Journal in Motion Silvia Llanes

Few photography projects on Cuba stand out in my memory with the force of Beatriz Ruibal’s work. Her photographs, tributaries of a solid concept of honesty and appreciation, paint an accurate picture of the reality she experienced in various encounters over a 10-year period—years in which the island has adapted, re-adapted and grown accustomed to being seen from every possible angle by countless travellers who, drawn by inexplicable wonders, come, go and return and leave graphic, photographic or literary testimonies and memorials of their visit to the “Key to the Gulf”.

The “genre” of views of Havana, of the nearby towns and villages and even of the island’s inland cities is not new. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, draughtsmen and engravers set down their impressions of the greatest of the Antilles: its history, famous locations and ports, the sea that surrounds it on every side, its vegetation and, above all, the customs and characters they found most striking. The first engravers—hailing from Holland, Germany and even England—established a repertoire of languages, themes and technical solutions that would be used repeatedly over the course of two centuries. Those views were inspired by many motifs: heaving white-capped seas, towns nestled at the foot of mountains and hills, harbours with cities fanned out on the shore, seemingly washed up on land by the very waves that threaten to drag them out to sea with the slightest surge, wide bays and rocky reefs riddled with deep clefts, vessels bobbing on the mystery of the waves, and in the background, though they are not always visible, the inhabitants, heroes of a epic battle between the sun, the winds, the sea and the small scrap of land that refuses to be forgotten or even truly captured in the images that attempt to illustrate it.

A particular visual and literary imaginary dominated the entire 19th century in Cuba. Travellers attracted by the mild climate, the beauty of its landscapes and the warmth of its people turned the island into a common destination and repeated reference, a dreamlike paradise where the cruelty of slavery was often diluted in the lush landscape of tropical plants, flowers and fruits set against limpid skies of dazzling blueness. So the siren call of the island’s geographic and temperamental beauty is nothing new, the allure of that beauty that captivates visitors and practically obligates them to leave a record of their journey, to wear the permanent mark of that beauty even when certain stains make them doubt that they have truly found paradise.

The urge to leave evidence of one’s movements, whether at home or abroad, is present in nearly every 19th-century travel “account”. The inhabitants, the “locals”, the natives who set out to explore their island home were also captivated by the magical quality of its bewitched landscape, intoxicated by an air that drove them to document the memory and transcendence of a well-known “exoticism” rendered natural by familiarity. The descriptive richness of countless novels and the colourful atmosphere of the poetry and entity of a literature specific to travellers, like Cirilo Villaverde’s unforgettable Excursión a Vuelta Abajo, illustrate the island’s power to enthral those who observed it and awaken a desire in them to represent it.

Accounts of places, descriptions of landscapes, efforts to convey the light and a sense of amazement at the rhythm and self-assurance of the inhabitants marked the literature penned by foreign travellers to Cuba in the 19th century. Different perspectives, critical or bucolic in greater or lesser measure, informed an ample inventory of men and women who arrived on these shores for different reasons; their writings and graphic depictions thus became memories which were initially personal but eventually, after their sojourn on the island, universal. Economic and cultural spaces were considered just as fascinating as their surroundings and even part of the natural geography and landscape. The adventures lived by these travellers in their voyages across land and sea expressed the desire to tame and enshrine in memory a place that remained stubbornly elusive, forever pulling away and escaping their grasp, in constant motion, warm and hospitable yet fiercely indomitable. Of all these travellers, perhaps Samuel Hazard, with his critical, descriptive eye, bequeathed us the best record of his time on the island. Cuba with Pen and Pencil, written in over-refined language and filled with attractively didactic illustrations, established a model of understanding within the genre, which has its romantic variants such as the visions—not always idyllic among the women—of 19th-century travellers.

Trapped on the island, settled there, repeat visitors in paradise who, like the waves, retreat but always return… For them, the journey became not merely an adventure but also a quest. On returning home they were never the same; they carried with them the memory and the lessons of the places they had seen. What do travellers who pass through Havana take home with them? What memories of the island are permanently engraved on the heart and seared in memory? Is it possible that the newcomer identifies with the other? How much personal benefit and human improvement is gained in the exchange between travellers and their spectators? One would think that five centuries of opening and closing doors, of welcoming and sending off visitors, would have provided some sort of answer. But every traveller is at once a question and an answer, an eye that judges and sometimes consecrates an image which we occasionally find perplexing: Is this really how we are, how you see us?

Like those 19th-century globetrotters, like those female travellers to the Caribbean who explored the island over a century ago, Beatriz Ruibal felt the need to create her own “travel journal” documenting her visit to Cuba. Oddly, by some mysterious twist of fate, her collection of photos about Cuba is not so much a souvenir of her repeated visits as an account of her gradual transformation from visitor to possessor of the spirit of this land.

Her intense critical gaze is perfectly balanced out by an indomitable tenderness. Thanks to these virtues, the landscape and its inhabitants opened themselves up to her in a natural way. As she passed by, camera in hand, the apparently easily captured inhabitants of Cuba gradually surrendered to her gaze, and the city and countryside became hers; men and women raised their eyes, not always complacently, to meet the eye of her camera and were immortalised in the dark chamber of her own eyes.

Like an explorer, she makes her map of memories; like an adventuress, she charts her route, leaving room for chance and coincidence. Like a sensitive woman, each image of the journey, more than illustrating her comings and goings across the Atlantic, serves to define the representation of a people who responded to her as if she were one of their own.

Beatriz Ruibal’s images—even the loveliest visions of the sea, the sunset, a wave-beaten wall or a palm tree—are not the result of calculated photographic devices. At the time, they satisfied a need to express herself through beauty, just as in other photos her attention was caught by the expressiveness or “ugliness” of the mundane. Perhaps she naturally exudes, in addition to the unmistakable scent of Bea, an aroma of understanding and respect that inspires the island to reveal its most intimate corners to her, allowing her to glimpse the everyday reality of a people characterised by their ability to live. Cuba began to unlock its mysteries for her on the very first visit, and by the end of the second there were no more secrets.

The difficult task of chasing and capturing the true light of the tropics, the balance between motion and dynamism that marks the pace of the Cuban, the subtle chaffing of the lady photographer, the constant flirtatious comments, surreal visions in the middle of the street, occasionally photographed in black feet with white sandals: these were the constants of her photographic journal in Cuba, always moving from one place to another, from one time to another, from one mood to another and from breezily cool nights to the nameless fatigue of sweat-drenched mornings and the dense heat pressing down on freshly washed hair and body.

Many of her photographs are so similar to home-grown expressions that they give me a feeling of déjà vu. The men and teens at work put me in mind of Raúl Corrales; the people, the streets, the transparent glass and the half-built (or, better said, half-destroyed) cities remind me of Mayito, of Gonzo González, of Abascal, of Mayol; the peasants and sugar cane workers are dangerously close to Pepe Marí and Raúl Cañibano, particularly if that closeness is purely spiritual, for I have it on good authority that creating a visual reference of Cuban photography was not among Beatriz’s top priorities.

As an insider, and knowing that she is, in theory, an outsider, I am even more amazed at the natural dramatic quality of many of her images and the nostalgia many of her photos inspire in me—that sensation, impossible to put into words, when my friend Estela and I saw the entrance to Tarará, sitting together before the computer screen, and we could almost feel the weight of that emotion the Portuguese call saudade. Men, boys and elders, still, smiling women, so many people strolling, walking, looking straight ahead or glancing sideways, and none of them seem to have been portrayed by a “foreigner”. What charmed breeze, the same wind that mesmerised travellers in the 19th century, descended upon Beatriz Ruibal’s camera to make this possible?

Perhaps she was able to perceive reality more clearly because she set out in search of an intimate photograph rather than a timeless image, because her journey was personal rather than official. In the shift from outside to inside, from general to specific, from that which all can see to that which only her soul perceived, an inimitable vision of town and country was forged, a personal photo essay, a private story.

The fidelity of her graphic account of Cuba, from its men to its buildings, is surprisingly high. The framing, the composition, the interplay of light and shadow even in the most perfect photos… all of this pales before the intensity of her gaze and the honesty with which she portrays the island. These are “there and back again” images: captured in their place of origin, once they have been seen and published they will return to the original setting. And how will Cubans see these photos? Will they feel like they belong to the world she shows? Will the magic of adoption remain when they face the images and the photographer is not there to explain them?

I might desire all of the photos—who knows, I might even be able to possess them—but in my memory nothing can ever compare to the image of two girls beneath a tree: unknown children who speak in another language, who think of other traditions, who are trying to survive a tragedy that was not my own and yet oddly reminds me of the poet’s Paradise—walking along, hand-in-hand with those girls, through an air so pure that it illuminates, in its very transparency, the reluctance of one who imagines no longer. And being in being is the mode of existence in which all is fulfilled, the chaste trees and the chimera, just as they are and never otherwise (1).

Silvia Llanes Torres.

Havana, Cuba, May 2005. Text written for the book Carretera Central. Ediciones Aldeasa. Photo Collection. 2005

(1) Elíseo Diego, Muestrario del mundo o libro de las maravillas de Boloña.

Desarrollado por Diseño Activo