Cuba: Through the looking glass

Florida photographer Clyde Butcher peeks into Cuba while Cuban artist Machado Diaz peers out.

A Matter Of Time: Esteban Machado Diaz
Through June 24. Morean Arts Center, 719 Central Ave., St. Pete. 727-822-7872.
Experience Cuba: Clyde Butcher
Through September 30. St. Pete Museum of HIstory, 335 Second Ave. N.E., St. Pete. 727-894-1052.

Clyde Butcher and Esteban Machado Diaz see two different worlds. At the Morean on Central, Diaz’s oil paintings show one man, looking out on the world, away from Cuba. A few streets over, at the St. Pete Museum of History, Butcher’s stunning black-and-white photographs allow us a glimpse inside the island nation long forbidden to many of us.

Diaz, who denies he injects politics into his oil-and-acrylic paintings, exhibits a body of work examining not his homeland, but the waters and lands outside it. Water, not mountains or villages or cities or people, appears in every work; in most of those, we see the back of a man looking away from Cuba. In "A Historical Home Run," a man stands on a ball in the saltwater, paddling north with one arm, raising a baseball bat to the skies with the other. Closer examination of the ball reveals a map of North and Central America; the man has one foot on Cuba and the other stepping into Florida.

The water, he says, shapes the lives of Cubans, and so he paints it.

“When you live on an island,” he says through an interpreter, “what is around you is water. I am not a politician; I don’t like politics.” Nevertheless, he tells me, "A Historical Home Run" “is a testimony of what happened [the US delegation] December 17, 2014.” The man in the painting has a “17” on his baseball jersey.

Jose Martí, Diaz says, wrote poetry that influences his paintings (Martí also planned the Cuban Revolution — in Ybor City — and drove the movement for Cuban independence from Spain).

“The light never comes up so bright and so beautiful after a night,” the translator says, struggling to place the right English words into the quote “the next day, we see the light more beautiful than ever.”

Across town, Clyde Butcher’s paintings show little of Cuba’s watery coast; his dramatic landscapes let Americans peer into jungles, mountains and cemeteries. Butcher’s work, as is his style, includes no people, silhouetted or otherwise. As I preview the exhibit, Executive Director Rui Farias remarks on how Butcher’s landscapes evoke Farias’ memories of Jamaica. When you remove the people from the art of Cuba, it seems, you remove many of the political overtones, allowing the natural beauty to make itself known.

Butcher photographed Cuba for the UN; Diaz created his paintings for the US delegation that visited on December 17, 2014. Butcher allows us to look beyond the politics and separate families and see the beauty of the countryside; Diaz paints “the suffering when people get separated and the happiness when they come together,” he says.

Butcher’s mountain photographs reveal not only the majesty of Cuba’s countryside; they also offer perspective. Some Cubans fled to the States while others remained, yet Cuba’s countryside waits. Cosmically, the separation hasn’t lasted that long and now, it seems, Cubans may have the freedom to reunite.

Diaz paints using rich pigments, eliciting ideas of change, of separation and coming together; Butcher portrays the island’s eternal unmoving features in black and white, his lens allowing for rich halftones and silvery grays in the trees and sky.

One final contrast strikes me: The capitalist American — that would be Butcher — will not sell these photographs; Diaz — the painter from the Communist country — will sell any of the paintings on display.

Perhaps the black and white lines of American and Cuba have more nuances of gray than we realized.