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PHOTOS: The Fragile Beauty of Cuba

PHOTOS: The Fragile Beauty of Cuba

Kevin Slack's photos show a Cuba that is warm and beautiful and full of joy, but ghosts linger in the crumbling architecture.

Now based in Toronto, photographer Kevin Slack has been visiting his favorite exile, Cuba, since 2000, documenting the country and especially the men, while building an extensive portfolio. With that country tilted on the edge of change, Slack continues to return, trying to uncover the restless and vital spirit of Cuba and its beautiful men. While he focuses mainly on Havana, Slack has traveled the island from Pinar del Rio to Holguin. Slack continues to try to find a way to live and work on the magical island. See his pictures on the following pages and read his take on modern Cuba.

Slack tells Menagerie-men that: "For the most part, and in a very tangible and evident way, Cuba has been crippled for more than 50 years. The star-spangled dream, the red-white-and-blue monolith of consumerism and democracy lives right next door. And for more than 50 years, Cuba has been steadfastly defiant. At the very least, you have to admire the force of that conviction, the constitution of that resistance. Havana in particular is other-worldly: the architecture, the ruins, the feeling of far-stretching time, the presence of ghosts and history everywhere; it really ought to be impossible, but there it is. Like a castle in the clouds. And there is little to mar the illusion, there is no McDonald’s, no modern skyscrapers, no neon billboards to interrupt and disturb that beautiful illusion that you are someplace else, some time else. But if it looks like Cezanne’s apple on the outside, it’s still rotten and hollow and eaten-through on the inside. Or to go back to the castle in the clouds, there is nothing to support the precarious beauty. I love the joy of life I see everywhere. I try to tell my Cuban friends that in Canada, it’s cold and grey and we hide in our houses and we don’t know our neighbors and we work and we work and we talk about celebrities and mortgages. But in Cuba, there is theater everywhere. There are people everywhere. There is joy and beauty everywhere. And at least as far as I can see, they know how to live, they know how to love, they dance and drink and smoke and fuck and celebrate life."

"But lately, friends I have had for years were more desperate than I have seen. It was a common and distressing theme. If they wanted a future, they had to get out of Cuba. Because there was no future in Cuba. And so the motivated and those with the means will leave if they can. And who will stay behind? And even still, they love their country. In the same breath, they will say they have to leave and that they love their country. And so it turns out that so much of what I love about Cuba, so much of what I used to love, so much of what I want to love, is damaging very seriously my Cuban friends. This is not news, exactly. It was just a lot more immediate this last time. And so, it’s like loving a beautiful tragedy that hasn’t quite come to its end yet. It’s like the fourth act of Romeo and Juliet. You already know it will end badly. But the bad ending hasn’t come yet. And so there is expectation and fear too."

"Cuba is past the edge of change even as Fidel lingers. Fidel lives just long enough to see Cuba wake up from his dream. Up until a year or two ago, Cuba was my borrowed paradise. I understood there were lots of political and economic problems and I was aware that I was lucky to visit and to see it and lucky again not to have to live there. Yes, they knew how to live: drinking and dancing and playing dominos and fucking too. And a little work. But there was little money. And little choices. But, for all of the stuff they were missing, consumerism, money, malls, technologies, restaurants, brands, logos, advertising, television, celebrity obsession, they didn’t care too much. They still lived. Without distraction of Twitter and Facebook and McDonald's and the X Factor and Lindsay Lohan. And from what I could tell they lived brighter and stronger and harder because they didn’t have all of that. And for the most part they didn’t even want it. They wanted more choices. They wanted more food. They wanted more political voice, maybe."

"And so I cultivated and grew this illusion of an exile, of an island of innocence, an innocent and masculine state-of-nature. It was part what I was seeing and experiencing and part, sure, my own illusion. But it was a beautiful revitalizing nourishing wonderful brilliant illusion. Even if I knew it was an illusion. Cuba, like Adam’s Paradise, was separate. There was not much thought given to what was outside the wall, what was across the sea."

"Things started to change. Raul replaced the more charismatic and the more heroic Fidel. Cuba, in little bits, started to get more things: cell phones and TVs – just things. And it was not much to see. But soon many of my friends started to sing the same song: 'If I want opportunity, if I want anything better for myself, I need to leave Cuba'. And that song started about the same time, about three or four years ago, and everybody young and motivated started to sing that song, 'I love Cuba but I have to go'. And so anybody young with talent and motivation, who wanted to help themselves, or more likely, who wanted to help their families, wanted out."

"And in the past two years, little markers of capitalism came too. New restaurants with essentially a capitalist structure and a capitalist motivation. And little shops selling all manner of household goods and tourist trinkets. And a little capitalism is like a virus. There is no vaccine. You cannot kill it. It only spreads. And capitalism is ugly. It creates competition. It pushes panic. 'I need to be better. I need to sell more. I need to be better than my neighbor'. And you can see that too. You can smell it. The panic. The aggression. After 60 years of waiting for change, Cubans are pushing change. For each individual, pushing your own change is a far better alternative than waiting. I see that too. But it’s ugly and sad too."

"And so Cubans have a little capitalism now and a fading hero of socialism. Of course, there is really no such thing as a little capitalism. Capitalism grows rapidly. But it all culminates, it all come together as a change in the mind. And the biggest change in Cuba is a loss of innocence. Cuba is not innocent anymore. It is not the lover waking up on a lazy Sunday morning; it is the worker plotting, it is the soldier rallying. Cuba, psychologically, has awakened to the rest of the world. Cuba knows, simultaneously, that it is connected and disconnected too. And what you see instead is envy and covetousness and anger, too." For more on Cuba, the beautiful men, and kevin's work, go to his web site.

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