Of the four exhibitions that opened last night at the Frost Art Museum, on FIU’s south campus, “La Habana Moderna” offers the most to a Miami audience. Through magazine covers, movie broadsides, architectural photography, and restaurant menus, the small collection (on loan from The Wolfsonian) presents a view of Cuba between 1902, the year it won its independence, and 1959, the year Castro took power.
In the United States, and especially in Miami, several generations have grown up with a vision of Cuba as a squalid place, a land of damp laundry lines and buildings whose vibrant exteriors look muted beneath rainy skies and a stormy dictatorship. The people on the island (whom we are shown) look lean and oppressed, stoic and resigned. To whatever extent this vision is accurate, it is also propaganda. Only 90 miles away, most of us do not know what Cuba really looks like. We know it only as the smoldering cohort of anti-Castroism portrays it. (And, I suppose, we also know Cuba through Michael Moore’s lens, but that’s another illusion.)
It is from this perspective that I found “La Habana Moderna” — yet another illusory vision of Cuba, this one propagated by the island’s tourism and film industries — fascinating. From the “Holiday in Havana” poster featuring Desi Arnaz in ruffled rumba sleeves, to the New Yorker-esque covers of Social and Carteles magazines, to the photographs of Havana’s capitol building, lit up as if to host a movie premier, perusing “La Habana Moderna” is like encountering a usually bedraggled woman in evening wear. It is a jarring experience, one that underscores the truth that all the world is indeed a stage, and whether the scene is bright and glamorous, or squalid and grim, depends on who’s behind the camera.