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Juan Pablo Ballester

About Juan Pablo Ballester

b. 1966, resides in Spain

On July 26, 1953, a group of young people led by Fidel Castro attacked the Moncada Garrison, headquarters of an army regiment in Santiago de Cuba. Their purpose was to start a mass rebellion against Fulgencio Batista’s regime, which had overthrown Carlos Prío’s constitutional government the year before. The assault failed. Many of the rebels were arrested in the barracks and the city streets, and Batista ordered that ten of them should be executed for each dead soldier. After atrocious torture, the mangled bodies of the rebels were dressed in uniforms and made to hold guns, then scattered around the barracks grounds so the press would report that they had been killed in combat. But Cuban photographer Panchito Cano, accompanying the journalist Marta Rojas, had taken pictures of the injured attackers before their torture and murder. He smuggled the exposed film out of the district, evading military censorship and giving lie to the official story. The images’ publication in the press had an impact on public opinion. A year later, Castro’s self-defense speech in the Moncada trial started circulating secretly under the title “History Will Absolve Me.” This military failure was transformed into a political manifesto, and the events of July 26 became, historiographically, the foundational act of the Revolution of 1959.

Better known for his decisive participation in the collective Angulo-Ballester-Toirac-Villazón (or ABTV, per Camnitzer, 2003, 188), since 1992 Ballester has produced, on his own, images that reject the documentary style that dominated Cuban photographic ideologies after the Revolution. Drawing on such strategies as appropriation, collage, and manipulation; the use of the artist’s studio as symbolic space; the conversion of the artist’s body into a visual symbol; repudiation of the Cartier-Bresson “decisive moment;” and the use of photographs as a record of performances, Ballester and other Cuban artists developed an alternative set of photographic practices. They rejected the view of “reality” as modeled by compositional, expressive, and ideological clichés. Instead, they proposed an intimate vision that substitutes or deconstructs reality—a deliberate erosion stimulated, in part, by the social devaluation of graphic journalism and press photography in Cuba, which were supplanted by the repetitive use of stock photos and stereotypical images.

Ballester does not undertake a critique of modernity and its foundations of unity and originality, but instead deconstructs the social rites behind the images. His intention is to rupture the opacity of historical narratives that take photography as proof of verisimilitude and as a product for social consumption. For this purpose, he selected one of the images taken by Panchito Cano during the Moncada events, and reconstructed it using his own body, pose, makeup, location, special effects, and focus, à la Cindy Sherman.

But if Sherman exposed the construct of “the feminine” in mass media, the frozen performance of the Cuban artist pointed to the re-appropriation of an historical event, which we could only see through the mediation of images broadcast by the mass media. The sacrifice of the anonymous fighter has been submitted to the violence of the spectacle, a component of any contemporary historical discourse that aspires to legitimate its myths and its forgetfulness.

Now living in Catalonia, Spain, Ballester is currently working in an open project called Enlloc—a Catalan word that means “nowhere”—in which he tackles nationalistic demagogies.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri