Hymn to Havana

Revealed image of a colonial city.

In his indispensable study Cuba/España, España/Cuba: Historia común (Cuba/Spain, Spain/Cuba: Common History), Professor Manuel Moreno Fraginals, one of the most provocative and restless historians who have interpreted Cuba’s evolution, analyses and at times destroys several of the historic myths that, in one or another way, became established in the accepted perception of the country’s colonial past.

One of the most substantial revelations of that essay is found in its analysis of the process of Cuban cultural production before the 19th century, when, in the heat of creating the nationality, a great dawn of artistic works took place that, starting with the bucolic poems of Manuel Zequeira and Manuel Rubalcaba, then the work of José María Heredia, opened the path of the creation of a purely Cuban artistic culture. Before then, as Moreno recalls, there was talk of the island’s culture as a prolonged void barely illuminated by two transcendental works, Esteban Salas’ sacred music and the writing of the poem Espejo de paciencia (Mirror of Patience) – two works that, by the way, were only fully known centuries after being created – to which were added that series of engravings frequently made for utilitarian purposes in which, with notable and justifiable presence, images of the city of Havana were reproduced and especially of its bay and port, centres of the island’s social and economic life.

Moreno then introduces an important historical revision: that supposed Cuban cultural void prior to the 19th century is not so. Or it is only if culture is understood in narrow terms. Because the island, and its capital Havana in a leading role, were centres that produced utilitarian culture, intrinsically related to the economic and political activities that, for its development, demanded the existence of that creative capability. This is the reason for the flourishing during those reproductive centuries of an entire production associated to the military, commercial and seafaring activities that marked Cuban life and that, in their exercise (intellectual and material) bequeathed that practical culture that the colony’s life demanded, more urgently needed than poems and theatre pieces.

As a valuable testimony of this cultural process, which in the 19th century would be filled with more open aesthetic intentions, a beautiful volume titled La Habana, imagen de una  ciudad colonial (Havana, Image of a Colonial City) has been conceived, enriched by the zeal, passion and knowledge of the subject by researcher Zoila Lapique and photographer Julio A. Larramendi. Printed in Spain by Polymita publishers (2013), established in Guatemala and editorially headed by Larramendi, this edition of 3,000 copies has already become an indispensable work for getting to know Havana’s colonial iconography, from the period of the island’s conquest by the Spaniards up to the moment that that period is symbolically and politically closed: the moment in which Máximo Gómez poses for a photographer when he is getting ready to hoist the Cuban flag to give the new republic a birth certificate.

This volume, conceived as a hardcover album and with the appropriate paper for this, visually summarises the passing of four centuries of Havana’s history. Divided into two large sections, the first of which is dedicated to the so-called “Illustrations” that, since the first European visions of the New World and of Havana to the work of real artists of the 19th century, collects in its illustrations the milestones of an evolution of the image of the Cuban created through time, in a process of trial runs, approximations and definitions that allows us to witness an act of enrichment concluded in a birth. These illustrations, made with different techniques, though with notable insistence on the engraving, allow us to follow the historic passage of Havana and visually confirm the correct thesis of maestro Moreno Fraginals: the majority of the images have to do with the commercial and seafaring activity, with the presence of military constructions, with shipyards and ships…and, of course, with the overwhelming leading role of the view of what is Havanan from the sea through which almost everything that gave the island economic, social and spiritual life arrived and left. Accompanied by a text by Zoila Lapique, principal specialist on the subject of colonial iconography, that historic tour through the Havana images – also full of surprises and revelations – has achieved here one of its most beautiful and definitive bibliographical realisations.

The second part of the book opens with the arrival of photography to Cuba, in 1840 (he first machine to make daguerreotypes) and tours six key decades of the history of Havana and Cuba, illuminated here by the graphic testimony of dozens of photographers, many of them anonymous, who bequeathed us scenes of Cuban life of that time. As was expected, the photographic territory of the book is commented by Julio Larramendi, who has already become not only one of the most active Cuban artists of photography but also one of its most ardent researchers and connoisseurs.

The photographed Havana that Larramendi collects not only features landscapes and rocks. They are its characters, images of its intimate life, of its domestic and public environments full of human life. It is a Havana that grows towards the inside and moves away from the sea to achieve the physiognomy that characterises it – and that, fortunately, in many cases today we can still enjoy. It is significant, in this journey, how while the photographic technique develops so does Havana develop and expand from the original colonial ground toward what was its first urban expansion once the walls that aimed to protect the township were brought down.

The social content acquired by the graphic representation of reality with the arrival of photography has been conveniently marked in this selection: images of insurrectionists, of the crude life led at the time and of such emblematic moments as the one that shows the spectacular photo of the mass civic procession to celebrate the abolition of slavery or the painful illustration of the persons “reconcentrated” by Valeriano Weyler, crowded in a centrally located Havana street.

The years of effort dedicated to the study of our image by Zoila Lapique and the creative and questioning endeavour of the tireless Julio Larramendi achieves in the delicate edition of La Habana, imagen de una ciudad colonial the consummation of a work where harmony, beauty and utility go hand in hand. A veritable hymn to Havana. (2014)

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