There are nearly 6,000 miles between Kiev, Ukraine — the birthplace of Ilya Genin — and Havana, Cuba, where the photographer likes to point his lens. And while there may have been similarities in the two countries’ political structures in the 1950s, when Genin was growing up, they now tug his heart in different directions. The Yardley, Pennsylvania, resident has felt an irresistible urge to visit Cuba, visiting as often as he is able. Yet he hasn’t returned to Ukraine since he left more than 30 years ago.
“Extraordinary Mash-ups: Ilya Genin’s Photographs of Cuba” continues through Saturday, April 12 at the Arts Council of Princeton.
Curated by Princeton-based photographer Ricardo Barros, the digital collages reflect the complex “mashup” of Cuba’s influences: African and Spanish, capitalism and communism, a cosmopolitan culture against a tableau of vintage Pontiacs and Chevrolets.
“Cuba was, and still is, highly photogenic,” says Barros, who will lead a public discussion with Genin at the Arts Council of Princeton on Saturday, March 29, at 1 p.m. “Cuba is a portal into the past. In Cuba it is still possible to photograph a living culture of not-yet post-modern people.”
Genin, a cardiologist with a practice in Hamilton, has been captivated by the Caribbean island nation since the Cuban Missile Crisis. “I was 11 years old,” he says from his Yardley home, surrounded by antiques, collectibles, and fine art, including his own. “It was a big thing — kids in Russia were indoctrinated at a young age. We sang songs in school. Cuba was seen as a feather in the cap for the Soviet government.”
He first went to Cuba in 2010 with a group of photographers on a pilgrimage to visit churches and synagogues (to comply with tourism requirements). “It has been a forbidden fruit. I wanted to see what Cuba looks like today.”
He came home with thousands of images and soon found himself booking another trip. “I fell in love with the people — they are open, warm, friendly, and helpful. It’s safe for tourists, and it has the spirit of adventure.”
Once there, Cuba is inexpensive for travelers — $25 a night for a casa particular (private room). “The government regulates the industry, requiring air conditioning and hot showers for tourists.” The same requirements are not applicable to Cubans, who pay in a different currency. Cubans are paid in pesos, which is about 1/25th of a convertible peso. Cubans, for whom the average monthly salary is the equivalent of 15 to 20 convertible pesos (about $15 to $20 month), can only go to places were pesos are used. Restaurants catering to foreigners will only accept CUCs (convertible pesos).
“The average Cuban is excluded from restaurants, stores, and travel,” says Genin, who was accustomed to the double currency in his homeland of Ukraine.
“I’m coming from a country where people who worked abroad were paid in convertible rubles, and there were stores where they would only sell in convertible rubles, available on the black market. It took 50 rubles to buy one convertible ruble, so this system is not shocking to me. Cubans live in deep poverty; it’s fact.”
Another similarity Genin has observed between Ukrainians and Cubans is the indoctrination. “Kids are given a version of events that is complimentary to the government,” he says. “And very few people can go back in memory to what Cuba was like before Castro — those people are in their 70s and 80s.”
The puzzle Genin says he’s trying to work out is why Cubans are patriotic whereas Russians are cynical. “I find this intriguing — why socialism in Cuba and Russia leads to two different kinds of people.”
Both the Russian and Cuban revolutions were bloody, but the Cuban revolution had nowhere near the number killed, repressed, or exiled, says Genin. “The Cuban revolution was widely supported, even by the middle class. When Fidel became the flag bearer for the revolution he received wide support across classes who were disgusted with the corruption going on over decades. But once in office Fidel turned to the left — whether he fell under the influence of Che Guevara or the Soviets, or maybe he was always leftist — and it became a socialist revolution with appropriation of land and property. Many who originally supported him became disenchanted, which led to the mass exodus in 1959 to 1962. By the time of the Bay of Pigs unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the government, orchestrated by exiles and the CIA, the Cubans were in cahoots with the Soviets.”
Genin left Ukraine in 1979 because he met an American and moved to Clifton, New Jersey, to get married. Although already an internist in Kiev, he had to go through a residency here and take his qualifying exams. He went to Buffalo, New York, for a cardiology fellowship, then returned to the area to live in Lawrenceville, joining Hamilton Cardiology Associates. The father of four adult sons is also the director of the Lakefront Gallery at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Hamilton.
Although he left the former Soviet Union because of life circumstances, others were leaving Ukraine in large numbers, mainly Jews who were fleeing anti-Semitism. “I was never comfortable, neither were my family or friends — we were always looking West,” says Genin, who is Jewish.
His father, a professor of biology in the Medical School of Kiev, lost his position after Genin emigrated. “He was told that if he could not bring up his own son properly he could not be trusted with others,” Genin says. “It was considered an act of disloyalty to choose another country no matter the reasons.” His mother, a pathologist, and father came to the U.S. in the early 1990s after the dissolution of the USSR, at Genin’s insistence. Genin has not been back since 1979.
“The current situation in Ukraine does not affect me directly,” he says. “I am just saddened that in any extreme situation people turn to the mob mentality and act like a mob — in a country that saw so much blood spilt during the Revolution, Civil War, World War, one would hope for more reserve and care — but that is not the case.”
Growing up listening to BBC and Voice of America, Genin says he was not representative of the socialist environment. He observed corruption and everyday hardships, and this enables him to sympathize with Cubans and understand what it’s like to wait in line for detergent or have no place to buy light bulbs. In the early 1960s, because of Khrushchev’s agricultural decisions, Genin and his family waited in lines for bread and milk and saw meat disappear because there was nothing to feed livestock with. The stores were filled with rotten potatoes, beets, and cabbage, and sometimes you could only get milk if you got to the store early in the morning. “Periodically we could get butter or lousy sausage, but you had to wait in line.”
In better years, food was available, thanks to subsidies, “but new items like furniture and washing machines were hard to get. If you wanted a rug you had to hunt.”
The popularity of the Beatles ushered in a “bell-bottoms revolution,” and everyone wanted a pair of jeans but there was no denim fabric for the tailors. They were smuggled in from foreign countries, often by actors, singers, dancers, and filmmakers the government considered culturally elite. As a doctor, Genin earned 100 rubles a month, and a pair of jeans cost 150 rubles.
When he moved to the U.S., Genin was overwhelmed in stores like K-Mart that offered rows and rows of guitars and skiing and fishing equipment. “In Ukraine we used heirlooms to fish with.”
A self-proclaimed liberal, Genin says his biggest criticism of the U.S. is the brainwashing by the mass media. “It’s a crime perpetrated on a massive scale. Classical music has been replaced by rock, classical art has been replaced by pop art, and literature is hard to find in large bookstores. All the programs on television are paid for by large commercial entities. And all the news is controlled by conglomerates. If I want information about the revolution in Ukraine, I listen to Persian TV or Russian TV International — God forbid CNN or Fox, they have no idea of what’s going on.”
Genin — an American citizen for the last 25 years — is critical of the U.S. government, too. “Bringing democracy to (countries in the Persian Gulf) is a smokescreen for the geopolitics of oil and energy resources.”
The photographs — more like canvases, printed on large heavy stock, and tinted in a painterly way with edges that blend into the paper — help to tell the story of Cuba through Genin’s eyes. There’s a series on Santeria, the widely practiced religion that mixes Roman Catholicism and African religions. “Everyone is baptized and identifies as Catholic, but in every home you see objects of Santeria — animal sacrifice, ritual drumming, and dancing for communication with the dead.”
The texture of the images, based on the roughness and decaying of the architecture, reflects the crumbling, unpainted Havana, with too little money for its upkeep. Walls of old buildings are painted over time in different colors, and Genin sees beauty in the peeling of the layers. “It’s a painting in itself,” he says.
The well-to-do attend a concert, contrasted with the decaying buildings at a seawall. Some of the people are looking up to God for help. The collages are dense and packed with detail. “Cubans love music, and the performers are of a high quality. The community offers venues where they play and dance. It has an old world European quality, reminding me of Barcelona.” There is also boxing and cockfighting.
While many of these tell the story of Cuba, some are universal themes. The large faces of lovers melt into each other against a crumbling wall, while inside a doorway an elderly couple shares a domestic moment at the breakfast table.
When Genin returns from his trips with thousands of images, he sifts through to find what speaks to him, playing with them to see what feelings they evoke. Then he looks for other images to help create the feeling. The process is so time consuming, he has cut back the hours he spends on his cardiology practice. Sometimes the ideas come to him between sleeping and waking, and he tries to prolong this state — one, he says, that can create statements beyond words — to mentally manipulate the images.
Extraordinary Mash-ups: Ilya Genin’s Photographs of Cuba, Arts Council of Princeton’s Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton, On view Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Saturday, April 12. Free.
Artist Talk with Ilya Genin and Ricardo Barros, Saturday, March 29, 1 p.m. Free. 609-924-8777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.