She’s lucky, she says, as these days in Washington D.C. the cold is definitely not so cruel anymore.
“I knew the city; I came in 2012 for a conference at the National Geographic. I was brought by my gallerist, Lennox Campello. With the memories of that trip, I could write a book, one that would range from the glamorous portrait of David La Chapelle to the gravity of the testimonies of war reporters, Anthony Suau or Paolo Pellegrin.
“If you ask me, I would say that you have to get out, move around, let go of moorings, unlearn what you know. Your life can’t always be a broken street. I refuse to accept boredom and immobility.”
Cirenaica Moreira (Havana, 1969) has just traveled to the U.S. capital to accompany the seven pieces of hers that the Art Museum of the Americas (OAS/AMA) chose for the group show “America’s Crossroads. Six Contemporary Photographers in Dialogue.” From February 23 through May, the Cuban visual artist, photographer and performer shares space with Mexican-American Luis Delgado, Brazilian Gisele Martins and Mexicans Carlos Bautista Ávila, Diana Ramírez López and René Campos Navarro.
“It’s important to be here after going through quite an adverse period, the most adverse, I would say, in many years or maybe in all of them,” she says. “Something like having the opportunity to reach the surface to take the air and the sun,” she acknowledges, although it is not difficult to perceive at the end of the sentence a clear reluctance to talk about herself. It seems as if she does not want to open the drawer of storms.
It is curious that an artist who since the 1990s has worked with her own naked body and produced emblematic works in contemporary Cuban photography such as Árbol que nace torcido, jamás su tronco endereza, La venganza es un plato que se sirve frío or that untitled one from the series Ojos que te vieron ir… where she appears wrapped in the Cuban flag, the same creator of performances such as Un ejercicio de poligamia, sesenta voluntari@s para besar a la artista, conceived to kiss for an hour with sixty volunteers from the audience, at a rate of one kiss per minute, is modest when it comes to confessions and verbal portraits.
“There is no way to go through the interview if you do not undress, at least partially. In its frontality, as a subject, that kind of nudity doesn’t particularly interest me,” she says. ‘The most scandalous thing about scandal is that one gets used to it,’ said Simone de Beauvoir in an article you yourself sent me a few days ago. Creation offers other tools, among them that of representation, which is what happens in Árbol que nace torcido…, Ojos que te vieron ir… or Un ejercicio de poligamia… Rarely can an interview be mistaken for a long poem.”
Cirenaica closed the year 2022 with the death of her father, painter Juan Moreira, something that, she says, stirred pains, but also a few questionings. To address these questions is one of the challenges of her book project Hasta que la muerte nos separe, recently winner of one of the residencies offered by the Can Serrat creative writing program in Barcelona, Spain.
“It’s a notebook that has been shaped over time; with time, love and death as the real protagonists,” she notes and then pauses. “My father’s death introduces noises, opens unthinkable channels in a book that talked about carnal stories, stories with women and men. Now there is a need to come to terms with these nuances that, even in the context of essential loss, do not cease to be very rich, exultant in their novelty. It might even seem ruthless.”
Before this loss, like so many Cubans, the artist suffered the onslaught of the pandemic, restrictions and shortages, “the aggravation of hopelessness and chaos,” as she prefers to call it.
“We were coming from a turbulent period, not only because of the impasse in our lives caused by the pandemic, but also because of the drama unleashed in Cuba with the San Isidro strike, the sit-in in front of the Ministry of Culture, the minister assaulting an independent press reporter and the beating of a group of colleagues, the popular protests of July 11 and the order to fight given by the president. Then the prisoners and the mass exodus of relatives, neighbors, friends, so many events that certainly changed us and are changing our lives forever.”
“In the catalog of your exhibition Ojos que te vieron ir…, signed in August 1994, you referred to ‘images sentimentally anchored in melancholy, pessimism and pain.’ It seems as if you were anticipating that 2021-2022 cycle about which you also wrote elsewhere: ‘Not a single happy face, not a single happy remark in my six kilometers of daily commute.’ What happened between one point and the other in your work and in your personal journey?”
“I could tell you about the birth of my daughter Mariana in September 1993, who very soon became my role model; about what it was like to raise her in a country that was going through a twilight that was renewed daily, in that state of mind of confusion, of bewilderment. It is difficult to add anything, unless you allow me to rant a bit…
“For example, when you quote: ‘Not a single happy face…’ you are referring to my Carta de despedida para llegar a ninguna parte, a text I published in Hypermedia Magazine in January 2021. There is a point of arrival there, the result of a discomfort that is prolonged in time, a tiredness.
“My 1994 pieces spoke directly to a reality that seemed to have been transformed in a direct way. Our access to information was precarious, but there was no way to hide the way in which the changes in Eastern Europe manifested themselves in Cuba. And events, both in the personal and creative fields, go hand in hand for me.
“In 2003 I began to work with color and in 2012 I included the male model, somehow to lighten that burden of austerity, of drama, that black and white and self-referentiality presuppose, although I had already begun to simulate before. I began to play with the idea of more or less functional beauty and to move away myself from that aesthetic of Ojos que te vieron ir… where I took a photograph of myself naked with the Cuban flag. That kind of evidence, let’s say, ceased to interest me almost immediately. So, I planted flowers, ribbons, ornaments on every wound; I appropriated or fabricated accessories, openly recognizable scenarios within a tradition of the feminine that you cannot disavow either; centuries of archetypes that are at the same time, or for the same reason, gags. Obviously, there is a deliberate gesture in this act of camouflaging. A rage that continues to work by accumulation.
“Ojos que te vieron ir… was the answer to a shock, to a space that ended up inhabited by dumbness, inner perplexity—that’s why it bothers me so much when titles are foisted on the flag piece: Homenaje a Blez, Mi bandera…; attempts that I can’t help feeling as veiled abductions.
“There will be those who only see the part where I cover myself with flowers, or my models, to fill the empty space on the sofa or to masturbate. It’s all the same to me, you know, anything I can work with.”
“By the way, in March 2020, in your defense of Luis Manuel Otero’s use of the Cuban flag, you undertake a brief review of the State’s handling of the national symbol. At the end you conclude: ‘There is no one left here to put up with so much sloppiness.’ Are Cubans torn between flight, vulgarity and internal exile, a topic you have used in your work?”
“Revolutions choose their martyrs, who to take to the guillotine or the stake. They classify them, put them together by age, race, physical build and height, ancestry, sex, aptitude, in a process that seems to come naturally. It’s hard to remove yourself from that platform of control. Of ego battles, too. To your enumeration I would add suicide and jail.
“Luis Manuel is now in prison for participating in the July 11 protests, an action that I can’t help but see as his Opus Magnum if I think of that connotation given by himself to his body within the artistic practice. It is not an isolated case, but an extreme one.
“As for myself, on the other hand, and in any scenario, I prefer him free, like all the political prisoners that the Cuban government keeps trying to pass off as looters and thieves, as ordinary prisoners. It is too late for martyrologies. I am sorry, in this sense, not to be optimistic, but I do not fail to see the futility in all that concerns a change towards democracy in Cuba.”
Perhaps because 2022 turned out to be so adverse, now the cold of Washington D.C. and a couple of other sensations help Cirenaica to experience the return of that illusion that any artist needs so much.
“Returning to Washington, but not to Miami, a city that I have been visiting for more than twenty years and that is truly our splintered and prosperous Cuba, leaves me, above all things, with the feeling of having reached the forbidden shore, the one that is only given to us, if at all, after so many sacrifices.”
The days in Washington D.C. have somewhat changed the face of Cyrenaica, bringing more light out of that smile that, in itself, is luminous, as that seasoned observer, Abilio Estévez, commented to me in a WhatsApp message.
“In the Noma neighborhood, where I was staying, everything seems to be linked to art,” she says with satisfaction. “It’s in the posters, in the signposting, in the way the facades and the interior of the buildings are decorated and illuminated, in the style of certain stores. On the other hand, the cold, the grayness of the weather that for a strange reason I also appreciate; the acid smell of marijuana in the streets; the homeless, mostly imposing blacks with heavy gait; the old European-style buildings among the new constructions and the life that goes on site. All this strangeness, all this confrontation, obviously, awakens the senses and contributes to creation.”
On the other hand, since March 10 Moreira is taking part in the exhibition A mí me manda Carmen, a collective project curated by his colleague Monica Batard for the MoCa-Americas in Miami and that pays tribute to the painter Carmen Herrera, who died in New York in 2022.
“With this exhibition I announce my series El nuevo orden, this time made up of a group of self-portraits, something I haven’t done since 2006, when I started working entirely with models. At that time, I thought I would never pose in front of the camera again because my body had changed and I could not find a way to bring my usual sketches to the image; but the social isolation imposed by the pandemic forced me to reconsider.”
For the artist, El nuevo orden “raises parallels between that identity that is annulled under the sanitary mask and the gag.”
Moreira wants to highlight the importance of this invitation from MoCa-Americas and the support of its owner and collector Leonardo Rodríguez, the directors, Jorge Rodríguez Diez and Ivonne Ferrer, and the art historian Deborah de la Paz, in the realization of her trip to the United States.
“I would also like to thank them for giving me the opportunity to launch a new call to the public for participation in my performance Un ejercicio de poligamia, sesenta voluntarir@s para besar a la artista,” scheduled for the end of April at the closing of A mí me manda Carmen, she announces.
Cirenaica also tells me that she is making the first decisions in the conception of a personal exhibition under the care of Gady Alroy and José Antonio Navarrete, gallerist and curator, respectively, of Art Media Gallery, a space founded in 2012 in Wynwood Art District, which four years ago moved to the Little River area and pays special attention to contemporary photography and video.
“We have had a very empathetic dialogue and I hope to present the Newborn on Mars project in the first quarter of 2024. This is a series that connects with Sueños Húmedos, the work I did between 2003 and 2005 on quinceañeras in Cuba, as it looks back to a group of family traditions that are constantly renewing themselves with a strong impact on the popular imaginary and projection.”
And she clarifies: “I don’t want to get ahead with other kinds of considerations because I’m still moving in the sensorial level; there may still be many changes, directions, how to know; I will just tell you that it’s an experience that brings me back directly to the work with the public that consumes this way of celebrating. In this case I intend to insert myself in the market that is dedicated to portraying newborn babies as part of the research process.”
Before saying goodbye, I ask Cirenaica about a series of which some images made up of striking female photos intervened as collages and finely placed inside acrylic urns a couple of inches thick came to public notice in social networks.
“Due to circumstances that are not relevant, what is now called Dentro de un mes, dentro de un año is a long-postponed series that had several names: Pactos invisibles, Lazos invisibles, or Últimas fotos de mamá desnuda, after the story and the book by Ernesto Pérez Chang,” she explains.
“This is a series that owes a lot to literature and contemporary art, permeated by the lives of many creators; that’s why I finally titled it after one of Françoise Sagan’s novels, because she herself is a character in one of these pieces with that Paris Match cover where she appears with her newborn son in her arms,” she says.
“When I started sketching the first ideas, I was in Paris, at a Robert Rauschenberg exhibition at the Pompidou, I was impressed by his way of superimposing images and stories. A lot of time has passed. At some point I even abandoned the project because I could not put space between myself and that vision of Rauschenberg that was already hurting me. One day my daughter asked me for some photos for a casting and I took them. In a way they were terrible, I had hardly any light and I don’t like to use artificial light, but Mariana is a kind of a monster, and I say this with pride, she has a gift for the image, for theatricality and exaggeration. So, I ended up stealing those photos and intervening them as in those family albums in which we usually keep flowers, locks of hair and all kinds of memories. In this way I try to celebrate her life and thank her for all the times she was the face inside my pieces.
“Later, to the extent that I began to dress and undress her as the child she was—I referring to that pleasure—Havana appeared in the background in the voice of those who have visited it, lived here or referred to it: Roberto Bolaño, Antonin Artaud or José Antonio Saco.
“Now I’m in Miami and she’s in Brazil. In five years, we have seen each other four days. Meanwhile, the finished pieces of this series and those that are still half-finished rest, some in their acrylic urns, others under sheets on the damp walls of my Havana house overlooking the sea.”