I don’t like politics but… she likes me, compañero…

Dermis León

With permission from the Cuban group Porno para Ricardo

The work of Leandro Feal and the survival processes of Cuban youth today in a complex and adverse political climate are absolutely coherent, in its photographic and generational gap.

With a doubt, it is Havana, but at first, we do not know to what era the images belong. The clothing is nondescript; the thick-framed eyeglasses, the girls’ haircuts and the young men’s shirts suggest the 1970s. Is it a vintage photo or the recreation of a scene of history? The washed-film characteristic, on a grainy surface of 35 mm exposure, gives the photo a low contrast; the beam of the flash to center the figures; the use of angles and a focus that barely illuminates the scene in the diffuse light of a late afternoon at the beach; all these elements altogether could disqualify the work immediately. However, there is something in the sum of its parts, an attractive ambiguity of what could be the underlying story, a before as well an afterwards in the portraiture and context, that, in Caribbean code, have a certain “swing.” I recognize certain faces, places and the knowledge that the shots were taken in a recent past, of figures living in a besieged city, in ruins, overwhelms me.

Behind the images, the music seems to resound, helter-skelter at times, melodic at others, of Porno for Ricardo. A mi no me gusta la política, pero yo le gusto a ella, compañero” (“I don’t like politics, but she likes me, compañero”).  Like it or not, from Leandro Feal’s disorderly surfaces (La Havana, 1986), a young, apparently cynical, generation peers out at us, unconcerned, hedonistic, with that strong presence of the culture of the body, party, and “cubaneo”. 
Groups of young people who have taken up certain behavior, and signs of identification such as tattoos, open sexuality, a pert demeanor, and materialism as their lifestyle, so distant from the ideal of the “new man” that revolutionary ideology extolled.  In contrast, but closer to another kind of marginality, are the portraits of Leandro’s group of friends, who move to the same “urban tribe” pulsations with overt and exhibitionist sexuality. Yet, they nurture the “counter culture” and the “otherness” in more than a sense of a “retro” esthetics of the 70s, in the eagerness to differentiate their generation or perhaps go against the grain of the stoic, uniform, militaristic stoic ideal, that the revolution still insists in teaching youth. Why then the identification with both currents, the need to be and therefore identify oneself with the lives of young people who are so dissimilar? A generation distant from the ethical ideals that seeks pleasure and a momentary experience the desire to live, with another that continues to attempt to create a meaningful space (in the case of the group closest to Leandro, most of them artists, students and musicians).  And the fact is that in a country where any sign of “living your own life” is automatically categorized as inappropriate behavior, it is impossible, in many ways, to avoid politics. Positioned from the vantage point of this caveat, this “fissure,” Leandro articulates his work. He constructs nearly unconsciously and shows us the portrait of his contemporaries, youth whose lifestyle openly accepts the paradox of an unrestrained reality, with out the hypocritical morals characteristic of previous stages of the revolution.

However, the most significant aspect of Leandro Feal’s images is the contradictory and strange perception that his choice of photographic record produces. Leandro creates in series, whether through a narrative and the obvious nature of the sequence of situations, or through the subjects these increasingly construct, as well as the absence of a concept of “one-shot” photo (isolate) -  in fact, there are no titles. We are observing a kind of documentary work that flirts with the idea of photographic essay, as the vast, rich Latin American tradition has developed, but stops short of becoming an essay. The intimacy with the photographic subject is too sharp, a total accomplice, one might say, and the images are stricken by a transcendent emotional intensity that blurs the limits between what is circumstantial and ephemeral, that the lens has captured. He is involved, is present in that scene; he himself is a subject of the “photographer’s view,” from that hand that emerges in the foreground trying to undress the girl who embraces another man, and participated in the shot; or handing the camera to one of his friends so he can appear in the photo. In his experience Leandro traverses from the voyeur to looking at himself from the surface of the mirror. Now he focuses the gaze on his own existential condition and identifies fully with the group. Images of extreme every-day life flow, that is, are constructed from his own precarious life, outside political propaganda of the ideals of Cuban youth.
Perhaps, also, the pictorial quality of the photography, with the apparent neglect of a carefully chosen subject, shuns the condition of “document” or transcendence in the mere resource of the famous moment, so clear to followers of Bergson. Rather, the limits of the frame reveal a careful construction of image and a trained gaze that knows the physical space and the atmosphere it wishes to expose. The “stage” is transformed by study and each object that appears in the scene has something to say about the conditions as well lifestyle of the subject of the photograph. When the shots are taken outdoors, the urban or coastal landscape seems diffused by natural light; they comprise the background to sublimely frame the portrait, in a powerful contrast with the light of the flash. To this must be added the open attitude of the figures of Feal’s series, the complicity of and with the camera. They pose consciously; even when they do not do so directly, they are aware they are being recorded and give themselves to the eternal instant of the complicit gaze, the frugality of the second to transcend the photograph’s timeless quality.

In the essay “El Espejo y la Máscara, comentarios a la fotografía cubana post- revolucionaria” (“The Mirror and the Mask, commentaries on post-revolutionary Cuban photography”), by Juan Antonio Molina, the author develops two fundamental concepts that define the predominant trends in photography. On the one hand, there is the new documental that breaks with the ideological tradition manipulated by the construction of the revolutionary hero. Identified with leaders of the Cuban Revolution, it excluded the ordinary person whose identity was absorbed by the concept of “people”, whose maximum example is that constructed by the work of Korda in the 1960s. To paraphrase Molina, in returning to the documentary tradition, the new photography reformulated the concept of “reality” with by approaching marginal areas and a changed perspective in which this concept of masculine hero disappears. From the phallic figure reinforces by the take on reality, the camera of the new photographers began to broach zones of deviation such as the “gay” world; or intimacy and privacy, as in the series by René Peña; the erotic in the work by Abigail Gonzalez, Alain Pino, and others. In the approach to religious subjects, but with a perspective that is less folkloric and more a study and intersection of genres, a terrain opened by the work of Marta Maria Perez, which represents the other trend: metaphorical photography. Since the mid-1980s, artists such as Leandro Soto began to employ photography as a “meta-text” with a play of meanings that transcended the appearance of the image. In such experiences, as those of Marta Maria and Leandro, in which the individual camouflages himself or in some way denies his own identity, the photographic tradition found new roads and uses of genre. The semantic ambiguity, the inter-textuality, the dialogue between different media as a way to unmask, but also as an analysis on what is artistic, were the premises for constructing this new trend, according to Molina.

Leandro Feal belongs to the generation of disenchantment, which began in the new 21st century. Born in the decade of the 80s, one of the most prolific in terms of cultural during the entire history of the revolution, at 15 years of age he entered the San Alejandro Fine Arts Academy in the City of Havana in 2002, after spending a year in the already famous José Antonio Diaz Peláez Experimental Center (well known as 23 y C school). From 2005 to 2007 he studied under Tania Bruguera in her Art of Behavior Course (Escuela Arte de la Conducta) (I.S.A.), which influenced his critical and performance view of photography, but also connected him with one of the most representative figures of the 90s. In a way, it would also connect him to artists who were not of his generation but with whom he would identify, and create continuity in regards to the way they viewed themselves as artists in their social context. 

Despite these connections to the scene of the 90s, could it be said that his work pertains to one of the two trends Molina defines as metaphoric photography or new documentalism? Of course, his images are not precisely metaphors of denial or even play with the identity of the person portrayed. In addition, to define his series within the documentary trend or what is known as “straight photography,” I believe limits the esthetics that he plays with and the complexities that surpass the photographer-object relationship of the perspective. With the exceptions of the distance from time and context, his images appear to be an echo of those that motivated the young Larry Clark to produce his Tulsa series. In the Con jamón, lechuga y pitipuá series, the young Leandro plays with the nude –literally- with his friends and tenses raw images – or at least unexpected and in a certain sense, naive – of a “free” and uninhibited way of life. Together with another photographer of his generation, Claudio, he produces sessions in the houses of several of his friends. These photos uncover rather than expose, a way of life that seeks to recover a certain counterculture spirit and years of veiled censorship. I speak of uncovering in regards to the play of appearances in which sex is not explicit, but everyone is nude before the camera. There are no open signs of drugs, perhaps only alcohol, but watch out! Something else is behind it; discomfort? protest? Does it mean this kind of lifestyle did not exist before? We could say that there is a great difference from the moment of frontally exposing oneself as individuals whose sexuality is not at doubt. Some photos have a composition of such complexity that it reminds us directly of the paintings by Velázquez with that play of glances, the absence -presence, such is the case where the photographer appears nude in the doorway with his camera, and the mirror on the wall shows the face of a girl who is fully clothed. These are winks to other references, for example to an inverted version of Helmut. An art critic is seated, in an apathetic, and entertained demeanor, accompanied by four friends –including Leandro himself – who pose nude and measure their genitals, or appear “frozen” like figures used in advertising images.

For Leandro, the perspective of identification goes from the masculine to the feminine subject, looking, above all, to dismantle the predominant idea of reducing the woman or transsexual to an “object”.  He is the camera, and also can be the object of the photograph, together with his friends who take their clothes off or pose close, sharing the same space and condition. There is much more behind this photographic angle than documentary record, to define it in terms of the new trend. The use of color denies the traditional condition per se of documentary-reporting, whereas the play of different planes, composition, and the relationship between the subjects photographed, break the distance between the mirror and the camera. Nan Goldin, unlike Larry Clark, distanced herself from the black and white so closely associated with documentary and classic photography. She returned to color to make portraits of the intimacy of friends or acquaintances, with the complicity of the subjects and in totally anti-heroic settings. In this context, Leandro uses color and shoots the camera directly to dismantle any metaphorical suggestion so “dearly” from the previous generations of the 80s and 90s that made the photographic surface more complex by manipulating image and with scenographic constructions of meaning. Leandro’s photograph is the pure and hard condition of what is “out there”. It records the total loss of innocence and, in a contradiction, represents an attempt to maintain equal conditions for boys and girls. We are in a territory free of politics, without the vigilant and austere gaze of revolutionary machismo.