El Libro Supremo de la Suerte

CUBA HAS LONG BEEN IMPRINTED on the American imagination as a place stylishly, nostalgically lost in time, romanticized in an image vocabulary of architectural ruins, classic Chevrolets, and tiny, tough old ladies smoking fat cigars. In Rose Marie Cromwell’s debut monograph, El Libro Supremo de la Suerte, the artist unearths another side of the country, lodged somewhere between surreality and vérité. The title, which translates as “the supreme book of luck,” takes its name from a guide to the charada, a “Chinese-Cuban folkloric number system” Cromwell discovered while hanging out with Havana locals. Each number corresponds to a list of meanings Cubans refer to when playing the underground lottery: saints’ names, divorce, “young slut to small fish”—a cryptic-seeming compendium of the popular imagination. “Winning the lottery,” she writes in the book’s opening pages, “is just a matter of identifying these symbols in your life.”

Rose Marie Cromwell, composite image of On the Street, 2009–16, print on adhesive vinyl, 60 × 80" (background), and Martica, 2009–16, ink-jet print, 30 × 40" (foreground).

In this city, a person might turn her house into an internet café, her car into a taxi, and her kitchen into a restaurant for university students. But Cromwell, who took these images on trips to Havana beginning in 2009, provides a window onto the city’s second life, a place defined not in terms of capitalism (or the lack of it) but in the evocative lexicon of the subconscious, chance, and dreams. Photographs of pages in a bookie’s handwriting—scrolling lists of numbers—serve as chapter openers. Cuba’s lost corners become a backdrop for a mix of staged, collaborative, intimately performative images and keenly observed street photography: a game of chess, a tattoo, a kitten crawling over a man’s lap. Broken, cheap furniture and a wooden log are left in the street like strange tokens; men submerge their bodies in the sand; a woman wears coins on her eyes; a girl stretches languidly over a staircase. Often the sun is unrelenting, casting harsh shadows. Everywhere the heat is resonant, real, and inescapable. In the image above, a woman wearing bright red lipstick cranes her head upward, with eyes closed, during what must be a long, hot afternoon. Behind her, a bedsheet curtain seems to slightly sway, beckoning. Instead of a Cuba that dwells on the past, here is a world that envisions another version of itself.

Rebecca Bengal