Women, Negritude and Cimarronaje: Some Thoughts on ‘Selected Pages’ by Gertrudis Rivalta

From March 16 to June 26, 2022, the New York gallery Thomas Nickles Project exhibited Selected Pages, a solo show by Cuban artist Gertrudis Rivalta Oliva (Santa Clara, 1971), curated by literary critic Jacqueline Loss. Getting into the gallery was like stepping behind a magnifying lens that augmented five spurious covers of the Cuban women’s magazines Mujeres and Muchacha—the former founded in 1961 from the nationalized Vanidades; the latter was created in 1980 for a young readership, both with national circulation and edited by the Women’s Publishing House of the Federation of Cuban Women.

Rivalta’s pieces reproduced images as well as the design and typography of these publications. However, her “selected pages” give origin to a new imaginary, one that rewrites recent Cuban history, changing the visuality of the socialist past to highlight the lack of representation of black women in the mainstream discourses on fashion and beauty.

Partial view of the exhibition ‘Selected Pages,’ by Gertrudis Rivalta.

I own some random issues of the said magazines, published in the 1980s, a period that, along with the preceding decade, is the focus of Rivalta’s show. On the cover of my magazines, I hardly see mixed-race women. In fact, no such species was found in Muchacha. Those featured in Mujeres, like all the other women represented, are portrayed as working for the state as members of its military, educational, or political institutions.

Covers of the magazine ‘Mujeres.’

Rivalta challenges this “canon” in multiple ways, including the materials and appearance of the works. The real covers were made of thick paper with a matte finish and a rough surface. No other page in the publication, except for the central spread, contained color photographs. Rivalta’s pieces, on the contrary, are covered with sequins, in an “explosion of colors” and glamour not existing in the official women’s press, which according to official discourse is interested in promoting “the idea that Cuban women are not moved by the absurd vanities, presumptions, and petulance promoted by Vanidades, an instigator of capitalist consumerism.”[1]

Covers of the magazine ‘Muchacha.’

The size of Rivalta’s pieces is no less subversive. The artist resizes the original 9 × 12” magazine cover as canvases of approximately 57 × 78”. The subjects depicted are even more radical, distancing Rivalta’s work from most Afro-Cuban affirmative art. The latter, in its most critical variant, expresses “an epistemological struggle from the margins of doxa,” as literary critic Odette Casamayor Cisneros argues, recreating a “practice of […] self-identification” that is based on “non-Eurocentric knowledge.”[2] Rivalta, on the contrary, portrays sequined bodies of black and mixed-race women who gleam in poses and spaces that defy racial stereotypes, presenting Afro-descendant women as sources of femininity, taste, and beauty.

Rivalta protests the hegemonic revolutionary iconography and aesthetic paradigms imported from Eastern Europe after 1959. Cheerleaders (2017) transformed a Mujeres cover, superimposing the image of a black woman’s athletic body with her back turned to the viewer. In the original scene, typical of socialist propaganda, a group of schoolgirls—most of them white—place flowers before a monument to José Martí, Cuba’s independence hero.[3] In Rivalta’s pastiche, the tense muscles in the black woman’s body, leaning forward as if she were holding an invisible weight on her back, as Titan Atlas did, suggest that Afro-Cuban women held the country on their backs as pillars. At the same time, the composition indicates that the schoolgirls’ flowers were placed before the black body. This restorative gesture equates the black woman to Martí in the patriotic altar. Young cheerleaders pay homage to both.

‘Cheerleaders’, Gerturdis Rivalta, 2017.

Guajira (2021) recreates a Muchacha cover, showing a smiling young mestiza girl with a straw hat typically used in the countryside. The sequins and flowers that cover the hat, dress, skin, and surroundings make this guajira appear different from the stereotypical agricultural worker or peasant girl. She does not resemble the mulatto femme fatale stereotype, which is pervasive in popular culture and literature. By contrast, the iridescent glamour that adorns her youthful candor vindicates Afro-Cuban women by portraying them as objects of contemplation instead of sexual desire.

Haircut (2021) alludes to the queer subjectivity, although the viewer only knows about the transgender identity of the represented subject in the exhibition catalog. The haircut represents the physical and psychological transformation of the queer person—the artist had addressed before the black bodies transition to Eurocentric beauty paradigms.[4] The spurious cover Rivalta recreates in Haircut is associated with the magazine Muchacha, perhaps underlining the liminal identity of the subject represented—a previous version of this piece, without sequins, was called Muchacho (2012).

Finally, the canvas Cimarrona (2022) depicts a black woman on a wicker chair. The exhibition catalog identifies her as a gymnast who gained celebrity status in the 1980s, after a television series that addressed the intersection of racist and class prejudices. She wears high heels and a modern, sensual dress, and her pose suggests abandonment and relaxation, attitudes rarely associated with the artistic or mediatic depictions of Afro-descendants. Another piece, called Cimarrona II: Realizing the Freedom of the Forest (2022), shows a red flamingo or anthurium flower with a yellow pistil. This flower is endemic to the Americas and the Caribbean, where it is considered a symbol of love. However, it is an exotic flower in Cuba, where it was introduced by a Brazilian soap opera as a symbol of sensuality and desire.

‘Cimarrona’, Gertrudis Rivalta, 2022.

The stylistic and thematic unity of the five pieces discussed allows us to extend the notion of cimarronaje to the group. The emancipation that the cimarrona conquers becomes then a radical gesture. She is not portrayed running away to the margins, “out of the reach of white persecutors and their network of domination; outside, therefore, of the Eurocentric hegemonic system.”[5]

Rivalta’s cimarronas run away to the center of mainstream imagery, where they become pivotal elements. In doing so, Rivalta asserts the centrality of Afro-Cuban women in the nation’s economic, social, political, and aesthetic fabric, rejecting Eurocentric portrayals and affirming their mestizo essence.

The Afro-Cuban women depicted in the dioramas and theaters that complement the exhibition also challenge the notion of the Afro-Cuban as an external, peripheral, and uncivilized element. They present it as a central, constitutive component of cubanness and its accidents, including socialist modernity and the Cuba-USSR relationship. As critic Kevin Power has said, “[t]he old racism understood exclusion as something necessary and absolute, the result of the genetic inheritance of those who were not European. The new one abandons this universalism in favor of a profoundly differentiated inclusion.”[6] This differentiation is what Rivalta deconstructs.

In general, the visual imagery that Gertrudis Rivalta recreates in Selected Pages challenges mainstream representations of Afro-Cubans, portraying black female bodies as historical protagonists. Covered in sequins, a status symbol from ancient Egyptian times, Rivalta’s cimarronas subvert the class system that is at the base of centuries-old discrimination against black women. Her subjects are heroic and sensual women who consume and produce beauty, symbols of distinction, and glamour, opposite to the erotic allure of the mulatto women.

However, paper tabs that protrude from their bodies reveal their actual lack of agency. No matter how prominent the cimarrona is in Rivalta’s iconography, the artist reminds us that she will always be a woman, a cuquita or paper doll that others dress as a mother, a worker, a lover, an athlete, a scientist, or a whore. Never the agent of her destiny.


Notes:

[1] Jacqueline Loss: “Gertrudis Rivalta: Introduction,” in Selected Pages. Gertrudis Rivalta, exhibition catalog, p. 28.

[2] Odette Casamayor Cisneros: “Elogio del ‘apalencamiento’: Perspectivas ante la pervivencia y reproducción de la desigualdad, los prejuicios y la discriminación raciales en la sociedad cubana actual,” Cuban Studies, 48, 2019, p. 308; also Odette Casamayor Cisneros: “Confrontation and Occurrence: Ethical-Esthetic Expressions of Blackness in Post-Soviet Cuba,” Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies 4, 2, 2009, pp. 103-135.

[3] This work was dated as 2009 in the exhibition catalog. However, the artist told me that it took her 14 years to complete it, having started in 2003.

[4] Gertrudis Rivalta: “Fnimaniev! Fnimaniev! The Hare and the Turtle: The Black Mona,” in Jacqueline Loss and José Manuel Prieto (eds.), Caviar with Rum, Palgrave McMillan, New York, 2012, pp. 171-181.

[5] Odette Casamayor Cisneros: “Elogio del ‘apalencamiento’”, ed. cit., p. 308; Ineke Phaf: “La nación cimarrona en el imaginario del Caribe no hispánico”, Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana XVI, 32-33, 1990, pp. 67-97.

[6] Kevin Power, “Gertrudis Rivalta: Images of an imagined world,” Gertrudis Rivalta: Fnimanief, Aural Gallery, Alicante, 2004, p. 11.

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MARÍA ANTONIA CABRERA ARÚS
MARÍA ANTONIA CABRERA ARÚS
María A. Cabrera Arús (Havana, 1973). Sociologist. Studies and writes about the political meanings of fashion and material culture, and teaches at New York University. Author of the archive and collection Cuba Material.

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