For the past seven years Nicola Lo Calzo has worked tirelessly on CHAM, a project exploring the enduring impact of colonialism and slavery on the African diaspora. In capturing different manifestations of these lingering memories of exploitation, and the fight against it, the Paris-based Italian has spent time in Benin, Togo, Ghana and Senegal (Tchamba), Louisiana and Mississippi (Casta), Haiti (Ayiti), Guadeloupe (Mas) and Suriname and French Guiana (Obia).
Most recently he made four trips to Cuba to examine Afro-Cuban societies and communities which were previously ostracised and marginalised but now operate – mostly – freely. The resulting book, Regla, includes striking documentary photographs and portraits, images of iconography and archival objects, and insightful commentary.
Examining the cultural, religious, and ceremonial practices passed down through generations of African descendants in Cuba, Lo Calzo highlights the variety of identities within the country, and the ways in which they complement one another. Cohabiting “within a personal culture of exchange”, he says, they “borrow each other’s visions, customs and narratives”. He points to the “precarious balancing act” between the familiar Cuba, largely defined by the communist revolution and the society born out of it, and the diverse communities that actually make up the country.
Spending time among the Abakuá all-male secret society, Freemasons, the Cabildos de Nación Africana black brotherhoods, the carnival comparsas, three Afro-Cuban religious communities, and the contemporary Afro-Cuban raperos of underground hip-hop, this work required intense planning and research, he says, and a different approach to CHAM‘s previous chapters.
“It’s complicated to work in Cuba,” he explains. “If you want to go beyond street photography and actually explore the lives of the people you meet it takes a long time, because you have this filter of the revolution and its ideology. It’s difficult to break the wall between an outsider like me and the Cuban people. There’s a kind of apprehension.”
On previous trips for CHAM he worked with the support of local artistic institutions, but in Cuba he decided to go it alone – wary of being put under pressure to take a particular political stance. “The only way for me to work on the Afro-Cuban legacy, and research the freedom and the connections between all these communities, was to work alone and discretely,” he says.
By way of an example he references the Abakuá, a secretive society which formed in 1836 in the port of Regla. Originally founded by slaves of south eastern Nigerian ethnicity, it was ostracised into secrecy until a decade ago, but has since become a popular group for young men, welcoming both African descendants and people with other heritage. Even so its followers remain reticent about strangers, so getting permission to photograph their ceremonies was enlightening but challenging.
“There had to be trust,” Lo Calzo explains. “I presented myself as a photographer and showed them the work I had done in my previous journeys. When you work on post-colonial topics like this it’s very important to be aware of your own position and approach, and the complexity of the reality you are working with.”
Lo Calzo wanted to capture a wide variety of groups and societies, determined to show practices in Cuba that are rarely seen outside the country, but the access he was granted varied. He found it relatively easy to photograph members of the Santería religion, for example, given its mainstream status, but could only get a small selection of photographs of the Cuban Freemasons, who run important schemes in food distribution, community service, and mutual aid with a “negotiated freedom” from the state.
When granted access, Lo Calzo took as many portraits as possible, keen to use the people he met as the “pillars of the story” he was trying to tell. “Behind each portrait there is an interview,” he explains. “And these are very important stories for me to tell because most of the images that exist of Cuba are street photography. I respect that but, at the same time, it gives a kind of stereotypical image of the country. I want to be far from stereotype, from the Dolce Vita. To me that is the opposite of reality.”
Lo Calzo’s photographs show ceremonies and streets, individuals and groups of all ages, and could not be further from the “revolutionary” cliches he speaks of. There are photographs of the young men and women of the hip-hop movement such as La Reyna and La Real, a ceremonial Abakuá masked dancer (íreme), and many more besides. He believes that these societies and cultural movements, whether they’re guided by rap or religion, allow Cubans a sense of individual expression and identity.
“They give to Cubans the opportunity to express themselves as individuals, far from the state power rhetoric,” he says. “You see there is no symbol of revolution in their ceremonies.”
What he finds interesting is the way these societies blend with one another, solidifying a broad Afro-Cuban legacy in these smaller pockets of society. “There’s a crossover of the cultures,” he says. “In Europe the crossover of religion and rap, for example, would be seen as contradictory but in Cuba not at all. You can be a Santero, an Abakuá follower and a rapper at once.”
With more chapters planned for Sicily, Columbia, Brazil and Angola, the anthology Lo Calzo is assembling is of mammoth proportions, but he feels it’s acutely relevant today. He points to the work of French philosopher Edouard Glissant, who spoke of the need for global communities to “remember together” if “we want to share the beauty of the world, if we want to show solidarity with its suffering”.
“We remain with little knowledge about [the descendant African] legacies in the Atlantic World, but I deeply believe that we can not grasp the complexity of the present in which we live without an understanding of them,” says Lo Calzo. “I hope this project can show just how fragile they are but how important they are to preserve.”
“When we think of memory we think of it as being in the past,” he concludes. “But in my practice I’m seeing memory that is still active today”
Regla is published by Kehrer Verlag, priced €35 https://www.kehrerverlag.com/en/nicola-lo-calzo-regla https://www.nicolalocalzo.com/site/
Kehrer Verlag will be at Photo London from 17-20 May https://photolondon.org/exhibitors/2018-2/kehrer-verlag/