In the absence of an all-encompassing communist state and in a post-Castro era, religious practice in Cuba has been allowed to grow and now forms an important part of contemporary society. The interaction of faith and culture has been influenced by a high degree of religious diversity that has come to be regarded as a hallmark of Cuban identity, or cubanidad.
This series of large-format landscape studies of places of worship form a visual timeline of Cuban religious history. Shot on a large-format camera, these highly detailed yet intimate photographs, reveal a surprising range of architectural forms. The subtle attention to colour, light and scale, combined with the emptiness of each setting, where humans are omitted or their presence kept to a minimum, imbues each scene with a metaphysical quality. An accompanying two-screen video explores the role of religious rituals within daily life, and is narrated using the words of Fidel Castro from his book ‘Fidel & Religion: Conversations with Frei Betto on Marxism & Liberation Theology’ (pub: Touchstone Books, 1988).
Cuba’s religious history begins with the dissemination of Spanish colonization in the 15th century and the arrival of Catholicism which produced an intermingling of Christian and indigenous beliefs. The importation of slaves in the 16th century allowed African religions to permeate the island. The arrival of numerous Protestant missionaries in the early nineteenth century further internationalised Cuban religious institutions, practices and networks. Whilst the twentieth century witnessed an inflow of European Jews fleeing persecution in their homelands. The first mosque in the country was built in 2015.
Although officially a secular country – between 1960 and 1992 Cuba was declared an atheist state – the number of practicing Christians is growing and practitioners now attend church without fear of retribution. There is a rapid spread of evangelical denominations across the island with Baptist, Pentecostal and Methodist churches increasing their congregations alongside hundreds of tiny churches that have popped up in Cubans’ living rooms. Other religious groups include Greek and Russian Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Baha’is. Also significant are Afro-Cuban religions that have resulted from transculturation, where the practices of African religions like Yoruba have fused with those of Spanish Catholicism. Santeria and spiritual practices, such as espiritismo, overwhelmingly mark the country’s religious landscape and have been embraced by the government as a form of popular folklore.
The work was made as part of a two-year collaboration between ISA, Universidad de las Artes in Havana and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, involving four Cuban and four European artists. The resulting project, Where Are You From? Cuba Photography Missions was first exhibited at Cultuurecentrum Mechelen.