You may recall our Artist Spotlight on Kevin Slack's work from 2010. He has continued to make beautiful friends in Cuba and make beautiful photographs of them, so an update on his more recent work seemed in order.
Kevin was raised on a farm in rural Ontario. He received a degree in visual arts and English at the University of Western Ontario, where he studied painting, film photography, and eventually education. Kevin painted murals, traveled, and taught English, living first in Korea and then Ecuador.
Now based in Toronto, Kevin has been visiting his favorite exile, Cuba, since 2000, documenting the country and especially the men, building an extensive portfolio. While that country is tilted on the edge of change, Kevin continues to return, trying to uncover the restless and vital spirit of Cuba and Cuban men. While he focuses mainly on Havana, Kevin has traveled the island from Pinar del Rio to Holguin.
Tell us about one of your most notable shoots.
So much of what I do in Cuba is controlled risk. Will the models show up on time? Will I get the chemistry out of the models? Will it rain? Will the space be available? Will we be caught? I work with an illusion of impunity, perhaps, because I have to in order to produce what I produce. But I also try to control the risks I take. Often I will have multiple plans on a single day — exactly because things so often go wrong, or at least sideways. It took about eight months and 20 phone calls to organize a shoot with Rafael and Ramudo (picturd above). They showed up at my apartment at 7 a.m. I had already scouted the location and planned a story too. We were going to use the base of the oft-photographed El Morro. I had recently found, behind the famous landmark, stairs about six stories high, or six stories deep rather, that lead down into this beautiful empty space. The stairs are crumbling and covered in vegetation and, at least for me, a harrowing climb down. But it would be worth it for that beautiful space, for the lovely indirect lighting of the early morning. When the boys showed up, I tossed down my coffee and set out to fetch a taxi for my assistant and my models, and we arrived at El Morro at about 7:30 a.m. At this point, I still haven’t really even talked to the boys.
A man in a khaki-colored uniform stood by just as quiet as a rock as I paid the taxi. We slid out of the car with the camera gear and bags of props and watched the taxi leave. At this point, Mr. Uniform comes to life, approaches us, and informs us that the park is closed and we are not allowed to be there. I complained, of course, that it was ridiculous for him to let our taxi leave. He stubbornly refused to understand. Our taxi is gone and we have nowhere to go. When I explain that we are there to take some photos, he asks to see my license. When I have no license to produce, he explains to me where and how to get one. He guesses that he thinks it might be about 20 CUC (or $25). I tell him that we are eager to start and that we won’t be very long and I offer to pass him 30 CUC . This often works in Cuba. But this time he was having none of it. I still haven’t really talked to my models yet. The sun is already climbing the sky and it’s getting warm and I’m wasting time, and I hate wasting time. I can drag my models to the highway and try to find a taxi. I can drag my models to the beach, about 20 minutes away, and change my plans and work in direct sunlight, or I can go try to get this photo release.
I chose wrongly. I left my assistant and my models with the gear and the props and set off to fetch this photo release. I went to four buildings, waited for the wrong people, talked to the wrong people, until I finally found the right person in the right building who wanted 250 CUC or just less than $300 for a photo release. That wasn’t going to happen. It was preposterous out of principle. It was after 9 a.m. by the time I returned to my assistant and my two models and my gear and the still stalwart Mr. Uniform blocking my plans to photograph perhaps the most photographed spot in Cuba. I still haven’t taken a photograph. I still haven’t talked to my models. Mr. Uniform, perhaps uniformly, will not relent. And so there was nothing to do but resign and walk away. I knew mostly secret paths to the beach on the side of Habana Bay where I led the boys. I try to talk to the models, but mostly I’m just pushing down angry feelings. I dislike officious for officious sake especially when I have a beautiful plan. And so I try to calm my face down and I try to talk to the boys and I try to quickly rework ideas, having lost my space and my story. It’s too bright already. On the beach, we search out what little shade there is.
We don’t really start until about 10:30, or about three hours behind schedule. But I’ve got a beach. I’ve got my models. I’ve got my camera in my hands, and I cannot help but recover and feel better. We did not finish until about noon. At which point I discovered I had a wicked sunburn. I blame Mr. Uniform for that sunburn. But oh well.
Click through for more images.
Can you tell us more about your locations. They are so evocative. How do you happen upon them?
Cuba is a miracle out of time and Havana is a beautiful disaster, a city in the clouds, that really ought not to exist, but there it is. For now. I understand that it is a stunning, evocative, and vivid aesthetic, and I understand that so much of Havana is hard for the people and for my friends who live there. The light and the colors and the ruins and the labyrinthine streets and the phantoms of history are part of what inspires me. It’s hard not to be inspired.
Beautiful, evocative indoor spaces are everywhere, of course. But it’s tricky to get enough light and privacy too. I love the process of working in Cuba, finding models and spaces too. But it’s often quite difficult to work in Cuba, to do the kind of work I do, I mean. Socialism does not want or provide so many opportunities for privacy. There exists in Cuba the lechuzas, the Spanish word for owl — they are the neighbors who are always watching, to gossip or to report to the government. Every time I go, every time, I spend so much of my time organizing spaces, especially looking at indoor spaces. Sometimes friends will set up appointments for me to look at spaces. I have even knocked on doors to ask to look at houses.
So I am grateful for the spaces I have found. An architect friend helped me find the delightful blue room behind the Capitolio. Sadly, it has now been destroyed. Friends showed me la Playa del Chivo and Playita 16 and, perhaps my favorite place in the world to be, Los Jardines de la Polar, my secret garden in Havana. It is abandoned and very nearly undocumented. When I take my models there, boys who live a few minutes away, they marvel at the beauty and the space. The Polar Gardens, named after the nearby Polar beer factory, the Polar Cerveceria, is secreted away inside the city, under a large canopy of ancient Algarrobo trees with their knotting, threading vine-roots casting dapple-drawn light on the gardens and gazebos and bridges, on the miniature castles and Chinese tile work, on the shining mustard and deep blue tiles ascatter in the earth, on Catalan modernist structures, now crumbling under the force of time and a death grip of vines.
What are your impressions about Cuban men?
For me there is something so startlingly unique and strong about Cuban men. Hewn from a wholly different and unspoiled material, Cubanos, Cuban men, are a remarkable collision of self-possessed without being self-aware. They are confident and proud too, without being particularly entitled. Their vibrant and their unapologetic sexuality, yes, their tranquil immodesty, seduces me, incites me completely, and it’s this seduction, this wonderful anxiety, this brilliant mystery that puts me, when I’m in their company, almost in a religious state of frenzy and worship. It’s not just their confidence which blazes, it’s also their trust and their vulnerability too, which combine to enthrall. How do I not sound like a lover? How do I not sound like I am seduced? Sex and sexuality in Cuba in particular is a natural force, divinely fluid and almost incidental too, that bears no apology. It’s my experience that my Cuban friends don’t want or need the labels or the categories. And I find that fascinating and enviable even. We are too quick, I think, to want to name our desires. How liberating it must be to be free of the labels. And just to live and just to love and just to be. Without the labels, without the names, nothing in particular is perverse.
You have called Cuba your favourite exile. How did you first get interested by the country?
When I rose up out of the tunnel leading into the heart of Havana, into the crumbling architecture, I knew instantly I was in love. But that was mostly an entirely aesthetic response. Havana is otherworldly: 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. I love the joy of life I see everywhere. I try to tell my Cuban friends that in Canada, it’s cold and gray 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 it was the second time in Cuba — this time we went directly to Havana — that stirred up my love and my obsession too with working in Cuba. My favorite exile? Cuba is almost out of synch with the rest of the world. I don’t mean to say that it’s backwards or wrong. It is, or at least it has been, almost removed from a global consciousness. There is no other otherwhere that I have experienced that is, or at least was, as otherwhere as Cuba.