Helena Wilsonova's lens: Cuba, the Czech underground scene, and Canadian native art

Helena Wilsonova

Visitors to the chapel of St. John of Nepomuk on Jungmann Square in Prague will find an exhibit featuring "The Faces of Havana." Photographer Helena Wilsonova's images were captured in Cuba during a 10-day visit in March 1995, and they will be on display in Prague until May 5th. I recently met with Helena Wilsonova in the chapel gallery to talk about her career as a photographer, and she began by explaining what brought her to Cuba in March 1995.

"My Czech friend [Hana Mrazova], who was living at the time in Canada, went with her friend to Havana to work for two years. I had a chance to talk with her and she told me many very interesting things about Havana, so I always had a desire to go there, not to some recreational spot by the sea, but to see real people in Havana."

Tell me a little bit about what your impressions were of Havana and its citizens.

"Well, I knew that it was a totalitarian regime so I expected something before I went, but of course it surpassed my expectations. I lived in socialist Czechoslovakia until 1977 so I knew how people behave in such a society, but in Cuba I think that 1995 was a very difficult year economically. The whole thing gave me the feeling of socialism in its last stage of decay. I thought that it can't possibly last longer, because to see nothing in the stores—people obviously had a lack of protein. They not only lacked food but basic things like toilet paper, envelopes, gas, and cement—you could see that the buildings were crumbling because there was not a bag of cement, and that's not fun. So I tried to capture this mood, and I felt so sorry for the people."

Did you make contacts in Havana in 1995 that you've maintained?

"Well, I don't know Spanish, so I tried to make contact with local people and I was dependent on a couple of artists, one of whom spoke English. He took me to see his friends, and his large family who all lived in the old city of Havana. The conditions were very shocking for me. I felt so sorry for the people. Of course I sent all of them the photos I took, but I didn't write to him because I thought that it may even be dangerous for him. So I just said hello through our mutual friends."

I want to ask you about one of the portraits in particular. There's one very striking picture of an older man holding a knife, and behind him is a picture of Che Guevara on the wall. Could you tell me something about this man? Who is he and how did you meet him?

"He was one of the artists who took me around. He's a wood carver and yes, his face was something that I could not get over—all the wrinkles. He's a black Cuban, and all the history was written in his face."

How old is he, do you know?

"I have no idea, but because he spoke English, I believe he learned English before Castro got to power."

I also want to ask you about your career as a photographer...

"Firstly, I have never regretted the choice of my profession. I think it made my life very interesting. I was trained as a photographer, as a classical discipline, with large cameras."

Here in Prague?

"Yes, here in Prague at the School for Graphic Arts in Hellichova Street, and later I taught there. But before that I was employed at the Institute of Archaeology, and at the Centre of Folk Arts and Crafts, and then I went to teach. I taught for nine years and I really enjoyed it. Then after 1975 I started freelancing because I married a Canadian citizen in 1972 and joined a group of people connected to Charter 77—I didn't sign the Charter, but we were in that circle of people. So I just left teaching because it was a king of double life for me and I just could not take it."

Did the regime harass you because of your social circle?

"No, not before 1977. I was a part of the underground cultural scene, and I belonged to a group of unconventional artists who could not exhibit at that time. I also took photos of the underground rock concerts. My former husband used to sing with the Plastic People [laughs], so of course I could get into trouble for that activity. We were both followed, of course, but they didn't harass us and I think that was because of Paul being a Canadian citizen. They just expelled him in 1977 and that was it."

You immigrated to Canada in 1978. Did you continue with your photography there?

"Yes, I had to make my living. My husband was translating, and as you know, translating jobs are not very well paid. Our son was born in August 1978 and I remember when he was three months old, I had him in a snugly and with my portfolio I went around the Yorkville, Toronto galleries and offered my work. It was mainly women, the directors of the galleries, who gave me work."

You found a special niche in Canadian photography...It's one of the first things I discovered, that you spent time in native Indian reservations. What were the tribes of your focus, and what were some of the most interesting things you saw?

"Well, I specialized in taking photos of the native art, because I had a small child so I could not really travel too much outside Toronto. I actually found a niche where I could make money, and I liked the work very much because I don't relate to commercial photography, but I enjoyed working with the artists and the gallery owners. Through Arts Canada Magazine, the Indians found me. The director of the Woodland Indian Centre from Brantford came to my house one day, and asked me to take black and white photos of the sculptures from the Six Nations reserve. When I met those Indian artists I thought that they were very interesting people, and very soon I realized that they were leaders in their cultural renewal."

If you had to choose another theme that you would explore through the lens, here in the Czech Republic, what would you focus on?

"The type of photography I really like is called 'social photography.' I'm inclined to take photos of unprivileged people. And of course the unconventional artists—the so-called cultural underground—from the totalitarian era were underprivileged people. I didn't think of it at the time, but now that you ask the question, that's my aim actually, an unconscious aim."