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Cuba’s Kiwi Connection

Cuba’s Kiwi Connection

by Debbie Griffiths
April 29, 2014

Maureen Tan is trying to convince me not to take her photograph. I should’ve expected this. When once described by a colleague as “glamorous”, she laughingly insisted that her clothes were from a bargain store. Maureen remains humble – but has an inexplicable talent for turning the scruffy and ordinary into something magical and it’s obvious in her first solo photography exhibition: Boatless Horizon.

The Ponsonby graphic designer has been chosen as one of three emerging photographers to show their work at the Depot Artspace in Devonport during Flora Photographica Aotearoa, an exhibition from the renowned McNamara Gallery Photography, opening on Saturday 24 May.

Maureen’s photographs are of everyday life in socialist Cuba. They’re compelling and gripping and for the Depot curator, Robyn Gibson, the decision to include Maureen’s work was easy.

“It has that point of difference. Her photographs have serenity and a simplicity that keeps your interest.”

Ms Gibson was also immediately attracted to the “tactile” nature of Maureen’s photographs. They point to the stark difference between our country and everyday life in the Caribbean island nation.

It’s exactly what Maureen wanted to portray when she spent a day with a local photographer during her two months living in Cuba last year.

“I think he (the photographer) found it strange where I pointed my camera and what I considered to be interesting images.”

Amidst a crumbling and neglected backdrop where Cubans are not permitted to board boats, the average income is $US10 per month and surveillance is omnipresent, she found pride and poise.

She and her family immersed themselves in Havana culture and gained access tourists wouldn’t normally have.

“We got to know people on a personal level. We were invited into their homes and learned about their lives. To be able to spend time and form friendships with locals enabled us to understand what it's really like.”

She got told off for taking pictures in the local ration shops where shelves were lined with cigarettes, rum, toothpaste, rice and eggs – and not much else. She walked amongst crumbling buildings where people flourish in spite of their hardships. What emerged are starkly beautiful images of Cubans and their lives.

“They’re not meant to be pretty shots,” admits Maureen. “They’re more realistic.”

The exhibition is a chance for Aucklanders to see the work of someone who’s considered one of New Zealand’s most promising emerging talents.

Acclaimed arts patron, Sir James Wallace, was so impressed by her photographs that he acquired three for his collection. They will now forever be part of the prestigious Wallace Arts Trust.

Maureen’s photographs have also caught the eye of The Digital Darkroom owner, John Schroeder, who was eager to help with printing.

“She has a wonderful insight in her work. Her observation of light is refreshing and she translates this into glorious images.”

Maureen is flattered by the recognition she’s receiving for her work and that she’s been awarded the opportunity of a solo exhibition during Auckland’s Festival of Photography. She’s hoping visitors to the community art gallery embrace the chance to see beyond Cuba’s facade of jazz, rum and vintage cars.

“We see urban decay and derelict buildings but they're also people’s homes. The reality was much more interesting than the sanitised and surreal tourist attractions such as cathedrals and museums.

The freedom New Zealanders take for granted is unimaginable by Cubans. Maureen Tan’s thought-provoking images are a small but potent way to tell their story.

What: Maureen Tan: Boatless Horizon
Where: Depot Artspace, Clarence Street, Devonport
Contact: | 09 963 2331
When: Exhibition opening: Saturday 24 May from 1 – 3pm. Runs until 12 June
Entry: Free


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