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Und Jeztz? Now what? José A. Figueroa in Madrid

José A. Figueroa (Havana, 1947) was an assistant, friend and collaborator of Alberto Korda at Studios Korda in Havana (19664-1968), a period in which he reflected and vindicated the image of his generation, the beat generation - a rather unknown facet of the Cuban sixties. In those years he also began his well-known photo essay Exilio (Exile), 1967-1994, based on the documentation on the migration of his relatives and friends to the United States and the exodus by sea of 35,000 Cubans in the summer of 1994. From 1968 through 1976 he worked as photojournalist for the Cuba International magazine, similar to Life magazine in concept and design, and one of the most prestigious Cuban magazines for the high quality of its photographic essays and journalisms. His photos -conceived as series or essays- include the transformations in the Cuban economic crisis following the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe: Proyecto Habana (Havana Project), 1990-1996; the fall of the Berlin Wall, May-July 1990; and New York 9/11, 2001; among other themes or events. The book José A. Figueroa. Un autorretrato cubano (José Figueroa. A Cuban Self-Portrait) published by Turner, Madrid 2008, covers his more than forty years as a photographer, from the documentary photos of the sixties to his most current conceptualism.

Und Jeztz? (Now what?) is a photographic essay, not exhibited before in most part, which reflect the experience the photographer and his wife, the curator Cristina Vives (Havana, 1955) lived together at the collapse of the Berlin Wall during the months of May-July, 1990, as the wall was falling apart and the two Germany were been unified. Und Jeztz? could be considered as a story told by Figueroa's pictures and Cristina's words, when both were trapped by the surprise, uncertainty and by hope.

"On the evening of November 8th, 1989, I walked down the avenue Unter den Linden (Under the Linden trees) until I was four blocks away from the Brandenburg Gate, seen from the east, I was alone and very scared because people in great numbers were gathering there and because I was told that the wall was "failling". I called Havana so that Figueroa, my husband, would know that something big was happening; he would not have first hand news in any other way.

On May 1990 I returned to East Berlin with Figueroa to open an exhibition of his photographs in the Haus der Jungen Talente. Only the curator, two or three friends, and the two of us, attended the opening, because at that same time, the artists and intellectuals of the city were at a demonstration demanding transformations for their union. Figueroa's exhibition was the last one organized between Cuba and the then-GDR.

Cubans were not aware of the significance of the facts that were taking place in Democratic Germany because the event were never disclosed in their entire dimension by the official mass media of the island; but we did hint that "something" was wrong in the European socialist world and that such "something" was having an impact in our lives.

"When I was shooting the photograph of the broken fence in Helmust-Just Strasse, in which you see a girl trying to jump to the west, I was unable to go across myself to see what there was on the other side. I was scared. What could happen to me if I was "caught" on the other side? I was Cuban and I felt what could be called historic fear..."

Gerhard and Petra, our friends from Berlin, were also facing such an experience for the first time. We all belonged to a generation marked by physical, ideological or psychological limits and we had grown requesting official permits to cross any border. For Figueroa, the wall was the great protagonist that was crumbling in front of his eyes, photograph after photograph, as quickly as it had been built: in a matter of hours. He was so moved by the events, and at the same time so respectful of the privacy that the Berliners required to digest their new reality that he decided not to use his professional cameras or lens -contrary to hundreds of photographers the world over who were covering the news of the wall's fall-  that instead he used a point and shoot camera for tourists. Thus he took pictures without bothering anyone, because all in all the difference was not that great between him and his compatriots of the GDR. Their circumstance was also his circumstance.

There are few people in his images and the few that appear suggest above all moods, those of loneliness, pain, curiosity, fear, boldness. He photographed everything from "this side" of the wall, from the east that was still called Democratic; a place in which he still felt safe.

The evening of 30 June 1990 Figueroa and I, and a group of friends, spent in wine the last DDR Marks that we had left before midnight when such currency disappeared. Along with the currency the German Democratic Republic also disappeared. Everything had taken place too fast.

After weeks of walking the old border and taking about the "before" and the "after" of what we were witnessing. Figueroa knew that he had still not found the image that would sum up our experience. It was then that Petra wrote in the floor of her balcony of Bomholmer Strasse, in East Berlin, the question Und Jeztz? And we understood perfectly.

Und Jeztz? (Now what?) is an essay from the perspective of a Cuban, which opened up a question mark for the Cuba of the 1990s, a question that has not been answered yet."



                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Cristina Vives.

The show will be open until 31 July in Casa de América in Madrid, PhotoEspaña festival.


© Haban&co       ph: Niccolò Guasti      Nov 2014
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