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Faces, Bodies, Personas: Tracing Cuban Stories is a collection of black-and-white photographs, portraying the gay and artistic community in Havana. This rich collection of almost one hundred portraits--weighty but serene, ambiguous but lucid, playful but sober--is a recent addition to the diverse documentary oeuvre that has taken photographer Babak Salari around the world several times, from Afghanistan to Mexico to the discreet newtorks of his felow Iranian-Canadians.
It is interesting that the larger project Faces, Bodies, Personas, composed principally of portraits of Cuban arists and intellectuals, incorporates a smaller, semi-autonomous series originally called Queer at the Margins of Society. Despite the realist sobriety of black and white photography, the two gropus come together quite felicitously; for both groups are 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.
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Babak Salari is a Montreal-based photographer and educator who chronicles lives at the margins of society. His documentary projects include: Iranian artists in exile; matriarchal, indigenous communities in Mexico; and gays and transvestites in Cuba. Recently, he documented those displaced and brutalized by war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Palestine. His interest in photography began as a teenager in his native Iran where he contributed to various publications. At the age of twenty-one, his political activities resulted in his imprisonment for six months by the Khomeini regime. Upon his temporary release from jail, he fled to Pakistan and, a year later, arrived in Canada where he resumed his study and practice of photography. His new multimedia work The Colour of My Dreams, examines death, exile and love.
Babak's work has been exhibited internationally and published in several magazines. His first book Faces, Bodies, Personas: Tracing Cuban Stories was published by Janet 45 in Bulgaria in 2008. He has received many awards including a Gold Addy from the American Ad Federation in 2004 for his work Locating Afghanistan.Review:
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, $25). 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. 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 theatre 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 convinved to participate. She was quite discreet about it, but I managed to get her to open up and we developed a friendship. 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. MATTHEW HAYS --Montreal Mirror, Glimpses of Queer Cuba
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