Is Raúl Cañibano aware of his thirst for a story, of the novel that is woven behind the glass of the best of his photographs?
The first time I saw four or five photographic pieces by Raúl Cañibano I remembered Lino Novás Calvo, a Cuban writer born in Galicia who was a cane cutter and cab driver, among other trades. I must have seen them in the social networks, which have nothing to do with the fishermen of El Calvario Key, south of the Zapata Swamp, nor with those who go boating around Wisteria Island, just 650 yards from Key West, and try to elucidate the mystery of its solitude, its propensity for the forbidden and its Australian pines.
Very recently, just a few days ago, I returned with more time to some twenty of the most remarkable pieces of this Cuban photographer born in 1961, especially those that, thanks to the efforts of collector and curator Jens G Rosenkrantz Jr. and Jorge Rodríguez Diez, museographer of this exhibition and director of the Museum of Contemporary Art of the Americas (MoCA-Americas), located in Kendall, Miami, can be seen until November 17 under the title Essence. Cañibano arrives in the city of Miami (not for the first time) and does so after being welcomed with these same pieces in Ohio, last October, by The Annex Gallery, within the framework of the FotoFocus Photography Biennial in Cincinnati.
Well, this time something similar happened: his work made me go back and revisit Novás Calvo’s stories that, even if I wanted to, I could not remove from my retina. There are writers who refer to canvas, celluloid or video. And there are visual artists that cannot be enjoyed from nothing, or at least not from a supposed archival naivety. Often without intending to, this type of creator refers without delay to the arsenal of symbols and allusions that one has been able to store in contact with other fields. The energy they generate is so great that in the end they overflow, they break out of genres and taxonomies.
Much of Raul Cañibano’s work, observed by this writer through a digital gadget during a brief stay in Key West (later corroborated live at the MoCA-Americas on SW 120th Street in Miami), takes me back to Captain Amiana’s ship, from whose deck Syrian, Polish, Armenian and Jewish emigrants who had paid to be smuggled from Havana to the United States were thrown into the sea (in the story “Aquella noche salieron los muertos,” published in Madrid in 1932); or the skin of Oquendo’s character (in the story “Cayo Canas”), parched, with “a crust of decades of sun and sea air” that protects him from the attack of mosquitoes, gnats and other insects that arrive in “waves of terror” as the fire devours the vegetation of the islet.
The movement in the work of this photographer is intense, as much as the overlapping of shots and the way in which several stories coexist within the supposed four walls of the edges of a photo. Observing him leads me to dust off that image by Robert Frank entitled Astor Place, from 1948, in which a man smoking passes in front of the lens, while in the background rises the façade of a shopping mall on the first floor of which there is an establishment with the sign “Havana Cigars.” Cañibano’s photo, which shows the face of a guajiro coming in from the left, while in the background there is another one working with his axe and further away a horse that grazes could be an unintentional homage to that of the American photographer.
This heir to the best tradition of the movement’s photographers also takes me back to the image of the seminarians playing soccer dressed in their long, dark cassocks (one of them plays goalkeeper and throws himself at the ball, even seems to fly), in the emblematic photo taken by Ramón Masats in Madrid in 1960. Cañibano also recalls, by intention, composition and result, not a few photos by Cartier-Bresson (the one of the gold buyers in Shanghai, piled up like larvae thirsty for a banquet, comes to mind right now), and others by Jacques Henri Lartigue, Sebastião Salgado or Alfredo Sarabia Domínguez.
“I like there to be action and different stories in the same photo,” he admitted via WhatsApp when, thanks to the mediation of Cirenaica Moreira, I managed to exchange a few words with him about his ideal of the movement, aware that he prefers less formal environments and avoids being interviewed. “For me, composition is important. And the visual dialogue between images interests me a lot. But movement only makes a good portrait when it justifies the narrative of the moment being captured.”
I then moved on to the provocation: Could it be that a good portrait in photography is made when the observed subject moves?
“There are portraits where the most significant thing and what makes them good is simply the subject’s gaze,” he clarified. “There, movement does not contribute anything.”
However, he knows it, the scene of Cañibano is in motion, I said to myself, still without having left that key to which some of Novás Calvo’s characters approach, that piece of land that, geographically and emotionally, is closer to Havana than to Miami.
“I am very keen on fishing,” he told me when I asked him about his Bojeo series and the harshness of the coastal environment, the precariousness of the fisherman, the wear and tear of the objects that surround him. “It contrasts with my restless character, but it fascinates me and it’s something I do whenever possible. I identify myself very much with the work of Joaquín Sorolla and William Turner. The sea is an indissoluble link of Cuba. We are islanders and that creates an identity.”
Returning to his photos after a pause of a couple of years, I admit, was pleasant. However, his images also led me to think about the dangerous braid that is often woven between calm and gravity, peace and tragedy… another of the sensations that his photographic oeuvre leaves me with.
Key West, Key West, “The Key”… is in motion, we know, but not everything is so simple. It is in motion in a catamaran that glides with a legion of tourists from Utah, from Arkansas, from Illinois, who had never seen the sun fall “in a continuous stream,” as Novás Calvo wrote in “La luna nona,” and who greet like morning zombies those of us waiting on the shore. It is in motion in the many chickens that cross from one sidewalk to the next and join their lucky companions, always alert to the elusive proximity of death. It is in motion in three bicycles that move along Duval Street and even in hundreds of those silent inventions that did not exist five years ago, golf carts for six aphasic beings or electric velocipedes that transport those who left adversity at home—a bloody divorce, the father’s cancer, “the one-eyed man’s curse,” as we read in the story “Long Island”—to seek rest and happiness in this territory that in Novás Calvo’s time was a district of alcohol trafficking and French prostitutes between Florida and Cuba.
He didn’t say it to me, but somewhere I read Raúl Cañibano confess that he never closed his photographic series, because he always thinks he can add one more piece, even if ten or fifteen years have gone by. That’s why I can’t help but think of the novel, especially the serialized novel. The idea of the anxious, unsatisfied photographer has always appealed to me. Feeling the need to add a coda, an addendum, one more ring to the snake that is a serialized work of art could be one of the best reasons for being a photographer.
Is Raul Cañibano aware of the desire to tell a story, of the novel that is woven behind the glass of the best of his photos?
“I’ve never thought of it as a novel,” he answers, now a little more tersely. “I haven’t even thought of a concept as such. I simply feel the need to reflect the times I live in. The evolution (or involution) of what surrounds me.”
I separate myself from the group and walk once more through this gallery in Kendall: I observe the man carrying a crocodile tied on his shoulder, the girl washing her hair, standing over a bucket of water; the teenagers who are bored lying on the back of a donkey, and I cannot help but give them names that are still the property of Lino Novás Calvo: Pedro Angusola and his daughter Sofonsiva, Viola, Bejuco, Acarina Canadio, Nazario Niel, Balbina, Andrés Tamaría, Fillo Figueredo, Mario Trinquete… They are there, they never left in spite of time and the eagerness of silence of a few; almost a century later Raúl Cañibano has come to put a palpable face on them.
There is definitely a link of style and roughness between Lino, who was a boxer, charcoal burner in the keys, rum dealer, oyster opener… and Raul Cañibano, who was a welder in the early eighties before becoming the narrator he is today, the man far from the lights, the observer who prefers not to be interviewed. And what stands out from this bond? That from the characters of both there emerges a mystery that is alien to the eye of others.
When Ernest Hemingway (another ghost of Key West) shot himself in Ketchum, Idaho, in July 1961, Lino Novás Calvo was already in Miami. At that time, he wrote an article that appeared in Bohemia Libre where he evoked his relationship with the writer and put in black and white the points that united them. According to the Cuban, Hemingway was very pleased that Novás Calvo “had been on the scene.”
Raúl Cañibano also knows that you have to be on the scene. In essence, that is what he has been doing for years. You can see it, he doesn’t need to admit it. That’s why he prefers characters with machetes, a child posing with three hutias, the cloudy thing generated by mosquito nets at break time, or loitering on a beach in the countryside not usually frequented by bathers.
That’s why he also shuns interviews, so that we leave him alone with the shadow and the light, which are his own.