love places like this.


  17. Thanks for the glimpse of the photos and the country. It's a place I've never been but maybe one day...one day...

  18. Many thanks to you all for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  19. Cuban, I really loved the pics of Messenger Pigeons, by Angel Gil. The black & white ones by Helena Smith are also beautiful. And I already knew Claire Boobbyer's pic of the "La Guarida" entry. It's a great picture! Thanks for sharing their answers with us. Greetings from Montreal!

  20. Gracias, isa.

    Saludos desde Londres.



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