New exhibit 'The Necessity of Seduction: Cuba and Eros' explores femininity, spirituality and Cuban identity

'The Necessity of Seduction: Cuba and Eros,' is a new exhibition on view at the Echo Contemporary. (Courtesy of Karen Graffeo)

 Femininity, spirituality and Cuban identity are themes explored in “The Necessity of Seduction: Cuba and Eros,” a new exhibition on view at the Echo Contemporary, with works by three artists from Cuba and the US. The curator and featured artist Karen Graffeo was inspired by tiny erotic photographs that were once included with cigars sold in Cuba in the 1800s. She joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to share more about the history of these photos and why they spoke volumes about the themes represented in the exhibition. 

Interview highlights:

The nuances of seduction and beauty hinted at by Cuban cigar box photos:

“When I scanned and enlarged the tiny photographs, there was one of them where I could clearly see a large thumbprint across the belly of the woman in the photograph,” recounted Graffeo. “This physical mark showed me that the viewer was united with the woman in the photograph, and I realized these images were seductive secrets, and the cherished tiny size of them gave evidence that these images were handled, caressed and cherished.”

“In researching these, I found that at first these tiny photographs that informed the rest of the work, these were somewhat taboo until there was a turning point; and in the ’20s, women of the era would go to the photographers that worked for the tobacco companies and many of them would ask to be photographed as one of the women in the tiny photographs, and that was another aspect of seduction. I realized that this was a standard of beauty before dieting and surgery informed beauty. It was a real, sensuous, positive beauty, and so I felt like these tiny photographs that were little personal peepshows carried in pockets were very important to the women of the time as well.”

‘Anima’ and other interplay of masculine/feminine:

“‘Anima’ comes from Jungian terminology, and I’m not an expert in the other aspects of Jungian terminology, but it refers to the feminine principle as reflected through nature and the masculine. And I guess, the exhibition I titled ‘The Necessity of Seduction: Cuba and Eros,’ but it could even enlarge to be, within the viewer, I’d like for them to think of the ‘necessity of the feminine,'” said Graffeo. 

“I invited Esteban Guerra to address these images as monuments and spirituality, and then in Atlanta, I had seen the paintings of Rolando Vasquez Hernandez, and they had such an impact on me. So I invited him also, and I felt like having the masculine Cuban impact would be necessary for the exhibition, and we had a wonderful time collaborating on these.”

The all-light-skinned women of the cigar photos, racially reframed:

“As I collected the photographs, one of the things that initiated the exhibition was my surprise that this would be beauty cut by a racial lens, when Cubans tend to be all colors of brown and flesh,” Graffeo explained. “In questioning that, I felt that making the exhibition could be a way to give back brownness and Blackness and all flesh tones as an honorable standard of beauty. And so in my progress with addressing those goals about beauty, I envisioned this as a duet with history, and as I worked on the images, I included things that I had experienced within the multitude of colors of Cuban people.” 

“The Necessity of Seduction: Cuba and Eros” is on view at Echo Contemporary Art through Feb. 25. More information is available here.