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Professor examines Cuba with art exhibit

Katlyn Smith | Monday, April 7, 2008

Saint Mary’s communications and performance studies professor Shannon Rose Riley discussed her photo exhibit, “Re-Imagining Cuba,” at the college’s Cushwa-Leighton Library Friday.

The collection featured over 2,000 images Riley took in her three years of travel to Cuba.

Riley said the collection aims to take issue against predominant U.S. views of Cuba.

“I hope to challenge traditional, stereotypical views,” Riley said.

While researching Cuba-U.S. relations and contemporary Cuban theatre, Riley encountered unexpected images typical Americans cannot see due to travel restrictions.

“I was completely surprised at a lot of things I had been seeing,” Riley said.

The concept of the exhibit, Riley said, was to pair stereotypical images with more surprising images to highlight American’s misconceptions of an underdeveloped, communist Cuba.

Some works featured cyber cafes and Western Union offices paired with stereotypical images of Cuban cigars and 1950 U.S. renovated cars. Other works displayed cultural images of folklore festivals, traditional Cuban musicians and open-air clubs.

Riley also discussed Cuba’s history as a background for the exhibit.

“Despite Cuba’s great diversity, Cuba is extremely influenced by its proximity to the U.S.,” Riley said.

In 1935, Cuba gained protectorate status. By the 1950s during General Batista’s rule, prostitution and illiteracy were at an all-time high, she said. Due to an influx of U.S. tourism to the island, Cuba was known as the American Rivera, Riley said.

It was this cultural scene that frustrated many people, Riley said.

After the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro’s rise to power, Riley said Castro accelerated Cuban interests.

According to Riley, Castro instituted many literacy programs and provided government-funded education for all Cubans. Despite current media coverage, Castro distributed free pressure cookers in 2006, Riley said. In addition, Riley said, Castro was the only man to kick organized crime out of his country successfully.

Today, only four groups can travel to the island – the press, missionaries, government officials and scholars who will produce non-commercial work.

President Bush has further expanded these restrictions, Riley said.

“I think our government was afraid we would become radicalized,” Riley said.

Riley also said Cuba is not a pure Communist state, contrary to U.S. political perceptions of the Cuban government.

“What we know has been filtered through Cuban and U.S. political rhetoric,” Riley said.

Riley said she hoped the Saint Mary’s audience would dispel traditional views and appreciate the rich Cuban culture.

“I hope to raise consciousness about the great diversity in Cuba,” Riley said.

Freshman Cristina Posadas, an audience member, also emphasized the event’s importance.

“‘Re-Imagining Cuba’ is a very unique event at Saint Mary’s. It’s not a topic often explored,” Posadas said.

This was the third of three exhibits, part of a collaborative effort between the Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership and the Cushwa-Leighton Library to explore intercultural differences. The exhibit will continue through mid-June.