Ernesto Bazan ’s “Bazan Cuba”, a decanter and magic box

©Angela Varricchio. ALL THE RIGHTS ARE RESERVED    

The dust jacket of an almost square large format (27×30 cm) is a lucid paper from which a curious glance of a black hair guy is anxiously observing an unexplored land from a window ferry.

     “Bazan Cuba” is the first of a trilogy on Cuba. “Al Campo” (2011), the second colour book (15.8×10.4 cm), whereas “Isla” (2014), the third one, is a summa of eighty-three black and white panoramic photographs.

     Published in 2008, awarded as the Best Book of the Year Award at the New York Photo Festival in 2009, “Bazan Cuba” collects one hundred and twenty-two black and white photographs, shot Tri-x films, the result of an accurate selection.I do not believe in trend photography which has not an interior strength, Bazan underlines during our conversation. The work behind this book had been taking fourteen years, starting in 1992. Two quotes, “Everything is gestation and birthing” and “Patience is everything”, introduce the narration, summarising Bazan’ s philosophy. To preserve the freedom of his storytelling, which only a self-publishing can guarantee, the book had been requesting a long period of incubation. Involvement is the keyword. The photo editing was choral: the students of his workshop helped him to select the final photographs, financing the costs of the publication. The same desire which guided him to insert the contact sheets: to meet the condition for engaging the viewers in the editing process. The work has as a subject Cuba, whipped by Castro during El periodo especial. After an embargo imposed by the American President Eisenhower in 1960 because of the Cold War, with the fall of the communist block in 1989, the client state of the Soviet Union has been starting to collapse, with a sudden decrease of imports (especially fuel fossils) and exports. The repercussions on the daily life, due to the economic break-down, have been catastrophic: the spread of the dramatic phenomenon of the severe shortage of food, because of the crisis of agricultural activities, and the increase of the general average rate of diseases, caused by lack of medicines, have been affecting negatively the Cuban quality of life.

     Portraying Cuba implies always risks. Reducing La Havana to violently saturated colour photographs of cigars, rum, and black statuesque bodies mean to trivialise a multifaced reality. David Alan Harvey’ s colour photographs historicize Cuba. Ancient rituals of spiritism, local demonstrations, welfare services, the quinceañera, and the sexual tourism unveil his anthropological approach, which recalls Alberto Korda’ s interest to portray El Che in black and white, as well as female soldiers from a human point of view. Differently from Harvey, Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb‘ s colour trompe l’ oeil gives a wide panoramic of the so-called “Violet Isle”, perceptually more disorienting, hallucinated, and lyrical. On their work the Cubans are doubled over by the daily toil, are wild animals in the cage, taxidermied, dripped with ethyl alcohol; the lascivious sensuality of the Afro-Hispanic percussion rhythms seem being fallen silent by a long and sleeping wait.

     By contrast, Bazan‘ s black and white abstracts the reality from its contingency, making Cuba eternal. There is a sense of immortality, of universality in his photographs. “Bazan Cuba” is a treatise on sociology. The silence of the country, where the dance of the scorching sun seems to mould the farmers’s movements, the shrub curves, and the game of the children in the herds, slow down the hands of the clock on the wall, amplifying the perception of the reality. Each gesture tastes ritualities. It is an arcane hymn to the cyclic nature: the kiss of teenagers’s bellies along the sweltering promenade is the contrappunto to the white veil transparency in the darkness of the churches, making brides fluctuating ghosts towards their destiny. It is an archaic circularity in which past and present, which belong to the same time span, take shape. It is an old novelty”, as Bazan tells me, quoting his mother’s words.

      Although it was published in 2008, “Bazan Cuba” is a timeless mirror of Fidel Castro’ s country. The book is strewn with extracts of quotes and diary which help the viewer to interpret the narrations, a “sort of introduction to the atmosphere” of each chapter.

     In the first chapter, the author reports a strong sensation of “degradation and physical and mental decomposition” in La Havana: men worn-out by the daily fatigue, drinking alcohol, glances staring into the space, empty window shops, a fish seller slimmer and shabby as much as his item to sell. When Bazan arrived at Cuba the first time in 1992, the Periodo Especial was already showing its worst face, leading the population to a state of poverty.

      The second chapter is revealing and at the same time, epiphanous: after 1992, Bazan came to Cuba several times, without understanding the weird feeling of belonging to that land. Slowly, he understood that Cuba gave him the same happiness in walking around Palermo air markets with his grand-mother Ida, during his childhood, a sort of return to the origin. This chapter is riddled with soup bubbles, seaworld, young athletes training, copies of Fidel with cigars. And it was not a case. By the diary, he explains his love for Cuba: “I loved being in Havana. A powerful sense of belonging seized me as if I had always been there.” Then, there is an only apparently dissonant note, which is the prelude to the fourth chapter: hands touching dancing naked backs.

     The third chapter is a tribute to the pleasure of getting lost with his friend photographer and printing teacher, Mike Levins. He leaves his diary to speak for him: We have finally fulfilled our dream. The two of us, wony-free, walking around without a plan, simply taking pictures, our pictures. Like two hunters stalking game, we just let our feet lead the way”. The geometric dialogue between trumpets and black bodiess players, pig butchery ritual, the Cuban domino graphism, children together having a bath in the swimming pool, in the sea, or in a tight embrace to defend themselves from the wave assault are only some ferris wheels of the spiralling merry-go-round. “My life is becoming more deeply intertwined with that of the island. My marriage, the baby on the way, will create an even more intimate relationship with Cuba. I feel that my hands and my feet are tightly bound”. This diary extract summarises the fourth chapter as a sort of contemplation of the female universe. Although Bazan comes from the Italian chauvinist system of values, women as well as children are the leitmotiv of his work, portrayed for their fragility and overwhelming vitality: a young miss, playing being woman, gazes at herself in the doll actions, a grand-mother observing the somersault, a doctor examining a pregnant women, a dove which preannunces the miracle of the life. Neither statues to contemplate nor accessories of beauty competition, but the delicate mysterious mechanism who makes the world living. It is also a dedication to his wife Sissi, met in Cuba, and his sons, Pietro and Stefano, portrayed during the feeding time.

     The fifth chapter depicts lirically the impact of the dramatic drop of fertiliser and oil imports, fundamental for the agricultural activities of the island, for which Cuba had been almost entirely dependent from the Soviet Union. There is not any paternalistic commiseration on Bazan‘ s photographs: the farmers‘ s strong connection with their land is authentic. His diary reports: “I asked the farmers for permission to take a few photos. With the sweetness of their words they comply. I focus, frame and try to depict the dignity, humilty and wisdom of these men. Like a probe, I‘ am exploring a new region of this fascinating land”.

     No personal reflections to intruduce the last chapter: only a Calvert Casey’s quote about the abrupt changes, to which the destiny obliges us, that preannunces the end of his life in Cuba. There is a claustrophobic and rancid smell of the dictatorial militarism. Continuous trainings by regime soldiers and nightmares of veterans start to solidify the civilians’ s impalpable fear. His wife Sissi becomes nostalgic and ideologically empty, like the glance of the elders who hold the plastic Cuban flags during a public demonstration, in a slow and implacable requiem.

     The beginning of the final section of the book is portraying an old man, seated down on a chair in the darkness of a room, during the frequent black-out in Cuba. A symbolic lack of light, which represents, especially for a photographer, interior blindness, asphyxiation. In the same chapter, we find a photograph in which a child on thee backligh, touching a birdcage. The child is metaphorically the specular profile of Bazan’ s son on the foreground: like a blurry image in a crystal ball, it reveals the image of the future life for his family in Cuba under the Castro regime.

     Surreality and symbolism seem to be the fil rouge of Bazan’ s work. Coming back to the cover, Bazan states that “the boy depicted on the ferry to Regla embodies a double metaphor: on the one hand, he represents the several Cubans’ s yearning to escape from the prison into which Cuba has been transformed by a horrible dictatorship, which has been repressing the island for fifty-seven years; on the other hand, Bazan identifies the guy with himself, citizen of the world, looking for other microcosms of the existence to meet and to live firsthand”. The book overture is a photograph of a soup kitchen in which two out three people are eating. On the foreground, out of focus, an observing young man with a semi-overturned head recalls Man Ray’s “Untitled” and “Anatomies”, and offers parallelly the key of the book interpretation. It is possible to find the same surrealistic ratio of the overturning and inversion in another Bazan’s photograph: a Cuban, smoking a cigar, carrying a glass water jug that covers his face, surrounded by debris along the street. The reflection of an old building arcade repeats, turning upside down, the pattern of the arcs; on the glass, it is simple to watch a black specular and lacking of the detail image of the guy‘ s face. Then, a silhouette appears to the eye‘ s viewer, leading to two holes: a sort of Zorro‘ s black mask. Dark shadows of subjects, out of the frame, hold a dialogue with bright figures, revealing the situation meaning, and multiple reflections are the signature of Bazan‘ s work. The double, the alter ego, the magic meaning behind the reality are visual tools used by the surrealistic aesthetics. It is not a case that Bazan lets unconscious be the pilot of his walk: “When I was seventeen years old, I had a dream. A voice whispered to me that I should have become a photographer. The most incredible thing was not the dream, but the fact that from that morning forward I would have followed this dream, telling my dumbfounded parents it”.

     Extremely emphatic is Bazan’ s approach to individuals, labelled erroneously as weird or bizarre: his complex and varicoloured mankind are delicate glasses in which looking through in transparency. This gaze seems to include Bazan in the humanist photographers, but he does not confirm this idea. “I do not think to be a photojournalist”, he told me. “I like describing myself as a street poet, a street dog which tries to seize ephemeral instants of our life”. Bazan explores in depth the dignity of lepers carrying wobbly hand-carts, the make-up gesture of transvestites under the lamps of a night-club bathroom, an affectionate presence amongst elders or abandoned slices of flesh in the cold routine of a hospital or geriatric institute. Diane Arbus’ s freaks are grotesque and delirious Carnival masks, distortions of the bourgeois need of being conformed to rules, whereas on Bazan they are delicate human creatures, far away from the monstrosity.

     Despite his admiration for the majority of humanist photographers, he confesses that his point of reference is only Robert Frank, met in person, appreciated also for his humility and humanity. So, for this reason, Frank is considered a real mentor. Similarly to Frank‘ s The Americans, Bazan‘ s book shows the strong sense of national identity which sometimes eclipses the individuality of Cubans, speaking a symbolic language where the iconicity is never a repetitive stereotype or overexposed trite, but an enchanted lullaby which comes from the back. Differently from the Swiss photographer, the Sicilian street poet overshadows the political tensions in Cuba and the class conflicts, replacing the photojournalistic lens in the strict sense with an anthropological filter. Bazan‘ s photographs give off a strength which breaths the visceral belonging to the Cuban reality, much more fleeting on Robert Frank‘s portraits of African-American jazz players at the funeral, of the centaurs along the Route 66,  of the desperate of the working class, of the New-Yorker upper-middle class.

     In the multitude of books about the violet Isla, “Bazan Cuba” stands out for the contemplative vein: it is a wine which needs time to decant the common conception of Cuba. At the same time, it is a prayer to push away the own obscure side. Like a magic box, it emanates spirituality and positivity. It is an invite to observe the reality with the mysticism of new and pure eyes.