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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 December 2005, 14:56 GMT
Mapplethorpe tests Cuba tolerance
The President of the Cuban Parliament, Ricardo Alarcon, at the exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe in Havana, Cuba
Top Cuban politician Ricardo Alarcon attended a preview
An exhibition has opened in Cuba of work by the late American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who is known for his homoerotic images.

The first visitors said they had never expected such pictures to be seen in the Caribbean island.

Correspondents say allowing the exhibition is a sign of increased tolerance by the Communist authorities.

In the past, homosexuality was considered a capitalist illness punishable by hard labour.

One of the island's top politicians, Ricardo Alarcon, attended a preview of the exhibition in Havana.

He said the photos were not shocking, but continued classical traditions of depicting the male body.

"Nudity is found in cultures dating much further back than the United States or Cuba", Mr Alarcon told the press.

Labour camps

In the 1970s, being openly gay in Cuba made life extremely difficult. Homosexuality, like religion, was considered "anti-revolutionary".

Some gays were forced to work in labour camps and others fled the country.

The Malecon, Havana's seafront promenade
The Malecon in Havana's seafront is a popular haunt for gay Cubans

But correspondents say a new tolerance has been creeping into the system over the last decade, and that Mapplethorpe's photo show is both proving and testing it.

"I never thought I would have this experience in Cuba, to see Mapplethorpe's work firsthand," said Ricardo Rodriguez, a 35-year-old photographer who visited the exhibition.

He said his surprise stemmed from the fact that Mapplethorpe was American, gay, and highly controversial even in his own country.

The "Sacred and Profane" exhibition at a recently restored gallery in the heart of Old Havana consists of 48 images spanning the artist's career.

However, it does not include what some consider to be Mapplethorpe's most provocative images.

The artists, who died of Aids aged 42 in 1989, was famous for his large-scale, highly-stylised black and white portraits, photos of flowers and male nudes.


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