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The What Da Fug You Lookin’ At Issue

Andres Serrano’s Cuban Odyssey

We had no idea what Andres Serrano was up to until last summer when we got a call from a producer who asked if we’d be interested in accompanying Andres on a three-week trip to Cuba as he attempted to photograph Fidel Castro.
19.11.13

All photos by Andres Serrano.

Andres Serrano is perhaps best known for peeing on Jesus Christ, or rather submerging a plastic crucifix figurine in his own urine and photographing it. His 1987 work Piss Christ touched off one of the most famous controversies in contemporary art history. Christians were outraged at his blasphemy in the name of creativity—and the fact that the government had given him a National Endowment for the Arts grant for his work, including Piss Christ—which resulted in death threats and protests. Even today, the piece causes outrage whenever it is exhibited and is frequently the target of vandalism. Of course, Andres has made a lot of art since then, including images that have been used as album covers for Metallica, but it is his earlier work that is mostly taught in college art courses the world over.

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We had no idea what Andres was up to until last summer when we got a call from Dahlia Heyman, a producer with whom we are working on a feature film. She asked if we’d be interested in accompanying Andres on a three-week trip to Cuba as he attempted to photograph the normally reclusive Fidel Castro. He was planning to leave in three days, Dahlia said, but we agreed before she could even finish her pitch.

The following day, we met Andres in his West Village home, which is decorated like a Gothic cathedral, complete with pews and a collection of taxidermied cats and bats. We were as giddy as schoolgirls when he used us as models for lighting setups that he was planning for portraits in Cuba. We were less enthused when, a few days later, we found ourselves carrying cameras through crowded Havana streets in 105-degree weather, wishing desperately for a sip of water. The trip had us piling into the backs of 1950s Chevrolets and rickshaws, venturing into morgues, underground gay bars, and reggaeton concerts. Alas, Andres did not end up shooting El Comandante himself, but he did manage to document what seemed like the entire country in a few weeks. We followed him into the homes of Cubans of all social classes—including some members of the Castro family.

We hope the following portfolio of his photos from Cuba—which will also appear in a forthcoming book—will force the world to realize he’s not just “the Piss Christ guy.” We interviewed him a few months after our return to the US to learn more about the motivations behind the adventure.

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VICE: Why did you decide to photograph Cuba?
Andres Serrano: Although my mother was born in Key West, Florida, she was raised in Cuba and didn’t return to the States until she was in her late 20s. When she came back to America, she only spoke Spanish and never bothered learning English. I was born in New York City and grew up speaking Spanish. As a child growing up in the 50s, Cuba and Castro were bad words and it was not a good thing to say you had anything to do with Cuba. The Reds were our enemies: Cuba, Russia, and China. Fifty years later, Cuba is the only one left on the list.

You’ve never been to Cuba before? Even on vacation?
I only travel for work. If I wanted to go to Cuba for the sake of visiting Cuba, I would have done it long ago. But I wasn’t interested in going to Cuba until I was ready to do some work there. So I got in touch with Jorge Fernandez, the director of the Havana Biennial and of the Wifredo Lam Contemporary Art Center. In the past, I had been invited by Jorge to participate in the biennial; however, my galleries had not been interested in sending work there. I felt it was time I go to Cuba, so I contacted Jorge and asked him if he still wanted me to participate. He said yes, so I sent him some works from my studio and prepared for my trip. I knew I was going there not only to participate in the Havana Biennial but, more important, to do a big work on Cuba.

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As an artist, my relationship to the world is through my work. I waited a lifetime to go and went with big intentions. I wanted to capture as much of Cuba as I could. I was there six weeks and went to seven cities, from one end of the country to the other. I took more than 700 rolls of film with me and shot thousands of photographs.

Was it how you imagined it’d be after waiting all those years to make the trip?
Better. I didn’t know what to expect. It surpassed all my expectations.

Did you find it more difficult to get people to let you take their picture in comparison with other places you have worked in the past?
It was a lot easier. Everyone welcomed me with open arms. Where else could you go and have strangers open up their homes to you and say, “Come on in, do whatever you like, this is your home”? I’ve done work in Budapest, Rome, Amsterdam, New Orleans, Atlanta—even though I felt at home in those places, I really felt at home in Cuba. That’s because I speak Spanish, and I have some Cuban blood.

Would you consider this a more journalistic project than your previous work?
I’d say it’s investigative and exploratory work. When I photographed the dead in The Morgue or The Klan or Nomads, the portraits of homeless people I did in the 90s, I photographed those people in a “studio,” with lights and a backdrop. The studio was the morgue, or the subway where I photographed the homeless, or outdoor locations in Holland where I set up my camera and lights for A History of Sex. When I got to Cuba I realized it made no sense to limit myself to a studio. Even though I did some studio work in Cuba [for] portraits and nudes, I took my camera and lights to the streets and into people’s homes and made Cuba my studio. What was the most unexpected aspect of the trip? Were you truly surprised by anything or anyone you captured?
I think what was most surprising was the ease with which I traveled and worked in Cuba. I did a lot of work, met a lot of people, and got into a lot of places without any restraints or restrictions.

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More than once, I even went into a home where someone was asleep, and I was given permission to take that person’s picture while they slept. But the most interesting thing for me was when I went to the Mercado Unico, the big marketplace in Havana, where I found a vendor selling live chickens and roosters. Rather than take his portrait at the market, I decided I wanted to take the vendor and his chickens to the studio. I had set up a studio at Martha Obregon’s [bed -and-breakfast] in central Havana, where Sean McCormick, my assistant from New York, was staying along with some other friends who decided to go to Havana with us. So I say to Sean, “Let’s get the car. I’m taking this man to the studio.” And Sean says to me, “Hey, do you think that’s cool with Martha, to bring this dude with his roosters to her house?”

It never occurred to me to ask, but Sean made me think I should call ahead. So I call the house and Maria, Martha’s sister, answers the phone. “Maria,” I say, “I have a man here who sells chickens and I was wondering if I could bring him and his roosters to the house to photograph?” And Maria answers in Spanish, “You’re the king here, you can do whatever you want.” After that, I never asked permission about bringing anyone to the studio. How did you go about trying to get access to Fidel?
When I got to Cuba, I did a couple of interviews for radio and TV. The TV interview was for the [state-controlled] Cuban station that everyone watches. The interviewer asked me in Spanish, “What do you want to photograph in Cuba?” I responded that I wanted to photograph everything and everyone I could; I said I wanted to photograph the people on top—Raúl [Castro, Fidel’s brother and currently serving president], the celebrities, intellectuals—the people in the middle, and the ones at the bottom. “What about Fidel?” she asked. “Don’t you want to photograph Fidel?” I looked at her and smiled and said, “I didn’t want to say it, but yes, I came here for Fidel!” After that, I would see people on the street and they’d say, “Did you get Fidel?” And I’d say, “Not yet.” And they’d say, “Good luck then. I hope you get him.”

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One of the people I photographed early on was Mariela Castro, the daughter of Raúl, who is also an activist for gay and transgender rights. I asked her to ask her father if I could take his picture the day after Father’s Day… I called her up and said, “Yesterday was Father’s Day; I know you saw your father. Did you ask him if I could take his picture?” And she said, “I did, and he said he’s been so busy he hasn’t even had time to sit for the presidential portrait.” So I said, “I’ll take the portrait!” She laughed.

I also photographed Alex Castro, who is a photographer and Fidel’s son. I called Alex that same day and said, “I know you saw your father yesterday for Father’s Day. Did you ask him?” And Alex said, “I gave him the letter you wrote with the photos, and he looked at it and didn’t say anything. He just stared into space. He often does that.”

Your work has always been very controversial. Do you think these pictures will inspire any outrage, perhaps regardless of their content and just because you are you?
Cuba is controversial just for being Cuba. And in Miami, Cuba is a lightning rod. I always see my work as a mirror and everyone sees what they want when they look into it. Those who want controversy will find it, even when none is intended.

All photos by Andres Serrano.

Watch Serrano Shoots Cuba, Alexandra and Natalia’s documentary on Andres’s journey.

More from this issue:

The Fresh Prince of Chiraq

Soul on Fire

The Bible Needs More Sex Scenes