Glimpses of queer Cuba by Mathew Hayes

Glimpses of
queer Cuba

>>Montreal photographer Babak Salari
captures a gay subculture


Babak Salari says that the more time he spent in Cuba, the more powerful the connection felt. Salari, a Montreal-based photographer, began to travel to Cuba over seven years ago, both for pleasure and to capture images. But as his research grew, Salari, an Iranian-born refugee who fled the country in 1982, could intuit the strong connection between Cuban and Iranian cultures.

“Iranian culture is a homophobic one,” says the 48-year-old. “The president there denies everything. I felt very personally connected to the culture in Cuba. This subculture is largely one you don’t see in Cuba. I felt this very strong parallel between the two communities.”

Thus Salari became more and more drawn in by his subjects, almost 100 of which are printed in his new book, Faces, Bodies, Personas: Tracing Cuban Stories (Janet 45 Press, $30). With a powerful forthrightness and simplicity, Salari captures the lives of gays, lesbians and the transgendered in Cuba. Cast in stunning black and white, the images are clearly empowering for the subjects, presented without any hint of apology. Salari, an experienced photographer who has also documented the lives of Afghans, indicates a respect for his subjects that makes his photos feel less voyeuristic and more celebratory as a result. And he does what outstanding photographers can do, when faced with the lives of the marginalized: he makes that which has been rendered invisible visible.

“When I first went there, I was familiar with the politics of the Cuban government,” he recalls. “But I was not so familiar with the gay community there. My information was really very limited—I had seen Before Night Falls [the 2000 film about a gay artist who flees Cuba] but not much more than that.”

But as Salari spent more time there, he would meet up with one or two gay Cubans, and this would prove a crucial starting point to his introduction to the entire community. From there, he would be introduced to more queer Cubans and would gain trust, allowing for his photography to begin.

NO APOLOGIES: Images of gay cuba (above and top)

Cultural divide

Salari says he saw a divide in the Cuban queer community. He perceives that life is much easier for gays if they’re part of the intelligentsia. A number of artists, writers and intellectuals work quite openly there as queer people, though there are still obvious restrictions in terms of government censorship. “I know a theater director there, who works frequently, and everyone goes to see his shows. Everyone knows he’s gay, it’s not an issue for him. He gets respect. As well, I know a lesbian artist who explores her sexuality in her work. But if you’re a sex worker, it’s a different story. I wanted to bring both of these worlds together in the photographs.”

Salari managed to get this series of photos exhibited in Havana, at a gallery. He says it was well received but, not surprisingly, there was little or no press coverage around it.

While a number of gay Cubans have emigrated to Canada, Salari says things are changing there. “Since 2001, I sense a shift in attitudes there. I think things have opened up a bit.” He also argues that Cuban culture itself is unique in the Latino world: “Cuban culture is a mix of Latino, African and a revolutionary culture. It really is quite different from, say, Mexican culture.” This, he says, makes it an especially rich place for an artist to explore.

Salari also says that Cuban drag culture is also quite vibrant—if underground. “Drag shows are held privately, but are big—as many as 500 people will show up. The police know about them, of course, but they’re kept quiet.”

Salari was especially happy about one transsexual he convinced to participate. “She was quite discreet about it, but I managed to get her to open up and we developed a friendship. I invited her to the show in Havana. She blossomed as being a part of the show. She opened up, talking about how difficult it was for her to come out, to go through the process of being herself. This was one of the best stories to come out of the book.”

The launch of Faces, Bodies,
Personas: Tracing Cuban Stories

(by Salari with text by
Norge Espinosa Mendoza)
will be held this Saturday,
March 29, at Mekic Gallery
(4438 de la Roche), 5–7 p.m


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