Dr James Clifford Kent, School of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures, has curated the exhibition, This is Cuba: Documentary Photography after Fidel, which brings into focus the key themes of his AHRC-funded practice-led research project, ““¡Yo soy Fidel!”: Post-Castro Cuba and the Cult of Personality”.
1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role within the School of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures?
I am a lecturer in Hispanic Studies and a specialist in Visual Cultures, focusing specifically on Cuba and photography. I feel privileged to be working in a genuinely innovative, interdisciplinary and unique department that enables me to teach across languages, literature, and visual arts. I contribute to a broad range of programmes (including Comparative Literature and Culture, History of Art and Visual Culture, and Translation Studies). My courses – such as Rebels, Revolution and Representation in Latin America – allow me to explore the overarching themes of my research with my students (focusing primarily on documentary photography, photojournalism and documentary filmmaking). I recently published my first monograph, Aesthetics and the Revolutionary City: Real and Imagined Havana and my current AHRC-funded practice-led research project ““¡Yo soy Fidel!”: Post-Castro Cuba and the Cult of Personality” explores the representation of Cuban society in documentary photography following Fidel Castro’s death in 2016. I am also a practising photographer and my work has been exhibited in the UK and Cuba.
2. We understand that you have recently co-published an article in The Conversation discussing the British royal visit to Cuba in 2019. What was the historical significance of this visit?
The recent trip to Havana by TRH the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall – part of their tour of the Caribbean – marked the first ever official royal visit to Cuba. It signals a growing transatlantic rift between the US, the UK and other EU nations regarding their policies on Cuba, while also breaking a long cycle of British reluctance to oppose Washington’s wishes in a country it considers firmly in the US sphere. The Royal visit took place just as the US administration began tightening its policy towards Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela (previously described by US National Security Advisor John Bolton as the “Troika of Tyranny”). The royal visit was also significant in that it took place in the Revolution’s 60th year and coincided with the 500-year anniversary of Havana's founding around a natural harbour on the island’s northern coast.
3. On Monday 29 April you will be opening your exhibition, This is Cuba: Documentary photography after Fidel. What was your inspiration for working on this exhibition?
It was dawn on the day of former revolutionary leader Fidel Castro’s funeral at the Santa Ifigenia cemetery in Santiago de Cuba when I first met the American photojournalist Michael Christopher Brown. We were both there – surrounded by members of the world’s media – photographing mourners holding a vigil. It was after this encounter that I began thinking about the different stories being told about Cuba after Fidel and the way these would form over the coming years. I returned to London and published a photo-essay that would later turn into a bigger project focusing on contemporary documentary photography. Since 2016, I have been collaborating with a group of world-renowned photographers – including Michael Christopher Brown – whose various projects offer a snapshot of Cuba in the wake of Fidel Castro’s death. Featuring the work of Juan Carlos Alom, Raúl Cañibano, Arien Chang Castán, Michael Christopher Brown, Leandro Feal, Felko, Lisette Poole, Leysis Quesada, Alfredo Sarabia and Lissette Solórzano, the exhibition will be accompanied by a series of talks and workshops dealing with a wide range of themes such as language, photographic practice and visual culture.
4. What do you hope that visitors take away from the exhibition?
My practice-led research to date has focused on the way Cuba, and more specifically Havana as synecdoche for the island, has been represented in the Western imagination. Recent political developments have meant that Cuba continues to be represented by the world’s media as a country wavering persistently but alluringly on the cusp of change. Following Fidel Castro’s death, many outsiders presumed the Revolutionary project would collapse and that the island would revert to its pre-revolutionary condition of US dominance. Three years later, most Cubans will be quick to remind you that – in actual fact – very little has changed and the country continues to face the same challenges that it has done since the most austere years of the Cuban “Special Period” in the early 1990s. Just last month, Fidel’s younger brother and Communist Party leader Raúl Castro forewarned of worsening shortages on the island resulting from Trump administration policies and mounting US pressure on Cuba and Venezuela. These are uncertain times for Cuba yet the romanticised image of the country and its capital city endure in the Western imaginary. For this reason, it has been exciting to witness the way recent improvements to the island’s connectivity have meant that Cuban photographers are playing an increasingly significant role in shaping narratives about and perceptions of the island. This is Cuba represents an opportunity for gallery visitors to see one of the most photographed places on earth from a different perspective.
6. What do you enjoy doing with your time outside of work?
I’m always thinking about making pictures and I never go anywhere without some form of camera. When I’m not taking photographs, looking at pictures and/or talking about photography, I like to be in the water; I love wild swimming and surfing and I’m happiest in a lake or bobbing up and down in the ocean on a board. I’ve competed several times in the Great North Swim and have been lucky enough to surf all over the world.
7. If you could be present at the location and date when a historical photograph was taken, what photograph would you choose and why?
There’s a photograph by Walker Evans called Citizen in Downtown Havana (1933). It’s one of the main reasons I became so interested in Cuba and photography. It depicts an Afro-Cuban man dressed in an immaculate white linen suit in front of a newsstand in Centro Habana. Last year, I interviewed the British photographer David Bailey and we talked about the picture as he had previously cited it as one of his favourite photographs. He likened it to a still from a movie and said to me “you could write a short story about him!” – comparing the scene in the picture to one from a B-movie or film-noir. Maybe that’s why I always find myself returning to the photograph and often spot things I’ve never noticed before. Every time you look at the picture, it tells another story. I would have loved to have been there to witness Evans taking that photograph.