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  • El Arte de la Bandera

    The Art of the Flag

    Down the street from the apartment that I rented for part of my 2014 trip to Cuba was an artist's studio and gallery. The artist had incorporated two Cuban flags into a mural on the front wall, which I photographed early one morning before the neighborhood came fully to life. I was happy with the picture and exhibited it along with several other building facades that, for one reason or another, had also interested me enough to warrant photographing.

    This year I stay a few days in a casa particular, where I have my own bedroom and bath in a privately-owned residence, and which has become my favorite kind of accommodation here. It is about as close as a foreigner can come to living like a Cuban, an experience that is precious to me. A block or so down the street from the casa is a building typical of those in the oldest parts of Havana: a large, three or four story structure once the residence of a single, well-to-do colonial family, subdivided after the revolution into apartments. The entrance to the building is a foyer of sorts, open to the street, and from which a stairway and doors to individual apartments emanate.

    I love looking into these spaces as I walk down the streets. If lit at all, it is usually with a dim florescent fixture that for some reason always reminds me of the greenish-yellow color pictures I have seen of building interiors in the old Soviet Union. My eyes, conditioned by thirty-two years as a firefighter, are often first drawn to a terrifying tangle of electrical wires that grows with each subdivision of the living spaces in the building as the families housed within them multiply over generations.

    Vestiges of the former elegance of this building remain, such as the wrought iron railings and door grilles, and ceramic wall tiles. More recently, this foyer became a canvas for artists: on one wall is an almost cartoonish rendition of the second most portrayed and least funny person in Cuba, Che Guevara. Flowing gracefully around an archway on another side is the Cuban flag, upon which several record albums have been attached. I wonder about the juxtaposition of these elements as I go about photographing this scene. Is it a simple homage to Cuban music, or was the artist making some other statement? I recall the photograph of the gallery that I made last year, happy to have found a mate for it. I also think about other instances of the flag as art, and the ubiquity of flags in general that I see here. How can people whose various governments have made life so difficult since this flag was adopted in 1902 feel such patriotism?

    I find the answer to my question, of course, on the internet, specifically at Wikipedia. Patriotism is defined there as “an emotional attachment to a nation which an individual recognizes as their homeland...viewed in terms of different features relating to one's own nation, including ethnic, cultural, political, or historical aspects.” No one who knows Cubans doubts the love they feel for this place. As hard as life is here, it is their home, their culture, their history. Not so difficult to understand after all.

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