Saturday, January 24, 2015

Ballerina + José Martí, Plaza de la Revolución, La Habana, Cuba, Summer of 2014

Last summer this young dancer and I decided to make images in the usual places, as well as some unusual spaces. We tried a few years ago but were met with serious resistance from the authorities. Almost every formal spot we were denied access, with the authorities citing our professional equipment as one reason.

So this time around hand-held cameras were taken along, so as to ease tensions. When we first arrived to this most famous location, one of the most important on the island, we were met with the same reasons as before. They thought the camera was professional, and too large. They also had a problem with the tripod.

We talked for a bit the day before this image, so as to make sure all was clear for the dancer. The last thing we needed was to show up at 7:00 and be denied access. Seeing a small crack, we decided to show the officials our cameras up close. We then realized that they thought the cameras recorded video. When we explained that they were traditional film cameras, and that we'd use them hand held within the memorial space, they allowed us to do so for the next morning.

When we arrived however early in the morning the chain link was up, and we had to wait a bit before heading up. Once we did, there was a level of apprehension within me in light of my past experiences (including a lengthy one with the commissioner in charge of this location). She however was as natural as could possibly be, and took her place without hesitation.

A few tourists were already in place, but they allowed us about twenty minutes without interruption, now and then taking pictures of each other in front of the memorial while we loaded film. They were more than understanding, and shared smiles of approval for the most part.

I remember that one conversation with the commissioner years ago, when she denied us access to photograph a Cuban dancer in front of the memorial yet thought nothing about tourists making snapshots of their daughters in front of a memorial about which they know almost nothing about from personal experience.

In my humble opinion, José Martí would have been proud to see such brilliance in front of him, to witness a daughter of the island in such a way over a hundred years after he was killed in battle against Spanish troops at the Battle of Dos Ríos.

According to Wikipedia:

The José Martí Memorial (Spanish: Monumento a José Martí) is a memorial to José Martí, a national hero of Cuba, located on the northern side of the Plaza de la Revolución in the Vedado area of Havana. It consists of a star-shaped tower, a statue of Martí surrounded by six columns, and gardens.

The 109 m (358 ft) tower, designed by a team of architects led by Enrique Luis Varela, is in the form of a five-pointed star, encased in grey Cuban marble from the Isla de la Juventud. The design was eventually selected from various entries put forward from a series of competitions beginning in 1939. Entries included a version of the tower topped with a statue of Martí, and a monument similar to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. with a statue of Martí seated within. The fourth competition held in 1943 resulted in the selection of a design by the architect Aquiles Maza and the sculptor Juan José Sicre. In order to proceed with construction of the monument, the Monserrat Hermitage, which occupied the proposed site, had to be demolished. Various impediments to the acquisition of the Hermitage by the state led to delays in the demolition and the start of building work, so by 1952 – when Fulgencio Batista seized power in a coup – work on the construction had still not begun.

Eager to garner popular support after seizing power, Batista committed to pushing ahead with the construction of a monument to Martí; but rather than proceeding with the competition winner, he selected the design that had come third in the competition, created by a group of architects headed by Enrique Luis Varela, Batista's Minister of Works and his personal friend. The selection of this design caused something of a public outcry, and as a result the design was modified to remove the statue from the top of the tower, and to instead feature Juan José Sicre's statue of Marti at the foot of the tower. Construction of the tower began in 1953 on the 100th anniversary of José Martí's birth. The right to compensation for local inhabitants forced to move to make way for construction caused further problems; their case was taken up by a young Fidel Castro. The monument was finally completed in 1958 during the final days of the Batista dictatorship.

The selected design includes an enclosed observation deck on the top floor, the highest point in Havana, accessible by elevator which gives commanding views over the city in all directions. Housed on the ground floor of the tower which overlooks the city, the memorial features two rooms of correspondence, writings and items from the life of José Martí and displays relating his life story. A third room illustrates the history of the Plaza de la Revolucion, and a fourth room is used for displays of contemporary art. The centre of the tower houses the elevator and features walls decorated with quotes from Martí. Among other items on display is a replica of the sword of Simón Bolívar presented to Fidel Castro by Hugo Chávez during his visit to Cuba in 2002.

Outside, facing over the plaza and towards the mural of Che Guevara on the Ministry of the Interior on the opposite side of the square, is an 18 m (59 ft) white marble statue of Martí carved in situ by Sicre and surrounded by six half-height marble columns. The platform where the statue is located is used as a podium when rallies take place in the Plaza de la Revolución.

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