Following Fidel Castro’s death in 2016 and his younger brother Raúl’s retirement as president two years later, 2018 marked the end of their near six decade-long leadership of Cuba. At the beginning of the post-Castro era, therefore, this practice-based project explored the presence of iconic revolutionary images and the role of documentary photography in contemporary Cuban society, focusing on the relationship between photographic language and identity. James Kent, MEITS flexible funding awardee, worked with Cuban academics, curators and photographers to explore the links between these themes; developing collaborations, carrying out interviews and recording footage of Cuban photographers at work. The project facilitated challenge-led collaborative research around the themes of photographic language and identity and encouraged new and innovative approaches to curatorial and photographic practice involving academics, curators, photographers, students and visual artists in both the UK and Cuba. Photographs documenting the development of this project (including images of exhibition-related events and workshops, visitors comments and feedback, etc) are available here.
Drawing on fieldwork and practice-led research, the major exhibition This is Cuba: Documentary Photography after Fidel (Royal Holloway, University of London, April–June 2019) represented one of the most innovative aspects of the project due to its transformative impact. The exhibition brought into focus the challenges faced by Cuban photographers, and exhibition-related workshops engaged participants in thinking about questions surrounding photographic language and identity.
Over the course of its three-month run, This is Cuba was visited by over 3,000 people, including academics, curators, diplomats, filmmakers, journalists, photographers, students, school children, TV presenters and visual artists. It was accompanied by a wide-ranging events programme that included several private views, masterclasses with the Cuban photographer Raúl Cañibano and curator’s tours. The programme also included other events with a specific focus on inclusivity, such as a Creative Audio Description workshop for blind, partially blind and sighted participants. Exhibition-related events such as these enabled gallery visitors to respond creatively to the exhibition’s overarching themes.
Following the success of the exhibition, Kent worked as Exhibition Liaison for Cuban photographer Raúl Cañibano's first UK solo exhibition Raúl Cañibano: Chronicles of an Island at The Photographers' Gallery, London (September-November 2019) (approx. 25,000 visitors). This allowed him to explore the broader themes of the “¡Yo soy Fidel!” project with a wider audience in public events held at the gallery.
Kent has given several talks relating to the project at Royal Holloway and at other institutions both in the UK (Nottingham University and University of Cambridge) and Cuba (Fototeca de Cuba, NEAC, Universidad de las Artes [ISA] and the Instituto Cubano de Investigación Cultural Juan Marinello). Additionally, networking meetings and workshops in Havana funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) have enabled him to share good practice, skills and experience relating to the project in the international context. Kent has also given outreach talks focusing on the project to sixth-form students at a number of schools (The Sixth Form College Farnborough and Waldegrave School, Twickenham) and has made plans with teachers for further collaboration relating to the development of curatorial and photographic practice. This research project also had a pedagogical impact on the student experience at Royal Holloway in that it has provided the basis for research-led teaching on undergraduate courses in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures.
GCRF-funded networking meetings and workshops in Havana have represented an opportunity to further explore the project’s main themes and promote challenge-led interdisciplinary research. In collaboration with Professor Hannah Thompson, Kent co-organised the GCRF-funded photography workshop “Beyond the Frame: Innovative approaches to curatorial and photographic practice in Havana, Cuba” (December 2019). The workshop represented an extension of the exhibition-related events held at Royal Holloway that aimed to address specific United Nations sustainable development goals and bring together British and Cuban experts, researchers and practitioners. At the event in Havana, Thompson and Kent worked collaboratively with representatives from the Universidad de La Habana, the Universidad de las Artes (ISA), and the Fototeca de Cuba, as well as ISA students and Cuban photographers. Participants explored ways of thinking creatively about producing, curating and talking about photographic language and identity. This project will provide the basis for potential follow-on funding (a more substantial GCRF funding application) which will involve the delivery of workshops that will ultimately impact positively on the personal and social wellbeing of Cuban school children, socio-economically marginalised groups and disabled people on the island.