Like Father, Like Son

Cuba and its rich history come to life in the photography exhibit now on display at Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center

Cuba and its rich history come to life in the photography exhibit now on display at Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. According to Jose Luis Falconi, Latin American and Latino Art Forum coordinator and curator of the exhibition, “Cuba is very difficult to frame.” But this small show, representing two generations of Cuban history, manages to express the complexity of Cuban society in a way accessible to Harvard students.

For the first time, Ernesto Fernandez (b. 1938) and his son, Ernesto Javier Fernandez (b. 1963), display their photographs side by side. The works of this father-son duo were selected from more than 100 portfolios sent to the Art Forum this year in their effort to showcase Latin American art at Harvard. The exhibition itself is informal and informative. Upstairs in the Center for Latin American studies, the black and white, photojournalistic pictures of Ernesto Fernandez tell a chronological history of the Cuban Revolution. In the downstairs resource room, his son’s colorful scenes of present-day Havana show the remnants of Cuba’s tumultuous past.

Bookshelves filled with publications on Latin and Central American issues line the walls not covered with photographs, and music from the Buena Vista Social Club plays softly in the background. Excerpts from Falconi’s correspondence with both artists are printed in Spanish next to some of the photographs, reminding viewers how rooted the exhibition is in Harvard’s close-knit Latin American community.

The main part of the exhibition, dedicated to the works of Ernesto Fernandez Sr., is hung in chronological categories: “Before the Revolution,” “The Revolution of 1959,” “Portraits” and “The New Leaders.” Each group of photos presents a different angle from which to view the 1960s in Cuba.

The father’s photographs capture the passion of the 1960s in Cuba with mature artistry. He is interested in the people who shaped the era, their movements and actions, focusing on their humanity rather than their explicitly political content. One picture shows a young, handsome Fidel Castro, hands on hips and cigar in teeth, standing jovially with a group of young soldiers. In Fernandez’ portrayal of the October Crisis of 1962, a 12-year-old boy turns away from his post at a machine gun and towards the camera, holding a small puppy. Fernandez senior always brings aesthetic and social awareness to his viewers. The pictures show Cuban personalities, agriculture, war, culture and life, effectively describing an era, the “now” of Fernandez senior’s career.

On the other hand, his son, Ernesto Javier Fernandez, illustrates how the past has shaped the Cuba of today, both in his scenes of Havana and of Cuban beaches and farms. He is more interested in the Cuban landscape than his father, tracing the legacy of past people and events in the surroundings they changed.

For example, Fernandez proudly photographs El Capitolio, characterized by beautiful if crumbling buildings and dotted with scaffolds under a bright blue sky. His various shots of street scenes in Havana feature children of all different races in school uniforms, old Spanish-style architecture, American cars from the 1950s and puffy dresses from the 1980s. These photographs capture Cuba at a crossroads between its troubled past and its ambiguous future.

Both artists are deeply Cuban, but it is only through the combination of their different historical perspectives that the viewer finds a more complete picture of what makes this island nation so hard to define.

“Framing Cuba” is on display until January 15 in the cozy rooms of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, 61 Kirkland St., and is free to the public.