New Photo Exhibit Explores Creativity, Scarcity and Shopping
Store window displays carry a message to consumers. Photographer Alexa Hoyer, who grew up in Germany and now lives in the United States, was accustomed to Western messages of consumerism and prosperity. “Buy this,” the windows whisper, “and your life will be better.”
When Hoyer visited Havana, Cuba, a vastly different type of store window captured her attention immediately. With her artist’s eye, she saw them almost as still-life pictures. The challenges of a crumbling built environment, coupled with scarcity of materials Westerners take for granted—like mannequins and fabric—meant that display designers had to innovate and be remarkably creative.
Hoyer was able to track down and interview the three people who create Havana’s window displays for Cuba’s state department of marketing. Together, her photographs and the words of their interview are currently on display at the Webster University Art Department’s Cecille R. Hunt Gallery in a show titled “Montaje al Aire.”
For Hoyer, the technique the designers use—which translates as “mounting on air”—is a reflection of how everyday life under a blockade requires creativity and flexibility. In this case, it is the use of wire and string to suspect items for the displays that are both appealing and informative. The windows’ purpose is very simple—to let shoppers know what they can find inside the store—but the underlying aesthetic is much more complex, a metaphor for Cuban society.
The imagination that goes into the window displays may not even be noticed by passersby (whom Hoyer sneaks into nearly every photograph in the exhibit, either through a reflection or through a fleeting glimpse at the edge of the frame). But that doesn’t deter the three designers, all late in their careers and perhaps more philosophical because of their long experience with scarcity. Hoyer’s interview transcript, which visitors can pick up at the gallery entrance, describes their motivations—giving the residents beauty, embellishing the city and helping sell needed products—and, more movingly, their inspirations.
“We are inspired simply by the joy we have inside,” says one of the designers. “We have a strong will to do good things so that ultimately, the public reaps the best of us.”
Hoyer’s photos draw attention to formal aspects of line, shape and volume, while re-framing the work as ready-made art. They invite viewers to pause and appreciate the imagination that went into each window.
Hoyer spent two years researching the storefront windows in Havana, starting in 2016, and additional photographs from that project can be seen at her website. A 2003 graduate of Webster University in St. Louis, she now lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is currently at work on a collaborative project documenting derelict buildings in New York City.
“Montaje al Aire” is on view at the Hunt Gallery through Nov. 2.
Images courtesy of the artist.