Maggie Alarcón

Picture This: Cuba Circa 1890 – 1960

In Arts on April 20, 2011 at 3:06 pm

Blogger and friend, interior designer Carey Maloney, and his partner Hermes Mallea, an architect, are principals in the M (Group).
From Rural Intelligence

Hermes’ mother - ready for Carnival. Muy Poiret…

So this was fun….

Last week we went to Cuba to “put on a show!” Very Little Rascals.

Animal prints, plaids, and that great Cuban hair.

Granted – not a musical. No singing; no dancing… Happily more comedy than drama… A photography exhibition curated by HM and art directed by me.

Volunteers in the 1898 revolution against Spain. Of course, we made it about us and called it the Spanish American War…

Hermes’s great grandfather was one of Cuba’s early professional photographers. Joaquin López de Quintana y Gurri studied photography in Spain and returned to his hometown of Gibara where he established a studio in 1890.
Over the course of forty years his studio documented the Revolution of 1898 and life in a small town in rural Cuba.

Chea channeling Gloria Swanson as the ‘Esclava de Babilonia’, circa 1920. Must have been a good party…

His daughter “Chea” (Maria de los Mercedes López de Quintana y Sartorio) and her sister “Cusa” (Caridad yadda de yadda y yadda) followed in his footsteps – their work from the 1940’s and 50’s won awards in Cuba and abroad.

Ingenio de Baguanos by Chea.

Their work documented a place, a time, and a life that is gone. The famously lovely (and designated national monument) Gibara, La Villa Blanca, was the constant in their work.

Tio, tias, y mama in the garden, circa 1940.

The town, founded in 1817, is very young by Cuban standards. It was an important Spanish port built as a walled town to protect it from Cuban revolutionaries. Gibara was prosperous until the railroad was extended, then its fortunes flagged…

I’ll bet it was a wonderful place to grow up – and lots of L de Q’s did. Their house, La Casa Sartorio, was a sprawling compound with neighboring lots cobbled together over the years. A cheerful overgrown hodgepodge that became the town hotel after the ‘Triumph of the Revolution’.

We were watching a Cuban movie on DVD a few years ago and Hermes pipes up, “How weird… That looks like Casa Sartorio?”. The place was sorta gritty with Havana Club rum and Tu Cola signs – but through the dreck you could see the wacky/wonderful shell grotto the Tias had created in the ‘20’s.

The garden at Casa Sartorio


Hermes’ exhibition was one of the cultural activities of the 11th annual Festival Internacional de Cine Pobre de Humberto Solas. An international film festival of ‘poor’ films with budgets under $300,000 – usually well under… The films are low budget, high intellect.

Count on the Cubans for excellent graphics.

El Proyecto Cultural Cubafoto asked Hermes to put together an exhibition about the family. Of course he says yes. He loves this stuff… It’ll be (and was!) fun. Pero chico, no good deed goes unpunished.

He selects maybe 150 images – most are tiny late 19th century/early 20th century. We have them scanned, tweaked, enhanced. Then our friend Renee – una santa – at Atelier Renee in Red Hook mounted them on 30+ mattes and laminated them. Then we pack them up very very carefully and watch as the luggage handlers in Miami toss the case into the melee…

The man in line behind me had four tires…See them? $2 per pound.

On the other side of the straits of Cuba, Cuban customs was oddly uninterested in the photos and 500 brochures. That was a relief. Sadly, the scanner, an effing enormous external hard drive, two laptops and an iPad made us one huge and fluttering red flag.

Oh, and the gringo tourist we’d ‘picked up’ in the Miami airport ( “I’m from Atlanta. Y’all goin’ to Cuba, too?”) wasn’t helping. Joshing with the customs guy, “Those two are verrry suspicious. Hahaha!”

If looks could kill.

Any Immigration is fraught with opportunities for something to go wrong, right? ‘What pocket is my passport in?’ with the umpteenth pat. We’ve all been there. Tense…
Well, I rank Havana high on the Tense list… Not at all scary – but tense. Well – maybe scary..
Me – I’m not scared. Hermes uses the “Ransom of Red Chief” analogy…Ha ha. Real clever. But El Jefe is definitely un poco ‘alert’.
One trip he was called out of line by name before he’d shown his passport. “Hermes Mallea, follow me”. He said the hair on the back of his neck stood straight up. I meanwhile was tapping my foot on the other side of the passport divide, wondering where he was and muttering, “If I have to deal with this luggage alone I will kill him”. He later questioned my priorities…


This trip. 20 minutes of questions and our new best friends from the Film festival appeared with official paperwork and we slinked (slunk) away.

The show was held in the lobby of the Museum of Natural History facing the beautiful Plaza de Armas. We’re clever – we thought we had everything we could possible need to hang the work. Everything.
Not…In the end, none of the myriad hanging gadgets we brought was used.
All was beautifully hung on Day One and upon our return on Day Two – Exhibition Day – “We’ll just tweak it a little” – all was strewn on the floor. Havana humidity and a funky whitewashed wall surface conspired to de-activated our adhesives overnight.
The Cuban organizers rallied in true Revolutionary form and found 30 matching frames (trust me – no small feat), repainted an easel, touched up the whitewashed walls (they may be too poor to paint, but they are not too proud to whitewash.. Which is sort of a ‘fickle’ surface, BTW). The things were hung and looked great at 3:45.

Que será será...

So at 4 PM on April 5, Luz de Memoria; La lente y la imagen de la familia López de Quintana 1890-1960 was up and running…

The opening reception had a great crowd – all of our friends showed up plus it was the official opening event for the film festival. We had planned rum and hors d’oeuvres on the roof ‘mirador’ overlooking Old Havana – but that idea was literally blown away by a storm at 4:30 that can only be described as biblical – trees uprooted and tall buildings evacuated. Laugh and move on …

By 4 we were golden.

Anyway – a good time was had by all. I certainly had fun…

The photos were a smash – cute children in crazy costumes, what’s not to love? One lovely lady introduced herself to Hermes and told him his great aunts had been wonderful to her father, a poor boy who later worked for his grandfather. She walked over to the first picture and broke into sobs… (Makes me tear up just thinking about it…)
Kudos to Hermes (speaking to the crowd, above). He worked like un perro and made a wonderful effort to preserve his family’s—and Cuba’s—memories.

The beach club.

And kudos to the Proyecto Cultural Cubafoto and Rufino del Valle for reaching out to us across those straits—physically very near but politically and diplomatically very distant.

One final point. The United States initiated an economic embargo on Cuba under President Eisenhower. His ambassador to Cuba warned that this blockade amounted to “economic warfare”. So for over 50 years the world’s super power has waged economic war against an island nation of 11 million people. It’s not about communism (we’re in bed with China and Viet Nam.). It’s not about human rights (we certainly are in bed with Saudi Arabia and China). It’s about American politics.
Annually, since 1992, the United Nations has voted on the embargo. In 2010, 187 countries supported Cuba and there were 2 votes against – the USA and Israel. Hmmm – – 187 to 2. A solid majority…
If the American people took a moment to understand it, we would all be ashamed…

(OMG – this blog could get me death threats… You have no idea the vitriol the Cuban expat right wing spew on this subject. Comments become thousand word essay rants – often with threats of violence.

Thankfully, the threats are coming from some loser in Hialeah, in his boxers screaming at his computer screen. So I’m not too scared. Famous last words…)

BTW – The exhibition was the sidebar for the trip. The true purpose was final work on El Jefe’s tome, The Great Houses of Havana; A Century of Cuban Style. Check out the website and don’t be reluctant to pre-buy for Fall delivery!!!

Cuban photographer Adrian Fernandez, whose work has shown at Carrie Haddad Photographs, taking one last shot for El Jefe’s book before we race to the airport. HM had lobbied to see this house for years. We were going to miss that plane (OMG please no!) before he missed that house

Sayonara from Gibara —Carey Maloney

For the complete archive of past Wandering Eye blogs, click here.

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