Faces, Bodies, Persona: Tracing Cuban Stories
photograpy by Babrak salary text by Thomas Waugh
I am honored to have been asked to provide an introductory word or two for the exhibition of Cuban photographs by my old friend Babak Salari, “Faces, Bodies, Personas: Tracing Cuban Stories”.
This rich collection of almost one hundred portraits--weighty but serene, ambiguous but lucid, playful but sober is the most recent addition to a diverse documentary oeuvre that has taken Salari around the world several times, from Afghanistan to Mexico to the discreet networks of his fellow Iranian-Canadians. Both technically and artistically accomplished, as well as socially and psychologically astute, this series is finally being exhibited on the home turf of its heroic and mysterious subjects.
What was this Iranian-born, trilingual Montrealer doing in Cuba, and how might we position these quietly stunning portraits in relation to the contradictory 20th century heritage of first-world photographer-ethnographers scouring the planet for new populations to exoticize. Far from the soul-theft of the colonizer, this outsider has been able to capture agency and subjectivity in the faces, bodies, relationships and spaces of his sitters. Salariï's images strike me as profound radiations of humility and tenderness, even identification and solidarity with the lives of his subjects. No doubt his complex relationship with these subjects reflects this former refugees personal and artistic history of marginal vantage-points within both the Iranian and the Canadian cultural and political context.
It is interesting that the larger exhibition “Faces, Bodies, Personas”, composed principally of portraits of Cuban artists and intellectuals, incorporates a smaller, semi-autonomous series originally called “Queer at the Margins of Society”. And it is amazing how felicitously the two sub-groups come together. How queer artists are and how artistic queers are! Despite the realist sobriety of the medium of black and white portrait photography, both groups are all about performance, the performance of identity, whether professional, social, gender, or sexual. These performances are caught with backgrounds that are bare or else textured with the patterns of everyday life, with or without the aid of masks, disguises, and other props. In Salariï's images, jewelry, makeup and costume take on their usual expressive functions, but so does the luminous bareness of unembellished skin. Babak's encounters with these performances, frozen in time and space, resonate with the respect, generosity and insight that we can find in all his work.
Thomas Waugh, PhD
Professor, Film Studies and Interdisciplinary Studies in Sexuality
Graduate Program Director, Film Studies
Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, Concordia University