November 2, 2017

Documenting the Colours and Complexities of ‘90s Cuba

Tria Giovan shares never-before-seen photographs of the island

  • Written by Emily Manning

Tria Giovan first travelled to Cuba in 1990. Over the following six years, she returned 12 times, and her new book, Tria Giovan: The Cuba Archive, shows 120 photographs from the 25,000 she captured. Though Giovan released a collection of Cuban images in 1996 (titled Cuba: The Elusive Island), many pictures in her new work have never been published before. They’re a new window into a Cuba that no longer exists.

Giovan_Tria_Girls at the Beach_Santa Maria Del Mar, Cuba_1990

Giovan Tria, Girls at the Beach, Santa Maria Del Mar, Cuba, 1990

Giovan_Tria_Waiting Bike_Boyeros_1992

Giovan Tria, Waiting Bike, Boyeros, 1992

Giovan grew up in the Virgin Islands. When she first visited her Caribbean neighbours, Cuba (and the wider world) was experiencing a profound moment of transition. The Soviet Union’s dissolution resulted in severe economic impacts in Communist states participating in the Comecon (or, Council for Mutual Economic Assistance). Foreign investments and resources shored up, leaving Cuba with major shortages in food, fuel, medicine, and more.

Giovan_Tria_Dominoes Santiago de Cuba-1992

Giovan Tria, Dominoes Santiago de Cuba, 1992

Giovan_Tria_Helado-Havana, Cuba_1994

Giovan Tria, Helado Havana, Cuba, 1994

This decade of economic depression, known as the Special Period, spurred radical change in Cuba’s economy and culture. Without access to the oil-rich Soviet’s petrol, Cuba’s transportation and agricultural industries were in crisis. There were power cuts and famine. The Special Period pushed Cuba to develop new methods of sustainable agriculture and mass transit systems.

Giovan_Tria_Beauty Salon in Vedado-1993

Giovan Tria, Beauty Salon in Vedado, 1993

Giovan_Tria_Guitar Gun-Las Tunas-1993

Giovan Tria, Guitar Gun, Las Tunas, 1993

Giovan captured the country during the most devastating years of the Special Period, but while her pictures were made in a time of great transition, starvation, and strife, she presents a more complex, beautiful portrait of day-to-day life. She photographed the island in rich, warm tones — washing blues, greens, pastel pinks in a golden glow. Pictures of shop-front windows and intimate interior spaces recall William Eggleston’s sensitivity to the beauty of the everyday.

Giovan_Tria_Movie Posters-Havana-1993

Giovan Tria, Movie Posters, Havana, 1993

Giovan_Tria_Fantasias Cueto-1992

Giovan Tria, Fantasias Cueto, 1992

The most special pictures show Cuba’s people: lying together on the beach, on the playground, at the hair salon, walking through wide sunlit streets, watching the sea crash on the rocks. Giovan’s record is poetic, and vital.

‘Tria Giovan: The Cuba Archive’ is published by Damiani.


Main image: Giovan Tria, Jose Marti and La Granma-Santiago de Cuba, 1991


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