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Art exhibits Cuba's newfound tolerance to gays

A new tolerance in Cuba toward homosexuality has led to what many believed they would never see on the island: an exhibit by Robert Mapplethorpe, the American photographer known for his homoerotic images.
The president of the Cuban Parliament, Ricardo Alarcon, views an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe's photography in Havana on Tuesday.Jorge Rey / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Communist Cuba hasn’t exactly been tolerant of homosexuality: In the late 1960s, Cubans were sent to labor camps for being gay, with homosexuality derided as an illness of the capitalist past.

Even today, Cuban transvestites are sometimes detained and threatened with prison.

But a new tolerance over the past decade has led to what many believed they would never see on the island: an exhibit by Robert Mapplethorpe, the controversial American photographer known for his homoerotic images.

The “Sacred and Profane” exhibit, which opened Wednesday at a recently restored gallery in the heart of Old Havana, features 48 photographs spanning Mapplethorpe’s career. The exhibit runs through Feb. 15.

“I never thought I would have this experience in Cuba, to see Mapplethorpe’s work firsthand,” said Ricardo Rodriguez, a 35-year-old photographer. “When people told me this exhibit was coming, I didn’t believe them.”

Rodriguez said his surprise stemmed from the fact that Mapplethorpe is gay, American and highly controversial even in his own country.

In 1990, the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and its director were charged with obscenity for exhibiting Mapplethorpe’s photographs. Both were acquitted, but the case sparked a national debate over using government funds for the arts. Conservative lawmakers and religious fundamentalists attacked the National Endowment for the Arts for subsidizing Mapplethorpe shows.

“It’s incredible to see him here,” Rodriguez said.

'Pure sensuality'
As for the images themselves, most agreed they were more serene than shocking.

“Pure sensuality,” Farah Gomez, a 26-year-old art historian, said of the black-and-white images portraying flowers, various female body parts and nude black men.

Parliament Speaker Ricardo Alarcon, one of Cuba’s highest ranking officials, agreed. He said Mapplethorpe “achieves the transmission of a purely artistic message and sense.”

“Frankly, this really doesn’t strike me as a sexual exposition,” he told The Associated Press in an interview. “Nudity is found in cultures dating much further back than the United States or Cuba. Classicism is full of the nude human body.”

Mild hints of sadomasochism pepper the exposition, which also features images of two men kissing, actress Susan Sarandon holding a child and a young Arnold Schwarzenegger in his bodybuilding days.

Another photograph shows the profiles of an albino man and a black man with a shaved head. The eyes of the albino are open, his gaze drifting off the photograph; the black man’s eyes are closed.

Mapplethorpe’s own self-portraits express some sadness, showing the deterioration in his health before he died of AIDS at age 42 in 1989.

Newfound tolerance

The exhibit, which doesn’t include Mapplethorpe’s roughest images, embraces the photographer’s internal contradictions, said Philip Larratt-Smith, a New York-based Canadian who curated the show with the help of Cuba-based Pamela Ruiz.

“His work toys with the polarities of masculine and feminine, insider and outsider, personal and political, subjective and objective, black and white ... and of course, sacred and profane,” Larratt-Smith said.

The turning point in the island’s newfound tolerance toward homosexuality, which came with the limited economic and social liberalization of the mid-1990s, is often linked to the release of the 1994 hit film “Strawberry and Chocolate.” The movie explores the friendship between a naive young Communist and a highly educated Cuban homosexual who is in love with his country but at odds with his government.

Several Cuban artists have started tackling some of Mapplethorpe’s themes in the last decade, including Rene Pena and Eduardo Hernandez Santos. Pena is among a dozen photographers with an exhibit called “Descartes” opening Friday in a Cuban gallery.