“Whoever falls ill with madness has no cure.”
Marqués de Santillana
There is a specific style of contemporary photography that involves finding the center of artistic operations in the night, where capturing aesthetic aspirations also becomes an epochal document. By understanding photography as a way to illuminate the precise details of the party, Leandro Feal continues a tradition of group portrait painting. Through a series of images of various characters, his portraits focus on the nighttime activities, gestures, and opposition to a political regime by young Cubans born in the 1980s. These individuals did not fully identify with the Castro regime in terms of their vital, symbolic, and political development. Introducing a photographic camera into private spaces is a way to share and invite us into a particular environment, into that apparent madness of finding a common ground of resistance against the prevailing order.
In Feal’s photographs, you can momentarily follow the movements of the body, along with other materials such as objects and videos that revolve around signs of political opposition unrelated to the festive atmosphere. When he recently presented the exhibition “La fiesta vigilada” (Cibrián Gallery, San Sebastián, 2023), it became evident that the photographs make us participants and witnesses of what was taking place during those years of apparent transformation of Cuban political life. These have to do with the marginal bodies of those involved in cultural life who were strengthening their opposition with new artistic tools.
Leandro Feal traveled to Spain in 2008 and found a spirit there similar to what he had been portraying in Cuba. In 2011, he entered “La Locura No Tiene Cura,” a bar behind Gran Vía in Madrid, where the closing time was uncertain and where anything could happen in order to fulfill the physical and spiritual requirements of a successful night out. Its bar was a vague boundary because, in addition to serving fruit, you could engage in the self-consumption of alcohol. There are not many establishments that offer this type of food at their bars. It is as if we were in a painting by Manet, where instead of a waitress, a mirror, and a spectral client, the reflection of nightlife is transformed into the details of an illuminated establishment that even includes a room dedicated to Velázquez. If you were hungry, the door could unexpectedly open with someone carrying a huge tray of churros, announcing the day’s arrival. Its walls were adorned with messages, pictorial references, images, and posters, creating an aesthetic repertoire that helped recognize the suitable environment for individuals with specific conceptual and vital interests: artists, trans people, prostitutes, and clients who worked in an area marked by the neighborhood’s degradation and found a welcoming refuge there.
It’s a curious coincidence that Leandro Feal left Cuba photographing spaces during festive celebrations and arrived in Madrid at a time when the 15M movement was also gaining momentum. Initially perceived as a youthful reaction to the Spanish governmental system, it would become one of the few moments of utopian promise in recent decades. It involved the occupation of Puerta del Sol, the holding of assemblies in the squares, and the persistence of a spirit that we now know has been absorbed by political professionals. But in that vibrant city, there was a photographic tradition that thrived in the establishments of Malasaña since the time of “La Movida” (Jesús Sebastián, Miguel Trillo, Alberto García-Álix), and the problems associated with nightlife and legal restrictions on bar opening hours were experienced. It was a time of numerous prohibitions that led to a reimagining of new ways of celebrating the hidden life in the cities, in the midst of dances held in dark after-hours venues and other establishments dedicated to exploring the night.
As shown in the photographs of the exhibition “La Locura no tiene cura,” Leandro Feal’s work allows us to understand the spirit of coexistence among the ethereal characters who appeared there during that interval at dawn when the door of a unique place reopened, where night and day blurred together. In that space conducive to the distortion of specular reflections, there is no trace of nostalgia, but rather a way to approach conversations that were abandoned amidst the smoke, the sounds of glass, and the commotion more characteristic of a night of healing rather than madness. In a way, everything emerged from a painting or a mirror, as evidenced by this installation that conceptually reconstructs that precise meeting space through previously unreleased images, serving as evidence of the artist’s affiliation with the chaotic movement of free bodies.
* Translation by Fiona Baler.