Listen to this article by Dantaé Garee Elliott

The rastaman thinks, draw me a map of what you see, then I will draw a map of what you never see and guess me whose map will be bigger than whose? Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?
Kei Miller, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion

To experience the exhibition Selected Pages is to submerge oneself into a world that celebrates, targets, and redefines Black womanhood and its intersectional multiplicities. Gertrudis Rivalta’s centering of Black women in beautifully sequined portraits echoes a vexed and contentious relation to a homeland that regards her, and others like her, as being outside the desired standards of beauty. As a whole, her works meditate on Afro-Cuban livelihood not only in the present but also in a past through which she seeks a (re)telling of a livelihood that permeates the social and creates presence for the Black subject. The multiple perspectives and intersectionality within Rivalta’s works juxtapose worlds that show Afro-Cuban women in different spaces and times, travelling beyond the limitations of a single-story narrative and gesturing toward what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “invisible histories.” There are, however, multiple ways of telling these silent histories that do not perpetuate a “single story” but rather humanize and recenter the subjects excluded from the popular narrative. The opening epigraph of this essay alludes to this (re)telling in which Rivalta anchors her portraits, a (re)telling that keeps the audience returning to these works to pull out cultural imaginaries that produce visual allegories of Black embodiment. Jamaican poet Kei Miller points to the idea of multiplicity in storytelling to create cartographies that center our stories and histories. Accordingly, “the rastaman thinks, draw me a map of what you see, then I will draw a map of what you never see and guess me whose map will be bigger than whose? Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?” (19). Gertrudis Rivalta draws us a map of what she saw and lived, a map infused with language, imagery, and a sense of belonging, where bodies are constantly plagued by historical, colonial, gendered, and racialized assemblages. 

Cimarrona 1 and Cheerleaders both embody a collective yet personal experience. Rivalta assumes the role of a knowledge-maker who uses the nuances of storytelling to understand community-making and personhood. This deliberate act of creating multiple iterations of Black woman subjectivity creates contradictions in the historical narratives that shape it. Like Hortense Spillers, who argues that the symbolic system of American grammar marks and defines Black womanhood as a construct of a white American patriarchal society, Rivalta is going against a symbolic system that places Black Cuban women within the cultural sphere while simultaneously rendering them invisible. The Black feminist practice of reading the “quiet” is where I situate Rivalta’s artistic practice and creative expression. By focusing on the bodies that live in the “quiet,” Rivalta not only infiltrates the local Cuban social fabric, but also goes beyond the scope of the historical to (re)tell and privilege the public poignancy of Afro-Cuban women’s presence within a global vernacular. 

Rivalta's commitment to centering these stories alludes to what scholar Andrea Davis refers to as “acts of self-naming and self-conceptualization” (1) to create an intersectionality and interwoven practice that speaks on the experiences of Black Cuban women and their communities. Black women’s (re)telling and knowledge-making go against the violent systems that aim to silence them, birthing artistic expressions that directly confront these systemic flaws. For Davis, “Black women writers and artists, therefore, confront the danger of self-articulation because the very act of speaking and writing produces Black healing and Black life beyond death” (2). In this light, Rivalta’s careful consideration of the societal gaze, both local and global, goes beyond the historical restraints woven into the Cuban social framework. The careful and delicate positioning of Black women allows for the telling of stories that engage with Black women’s capability of presenting their own histories, feelings, and creative methodologies beyond the constraints of systemic cultural aesthetics. Rivalta’s insertion of materials that link directly to her ancestry and cultural legacy portrays the beauty and a rupture of the vocabulary that marks her, and others like her. 

I use the word “limitations'' as a metaphor through which I read Rivalta’s creative process. I define limitations as working with few resources, including histories and materials, as creating unimaginable and intricate subjects that reflect a story that combines a visual tapestry of Afro-Cuban intimacies. These limits refer to both the materials used to produce the artworks and the historical and linguistic limits of presenting an experience that functions within the socialist and capitalist worlds. The multiple forms of representations that present Afro-Cuban women in Cheerleaders (2003-2014), Cimarrona I (2021), Guajira (2021) and Corte de Pelo (2021) repurpose this limit and show a cautiously curated perspective that uses sequins to gracefully place Afro-descendant women as the central focal point of elegance. The sequins draw you in, and then tell you a story of Black womanhood that operates globally through the lens of a nuanced experience. These pieces actively create an artistic, physical archive representing small stories that complete a narrative of the racialized Cuban experience, celebrating Black livelihood, joy, and abundance. 

In Lorgia García Peña’s Translating Blackness (2022), she focuses on the “epistemological contributions of people often omitted from or silenced in historical archives” (26). It is within this framework that I read Rivalta’s work. She is constantly defying the limits of the materials she uses to create art while holding space for those misplaced in global narratives. Rivalta’s work encompasses what García Peña theorizes as “belonging and unbelonging” (26), belonging to a space that does not center subjects that look like you that requires that you rewrite the story by inserting chapters that empower and influence your community. Thus, we may conclude that Rivalta’s work, following García Peña, “is about Black knowledge and radical existence across place and time against colonial violence and antiblackness” (26). Rivalta takes on this journey of “Black knowledge” and “radical existence” by taking us into the Afro-Cuban experience, personal and local, countering tropes that make her invisible.

The one who occupies the center in Rivalta’s portraits is the Black woman marked by pre-existing epistemological cartographies. Her art is not only a non-linear (re)telling but also a form of self-articulation that makes note of past, present, and varying dimensions of a Black Cuban experience. Not fitting Cuban society's conventional figurations of Afro-Cuban women, Rivalta's sequined portraits move beyond historical, social, racial, and gendered limitations, transcending the limits of erasure to create space from which we can read Afro-Cuban histories and cultures and locate them as relevant to both the global and local paradigms of Cuban history. In the words of Kei Miller, “on this island things fidget. Even history” (15). Thus, Gertrudis Rivalta presents a shifting history that shapes a radical Black Cuban livelihood.