In March 1994, as a result of the exhibition The New Generation: Two Decades of Contemporary Cuban Photography from the Island, held at the Richmond Hall in Houston, the critic Susan Kalil published a suggestive review entitled Socialist Surrealism, in which she warned of a substantial transformation in the creative strategies of the latest promotions of Cuban photographers. Burrowed within the hints of an unusually expressive and dreamlike ambiguity, the images clearly evaded the themes and documentary tradition of Cuban photography. Legitimized in the years after the triumph of the rebels in 1959, the iconographic arsenal of this tradition was abundant in glorious scenes, portraits of leaders and popular rallies. The crucial turning point that Kalil perceived then was perhaps the vortex of a symbolic confrontation and the emergence of a mode of autonomy that, from the late 1970s to the present day, has transformed the profile of author photography in Cuba. This mode of autonomy took the genre from the first iconoclastic exercises that emerged within photo-documentarism and its tradition, to the deconstructive paroxysm of contemporary art and its interdisciplinary inquiries, as could be seen in the 2016 exhibition, Iconocracy: The Image of Power and the Power of Images.
In the mid-1990s, the image of the social landscape in Cuba — the last refuge of the global utopia of the twentieth century — far from resembled the heroic record of the triumphant revolution. Traversed by political and moral contradictions after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and burdened by the material deficiencies of the so-called “Special Period in times of peace,” everyday life wove its own imaginary, as well as new narratives of that chronotope of the post-Soviet period that summarized the coincidence of a unique time and space in the country. The photographers of those years — especially those who wandered, camera in hand, through the streets of the country — found in the record of paradoxes and everyday absurdity, the right codes to give "body and image" to a society detained in the threshold of its antagonisms. They discovered in the allegory and other oblique approaches to the narratives of the status quo a way to exercise a documentarism that allowed them to place new stories inside-outside of the official imaginary’s compact block.
Faced with the archival epic of the sixties, these photographers imposed the iconoclastic power of metaphors as a way to shake off the obvious weight of history. The exercise of "digging" in the hidden palimpsests of the city and in its hallucinogenic layers became an alternative way of positioning oneself, not only in front of the time of history and society — with its causes and its discourses — but in a timeless relationship with the archetypal. It also gave artists close complicity with the spaces of myth, simulacrum, camouflage, and carnival, understood as liberating forms of the collective unconscious, capable of provoking a new cognitive experience.
José Ney Milá (Havana, 1959), is one of the most experienced creators of this creative drive, trend, or chronotope of the "surreal"1 in Cuban photography of the time. Trained as an architectural draftsman, he taught himself the path of plastic arts through painting, crafts, and textile design. In his uncle's workshop, he learned the art of painting photographs with oils (a common procedure in Havana's studios and laboratories at the time). But above all, he collided with the alchemy of black and white and the mysteries of the dark room. In the following years, José Ney made several photographic developers (which he baptized as P1, P2, and P3) and other chemical agents (among them, a hyposulfite cleaner), which years later were patented in Spain and marketed by companies such as Casanova Professional (Barcelona) and Jobo.
An initial contract as a laboratory worker in the newspaper Tribuna de la Habana opened the doors to photojournalism and the possibility of remaining as a photographer-on-staff for several years. But the images that make up the body of his artistic project in the nineties (of which a brief selection is shown in this text), are far from the denotative language of the press. They are also distant from the spirit of that other documentary tradition that at the time ended up imposing itself as a measure of aesthetic value and as a philosophy of the act of photographing. Rather, his images function as exercises in self-reflection, or as empirical deconstruction of the symbolism, content, and perceptual rationalism of the tradition that preceded it.
In the film The Tin Drum (1979) — based on a homonym novel by Gunter Grass —, director Volker Schlöndorff frequently resorts to the effects of low-angle shots to take the viewer into the visual world of the film’s protagonist, Oscar, a three-year-old boy. Placing the camera at a lower level than the axis of the gaze and then tilting it at an upwards angle, the film reproduces the astonished gaze of the child before a world that surpasses him, not only because of the scale of its dimensions, but also because of the incongruity of the adults that inhabit it. But what happens if we are forced but the image to look down, to reinterpret the world — nation, society, our way of life — by putting aside the perspective of the Northern Hemisphere? What if we do away with the information that rests at the right angle of the gaze that responds to the usual perception of things?
In series such as Los románticos ángeles de la tierra (The Romantic Angels of the Earth, 1989-1999), José Ney tilts his camera into a tailspin towards the subject, shifting it at an angle towards the Southern Hemisphere of the scene, right where the gaze converges with the earth and its telluric mysteries. He brings the viewer into that peculiar underworld of relationships and behaviors that are often staged by the feet and shoes (that other self we all have) of passersby. Its incisive framing fragments the gaze in close-ups that tend to minimize the signs of context and their possibility of influencing the meaning of the image. The photographer portrays people's feet and, through them, documents those “other cities,” that apparently invisible “other country”: a country reconstructed with the stones of the archetype, recreated in an imprecise time by successive associations of symbols and of signals of affective, animistic, or anthropomorphic origin, which the viewer must recompose in an exercise of interpretive complicity.
From this playful hiding-unveiling, the photographer revisits the scenes of a country burdened by the weight of representation, and records them with the acute intelligence of humor, with a playfulness that is simultaneously irony and affection, everyday familiarity and critical distance, catharsis in many cases but, above all, revelation. José Ney “puts on the other's shoes” and photographs “against the current,” prioritizing construction of the gaze that is opposed to the norms of the trade and the declamatory nature of event photography. The archive of his drifts reconstructs a profile of the common citizen and people of the countryside in an intuitive portrait that eludes the social masks that empowered leaders, workers, and peasants in the widespread issues of the Cuban press. His photographs re-enchant the simple spaces of banal occurrence, turning feet — considered by Da Vinci "a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art" — into protagonists of the image and interlocutors of the collective unconscious. Feet act as intermediaries for a number of representations — whether literary, mythological, or dreamlike — that come to life through analogies and that express, in short, the peculiarities of a time in which all harassment was solved imaginatively.
From this “trick of the gaze” — as the writer Yanitzia Canetti points out — the photographer can illustrate, for example, the infinite universe of children and adolescents, with their prodigious ability to invent vessels of all kinds to discover the city. He can also illustrate the Kafkaesque visions in the showcases of Havana stores at the time of material scarcity, true dioramas of the will of improvisation of the designer in charge. The presence of feet links us with that universal repertoire of archaic symbols present in the archives of so many cultures. Feet connect us directly to the earth and, unconsciously, to the origin of all things. Several of the images collide in this exercise of associations that are timeless or visibly synchronized with the chronotope of the "Special Period.” One thinks, for instance, of the one that shows us the shoes of three agricultural workers, and that evokes the real possibility of wearing heavy boots that are mudproof, or of improvising, in the absence of first ones, some fragile slippers like the ones that adolescent girls wore on their birthday.
Other photographs infer a singular moment in recent Cuban history, when mythical and religious practices began to manifest themselves again in public spaces, after a long period of covert coldness and obvious ostracism. They are images that open to us the doors of the continuum of intersections that occur between cultural heritage, ancestral traditions, and religious sentiment in Cuba. To this group belongs the photograph of the barefoot subject — a true Gulliver in Lilliput, one might say — standing tall in an attempt to levitate over a nativity scene populated by a legion of biblical figurines that seem to gather in a kind of chaotic spell, impossible to decipher. This group also holds the one that records in a very closed plane an Afro-Cuban ceremonial dance and its immutable spectator: the feet of a woman wearing the shoes of a Buenos Aires tango and the stocking of Vaudeville showgirl of the thirties.
From that time on, José Ney has been photographing with the same intensity. His long journey as a flaneur through the streets of the world has taken him from the instant record to other artistic practices like abstract composition and installation. His photographic archive of the nineties is inserted — along with the work of other artists of his generation — in the history of contemporary Cuban art, and in one of the most fascinating adventures of photo-documentarism on the island: the search for a new imaginary capable of holding heterogeneous views of reality; or capable of questioning, from the validity of small stories, the perspective of official history and the presumed transparency of its great narratives.
1The term is used in this text to describe a narrative sensitivity or the aesthetic spirit of an area of documentary photography that could well be understood as a chronotope, as defined by Mikhail Bakhtin from the study of the novel in literature. According to Bajtin, a chronotope is “an essential connection of artistically assimilated temporal and spatial relationships (…).” Time is condensed here, it is compressed, it becomes visible from an artistic point of view. And space, in turn, intensifies, penetrates the movement of time, of plot, of history. The elements of time are revealed in space, and space is understood and measured through time. The intersection of the series and unions of these elements constitutes the characteristic of the artistic chronotope.” A “surreal” chronotope could be added, built from the manifestations of the absurd and its phenomenology to function as a self-reflective exercise or as an authorial deconstruction of the symbolisms of the status quo.