A little piece of Havana is coming to Wichita for Final Friday. When students from Friends University embarked on a trip to Cuba last December to play during the Havana International Jazz Festival, a group of 24 supporters accompanied them to share in the exchange of art and culture. Among them were photographers James Siebert and Deanna Summers. Their photos documenting the vivacious, often-veiled country will be on display at the Inter-Faith Ministries Cultural Arts Faith Exploration Gallery.
“About halfway through the trip, as I was watching them take a ton of photographs while we were touring galleries and museums … it hit me, let’s show people here in Wichita what we were getting to see,” said gallery director Earlene Condiff, who attended to research art.
After President Obama eased travel restrictions to Cuba in 2011 to allow students and religious groups to visit the country, the Friends University Jazz Ensemble received an invitation to play the famed winter event. A scouting expedition by department director Lisa Hittle followed, and soon 19 students had the distinction of representing the only U.S. college to play the event, which was in December.
Condiff said it always had been on her bucket list to visit the country, and when given the opportunity to accompany the students, she jumped at the chance. She saw her trip there as a natural extension of the multicultural work she does at the gallery.
Siebert said he took more than 1,500 photographs in Cuba. Many were taken in Havana, with a particular focus on Old Havana. Others were captured during day trips to Trinidad and Cienfuegos.
“I just looked for things that I found interesting,” he said. “I wanted to see Havana before they started making major restorations. They’re really restoring it. So much of what is happening there caught my eye.”
The images give a colorful, varied and honest look at life in a country that often is kept out of view. Juicy mojitos are filled to the brim with succulent mints. Grandiose, though crumbling, buildings stand proud in Old Havana. Street artists create and sell canvases on sidewalks. Horses and buggies remain a primary mode of transportation, mixing in with colorful, antique cars along busy downtown streets. Home kitchens turn into tourist-attracting eateries. Phone booths are still in vogue, though fashionably fitted to complement the city’s architecture. Captures of Ernest Hemingway’s home, boat and typewriter even are in the mix.
“They are a very proud people,” Siebert said. “They are very musically inclined. There is music wherever you go. They are very artistically inclined. I did not see oppression in their faces. You don’t see that in these images.”
The images in the gallery are arranged to mimic a clothesline. It’s an intentional re-creation of something the travelers frequently noticed, and also a practicality for accommodating the large number of images. About 80 of Siebert’s photos and more than 50 of Summers’ will hang. Several art pieces that trip-goers bought in Cuba also will hang in a separate part of the gallery.
Summers said her role in the trek primarily was focused on the students and their experiences. Most of her images are of their performances during the festival.
“I really tried to capture what I thought the students were seeing,” she said of her focus in filming and taking pictures.
When asked to describe Cuba, she immediately volunteered the word “untouched,” saying that there was little noticeable influence of American culture, save for some traces in fashion.
“I’ve been to a number of different countries, and it’s really a very different atmosphere,” Condiff said. “I think some people will be surprised at things they see in these images. There is poverty that they’ll see in some pictures, but also they’ll see smiles. You don’t see a picture here of someone who looks unhappy or upset.”