HAVANA, Jan. 9 (AP) - The Cuban government has not exactly been tolerant of homosexuality. In the late 1960's, for example, gay Cubans were sent to labor camps and homosexuality was derided as an illness of the capitalist past.
Even today, transvestites are sometimes detained and threatened with prison.
But a new tolerance over the last decade has led to what many believed they would never see on the island: the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, the American photographer known for his homoerotic images.
The "Sacred and Profane" exhibition, which opened last month at a recently restored gallery in the heart of Old Havana, features 48 photographs spanning Mapplethorpe's career. It runs through Feb. 15.
"I never thought I would have this experience in Cuba, to see Mapplethorpe's work firsthand," said Ricardo Rodriguez, a 35-year-old photographer. "When people told me this exhibit was coming, I didn't believe them."
Mr. Rodriguez said his surprise stemmed from the fact that Mapplethorpe was gay, American and highly controversial even in his own country.
In 1990 the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and its director were charged with obscenity for exhibiting Mapplethorpe's photographs. Both were acquitted, but the case prompted a national debate over using government funds for the arts. Conservative lawmakers and religious fundamentalists attacked the National Endowment for the Arts for subsidizing Mapplethorpe shows.
"It's incredible to see him here," Mr. Rodriguez said.
As for the images themselves, most agreed they were more serene than shocking.
"Pure sensuality," Farah Gomez, a 26-year-old art historian, said of the black-and-white images portraying flowers, female body parts and nude black men.
Ricardo Alarcón, president of the Cuban National Assembly and one of the country's highest-ranking officials, agreed, saying Mapplethorpe "achieves the transmission of a purely artistic message and sense."
"Frankly, this really doesn't strike me as a sexual exposition," he said in an interview. "Nudity is found in cultures dating much further back than the United States or Cuba. Classicism is full of the nude human body."
Mild hints of sadomasochism pepper the exposition, which also features images of two men kissing, the actress Susan Sarandon holding a child and a young Arnold Schwarzenegger in his bodybuilding days.
Another photograph shows the profiles of an albino man and a black man with a shaved head. The eyes of the albino are open, his gaze drifting off the photograph; the black man's eyes are closed.
Mapplethorpe's self-portraits express some sadness, showing the deterioration in his health before he died of AIDS at 42 in 1989.
The turning point in what seems to be the government's new tolerance toward homosexuality, which came with the limited economic and social liberalization of the mid-1990's, is often linked to the release of the 1994 hit film "Strawberry and Chocolate." The movie explores the friendship between a naïve young Communist and a highly educated gay Cuban who is in love with his country but at odds with his government.
Several Cuban artists have started tackling some of Mapplethorpe's themes in the last decade, including René Peña and Eduardo Hernández Santos.
The Mapplethorpe exhibition, which does not include his roughest images, embraces the photographer's internal contradictions, said Philip Larratt-Smith, a New York-based Canadian, who organized the show with the help of Pamela Ruiz, who is based in Cuba.
"His work toys with the polarities of masculine and feminine, insider and outsider, personal and political, subjective and objective, black and white . . . and of course, sacred and profane," Mr. Larratt-Smith said.