Cultural Crossroads interview by Stefan Christoff



November 6th, 2008
Cultural Crossroads: Babak Salari – Web exclusive!
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New bent on the Cuban revolution
Stefan Christoff

Salari: All smiles
photo: Peter Berra

Montreal is a vibrant international center for artistic expression and culture production. Cultural Crossroads is a new interview series on that features in depth conversations with Montreal’s leading artists and cultural actors, all who of whom are inspiring new and innovative forms of artistic expression and thinking here and around the world.
Cultural Crossroads interviews Iranian-born Montrealer Babak Salari on his new book of photography about Cuba’s queer artistic scenes

Representations of Cuban culture internationally are often turned into symbols or clichés of a post-revolutionary society. Images of Cuba’s revolutionary era adorn t-shirts, websites and apartment walls around the world. But seldom are the contemporary voices from the social and cultural edges of Cuba featured.

Montreal photographer Babak Salari has recently published a book on queer culture in Cuba, which directly explores the new modes of social dissent within Cuban society as expressed by queer artists and intellectuals, communities historically marginalized in Cuba. Salari’s book Faces, Bodies, Personas: Tracing Cuban Stories not only offers striking photography, but is also documents the complexities of queer identity in Cuba within Cuban elite cultural milieus and at a popular level.

As the fiftieth anniversary of Cuba’s revolution approaches, Babak Salari’s book is an extremely important document on Cuban society today, recorded by a world class photographer who has documented the lives of the oppressed in multiple corners of the world – the Middle, East Asia and Latin America.

Here Hour journalist Stefan Christoff speaks with Salari concerning his most recently published work for our monthly online in-depth interview series, Cultural Crossroads.

Hour In the opening commentary for the book, your portraits are presented as a documentation of life on the edges of Cuban society – a revolutionary society – can you expand on this point?

Babak Salari A focal point

for my photography is those who are marginalized: those impacted by war, those forced into exile and also minorities in any society living without full rights.

The project in Cuba was based on exploring the margins of society. It began in 2001, focusing on the most marginalized queers in Cuba – people who never have a chance to talk. The second part in the book is focused on queer artists who are expressing themselves in Cuba.

For many years queer artists represented a taboo culture in Cuba, as queers generally couldn’t express themselves openly but queer artists were celebrated – a major social contradiction. Bringing together these two realities was a goal for the book, a project highlighting both the queer community of Cuba generally, but also specifically highlighting queer Cuban artists and intellectuals.

A key goal for the entire project and those Cuban artists collaborating on the project, including poet Jorge Espinosa Mendoza and writer Roberto Zurbano Torres, was to bring these two realities, these two distinct queer experiences in Cuba, together within the same cover.

Faces, Bodies, Personas: Tracing Cuban Stories, by Babak Salari (Havana, Cuba 2001)

Many queer Cuban artists have gained national attention and can express themselves through their art, although their sexuality remained taboo, remained in the closet.

Hour Portraits in the book are very intimate; the photos seem to capture the moments between the private world and the public world for queers in Cuba. Can you talk about that experience, interacting, mapping and photographing these moments in Cuba?

Salari After spending two years in Cuba, people allowed me access to their daily experiences, their daily lives. It took time to gain this trust given my status in Cuba as an outsider.

Photos in the book capture the human moments of queers in Cuba, both the public and private moments, attempting to portray extremely complex identities.

Hour Today, there is growing international recognition of art produced in Cuba. In Montreal this past year at the Musée des beaux-arts featured a major exhibition focusing on Cuban art, featuring revolutionary imagery that continues to serve as an inspiration for many on the left internationally. What are your thoughts on the role of contemporary art in Cuban society, as compared to classic Cuban revolutionary art? Can you address how your photography addresses that artistic intersection between contemporary dissent in Cuban society and art’s historical role as a revolutionary force in Cuba?

Babak Salari My photography on Cuba explores the parts of society that are hidden. Many understand Cuba in clichés, which are reinforced through activities on most tourist trips to the country. However, my work touches on the more subtle, unknown elements in Cuban society, powerful elements of current Cuban culture not widely known.

Cuba is so often defined through cliché imagery: Che Guvera emblems, or revolutionary imagery, or Salsa dancing – all which are important to Cuban society, but Cuba is home to much more complexity.

Today queer culture in Cuba is recognized but not always openly, like within the work of nationally celebrated artists like theatre director Carlos Díaz. Such artists represent new changes taking place within Cuba, as part of an internal struggle for change. It is through modern Cuban dance, literature and art that you can best learn about new social modes within Cuba.

Cuban society felt familiar to me as an Iranian who also experienced revolution. In Iran, many people, especially artists and revolutionaries, are very familiar with Cuban politics and culture – but not the contemporary complexities that we are discussing, especially not queer culture.

Hour One understanding of change in Cuba, common in North America, is defined by the country’s transfer to a free market economy. Creating a ‘free market’ economy certainly isn’t the only possible framework for post-revolutionary change in Cuba. Through your photography, you can feel the tensions within many Cuban artistic circles on the different possibilities for change in Cuba, can you address these complexities?

Salari In discussing these issues with Cuban artists and intellectuals it is apparent that change in Cuba is constant, it is ongoing. Artists featured in the book, operating within the social circles in Cuba that are familiar to me, are all pushing for indigenous ideas for change; for change to take place from within Cuban society.

As someone from Iran who has experienced exile for a quarter of a century, the current issues being addressed in Cuba are familiar to me in a way. Many Cubans featured in the book also explored possibilities of leaving Cuba and trying to push for change in exile. However, those featured in the book choose to stay, to push for change from within, which is an important current to the book.

My own experience of exile has defined my life and also my relationship to Iran, so these questions had a special resonance to my own experience.

Traces of change are apparent in Cuba today. Many artists express themselves by pushing against social barriers, queer artists especially. In contradiction to that internal process of change in Cuba is the U.S.-driven change which aims to impose a capitalist market society in Cuba, modeled after the U.S., which obviously will only increase social inequities.

In Cuba there is free medical care, easily accessible across the country for all, while in the U.S. many die because of lack of medical treatment. So it is clear why many in Cuba struggling for change also oppose the possibility of a “U.S.-modeled change” being imposed on Cuba. For real change to happen in Cuba it is critical to support those fighting for positive change within Cuban society. [Real] change is not about breaking open Cuban markets to U.S. investments, or trying to turn Cuba into a giant American casino.

Cuba is very complex; there are many races in Cuba, many different cultures and origins. It is very interesting to view and try to document this process of change taking place within Cuba, a process not apparent to most looking at Cuba from the outside.

Hour How did your own experiences with revolution and revolutionary culture in Iran shape your photographic work and experiences in Cuba?

Salari In Iran, many from my generation are familiar with the Cuban revolution and were influenced by Cuban revolutionary culture. Iran has experienced an entirely different history, has a very different culture and different traditions, still, many in Iran closely followed Cuba.

Many in Iran are very supportive towards the Cuban revolution. After experiencing exile from Iran, exile from a revolution, my thoughts on Cuba became more critical and complex. It is from this point on that my interest in exploring the edges of Cuban society developed.

In Cuba, it was striking to see reflections of my own background and past experiences within revolutionary Iran. Experiences in Iran lead me to ask more complicated questions concerning present day Cuba, leading me to explore the margins of Cuban society, a process that finally lead to the photography book.

Faces, Bodies, Personas: Tracing Cuban Stories (Janet 45 Press, $30)
For more info, visit
For Babak Salari’s website, see

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