Photographing Castro started a lifelong obsession for Toronto artist
Harry Tanner was a photojournalist and went on to become a renowned painter
On Jan. 8, 1959, 24-year-old Harry Tanner leaned over the balcony of his girlfriend's Havana apartment hoping to catch a glimpse of the man who would change the political edifice of Cuba.
A Cuban resident born to Canadian parents, Tanner was working as a journalist at the time and hoping to get a still image of Fidel Castro, the country's revolutionary new leader.
"It was an exciting day," says Tanner, now 82 and living in Toronto. "When he finally arrived in Havana, people welcomed Fidel — we had experienced so many years of corruption and violence under the government of Fulgencio Batista."
The significance of Jan. 8, 1959 was not lost on the young photographer, and he captured many indelible images of that day, many of which have never been published before.
But it would be a number of years before he would grasp the impact of Castro's ascendance as the new leader of a sovereign Cuba, which is in national mourning after Castro's death last week.
The year 1959 was a turning point in the politics of a country and the future of an up-and-coming artist and filmmaker.
The Cuba-Canada connection
Tanner had always called Cuba home.
He was born in the province of Oriente, Cuba, in 1934. His father, Charles E. Tanner, arrived in the country from Westville, N.S., in the late 1920s, relocating as part of the Bank of Nova Scotia's expanding Caribbean operations. Harry's mother, Dorothy Todd, had moved to Cuba from Lafayette, Ind., with her parents when she was five.
Life in Cuba was idyllic for young Harry and his brother, Charles, who attended private schools and studied a North American curriculum common to many children from expat families. But it didn't shelter them from the island's growing political struggles.
"My childhood was good, for the most part, but violence was a part of my upbringing as well," says Tanner. "At five years old, I remember seeing for the first time a dead body in the streets."
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Under the rule of Batista, Cuba grew increasingly unstable. In 1951, Harry left the island to attend university in the U.S. After a few short months, he began to see the world in a different way — something that would eventually shape his politics and his ideological core.
In Cuba, he had always lived in a socially integrated environment, never considering one race above another, but his experience at Emory University in Atlanta, at the height of racial segregation, would transform this impressionable student.
I needed to see first-hand what was going on in Cuba.- Harry Tanner
"I was really appalled by the way American black students were treated in the U.S. This was something that was so new to me. Even though racial differences occurred in Cuba, black culture was still an important part of our society."
Tanner eventually redirected his studies into the arts, enrolling part-time at the Cuban Art Academy in Havana and later, the prestigious Académie Montparnasse in Paris.
As his talent for oil painting flourished, his political beliefs also evolved; news from Cuban exiles in Paris told of the continuing struggles back home under the authoritarian leadership of Batista.
"As a Canadian-Cuban living in Paris, I began to feel I needed to see first-hand what was going on in Cuba. I would hear many of the stories about the atrocities being committed and it bothered me."
Returning to Cuba
In 1958, Tanner returned to Cuba with an idea of documenting Cuban life and learning more about a guerilla movement led by Castro, his brother Raul, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. They were attacking army posts and munitions depots across the country in order to destabilize the Batista government.
"I didn't think Fidel would be perfect by any means, but he promised to bring order to Cuba. And in his early years, it was a safer and more stable country to live in," says Tanner. "I heard what he was planning politically and I approved — better education, reform and stability."
I heard what [Castro] was planning politically and I approved — better education, reform and stability.- Harry Tanner
In the years that followed, Tanner immersed himself in the cultural and political life that evolved under Castro. His work in cinematography would align him with some of the most influential filmmakers working in Cuba, including Mikhail Kalatazov, director of the 1964 film I Am Cuba, and Italian screenwriter Cesare Zavattini.
Tanner worked in the Cuban film industry for many years, but his love of classical art would eventually compel him to return to oil painting.
His fascination with the artists of the Renaissance and Baroque periods influenced his scenes of daily life in Cuba. Tanner's exhibitions were popular and he would eventually be honoured with membership in the Cuban Union for Artists and Writers (UNEAC).
By this time, Tanner had married for a second time and had a daughter of his own. His interest in Canada hadn't wavered either. Growing up, his family would take occasional holidays there.
His decision to visit in 1984 would change his life once again.
"I thought I would visit Canada temporarily to find better markets for my artwork and help care for my ailing mother. But I ended up staying because of some immigration issues that actually made it difficult for me to return to Cuba."
Watching from afar
Now living in Toronto, Tanner still keeps an eye on his homeland, especially since Castro's death.
Tanner's daughter and two grandkids still reside in Havana. Although he is unlikely to visit the island nation again, his memories and contributions to Cuban culture live large in the detailed oil paintings and photographs that adorn the walls of Tanner's home.
His art continues to generate interest from gallery owners and prospective dealers, but at this stage of his career, Tanner seems more intent on painting scenes from island folklore as a way to preserve the beauty and culture of a country that has lived in the shadow of its politics for so long.
Tanner views Raul Castro, who succeeded Fidel in 2008, as a "firm, calming influence" in Cuba. But he thinks change will be gradual and closely aligned with the ideological beliefs of Raul's more famous brother.
"Cuba is misunderstood by many in the western world," says Tanner, noting that is especially true of the motivations and beliefs of the man who rode triumphantly into Havana 58 years before.
"Fidel really was a simple man and fair with people. But years after he forced Batista to leave, he failed to fully understand the political dangers of communism. It affected Cuba and how others perceived him."