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Korda at Couturier Gallery & Jose A. Figueroa at Jan Kesner 

Wednesday, Nov 11 1998
Vedado la Habana (1994)
The works of Alberto Korda and José A. Figueroa come out of very different ways of looking at Cuba. Both were among Castro's battery of official photographers, though at different stages - Korda during the heady days of the revolution (fueled by the noble intent of valorizing the young Fidel), and Figueroa in the decade following it (burdened with the older Fidel's restrictions). The respective focuses of their current exhibitions reflect this split; "Korda" is a sweeping survey of "official" (and pre-revolution) work, while Figueroa's "Notes on Havana" is concentrated in the past decade. Together, they offer a lush, potent vista of modern Cuba.

"Korda" underlines the iconoclastic aspects of the photographer's life: relatively affluent young man establishes swank and bohemian Havana studio as fashion photographer, only to run off to become chronicler of the budding revolution's leaders and eventually take a photograph that would become the universal signifier for revolution - his portrait of Che as "heroic guerrilla." Influenced by Richard Avedon, Korda's fashion work is much like that of his American contemporaries - opulent and marked by bizarre stylizations and set pieces - though less frigid, more organic. Plaintive, jewel-like works, they evince much mischief and wit: The Kim Novak-like eyes of a woman jutting from behind the back of a chair, her fingers archly curled over its side, another woman seen through the grate of an iron bed frame, nude, with her long black mane covering her nipples.

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These photographs are most interesting when considered alongside Korda's remarkable portraits of Che and Fidel, who are affectionately depicted not only as handsome and romantically volatile, but giddy and playful as well. See Che and Fidel golf, hunt with Khrushchev, go to the zoo - it's like A Hard Day's Night, and every bit as lovely and endearing. It's in this regard that Korda's sly inventiveness and uncanny gifts for filmic framing really overflow: Fidel Visits the New York Zoo (circa 1959) shows Castro opposite a tiger's cage, man and beast virtually taunting each other; in Photo Taken by Fidel of the Khrushchev Family, a hand holds a snapshot over the assaultive pattern of the hand's owner's tweed blazer, while beneath it on the gallery wall is a photograph of Castro taking the snapshot. These works raise questions as to what is idealistic percipience and what is propagandistic contrivance, but they more forcefully conjure an image of Korda as a charming historical figure that, in the end, may be as durable as any of his more famous subjects'.

Figueroa's contemporary Havana streetscapes and interiors are far more muted but no less remarkable. Although characterized by the gallery as portraits of apathy, desperation and resignation among the Cuban people, the achingly rich black-and-white works register as emphatically melancholic but hardly hopeless. Beautiful young boys (waving flags like baseball bats, soaking half-naked in the rain), an intricate shrine, a bride, a bongo player seated beneath two crucifixes, and a couple dancing in a crowded park, among others, suggest the complexity, warmth and ambiguity of sweet but substantial Afro-Cuban rhythms. Like the fluid nature of those rhythms, there's a palpable continuity between works taken years apart that reads, not as sameness, but as a languorous current coursing between frames.

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