Listen to this article by Gwen A. Unger

Gertrudis Rivalta works through various forms—from photography to drawing to performance and video—constantly adapting images and experiences from her past and present to assert herself on the world stage. In fact, for Rivalta, the world itself is a stage to be manipulated, to display constructed scenes that both mimic and undermine the “real world.” Rivalta cuts her own figure in multiple ways, mobilizing her avatars to play with the world at large. Growing up in a Cuba heavily influenced by Soviet culture, Spanish colonialism, and American imperialism, Rivalta found herself subject to multiple imposed racist and sexist standards of personal conduct that affected the development of her identity. While Cuba attempted to construct itself as a “raceless utopian” society, Rivalta’s work counters the rigid orthodoxy of official conceptions of cubanía (Cubanness) and revels in the performative resistance of Black feminist being. 

According to Odette Casamayor-Cisneros, the “constant and defining element in the life of Black subjects in Cuba” is a “fictitious otherness” that keeps the Black subject at odds with the “modelic national subject” (105-6). This “modelic national subject” has been constructed in Cuban discourse through ideas of patriotism, virility, and moral superiority through the heroic models of Jose Martí and Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Rather than continuing this history, Rivalta provides dramatic (alter)narratives to official media images of the idealized Cuban subject through her colorful, sequined re-imaginings of Cuban women’s magazines in her Mujeres/ Muchacha series. While the image of Che Guevara's socialist “New Man” was disseminated through the likeness of national heroes in international magazines and posters, women’s magazines like Mujeres and Muchacha served to shape Cuban “women according to particular ideological functions” tied to revolutionary ethics, while also reinforcing the fino as a primary mode of comportment (Loss, “Selected Pages” 10). While lo fino, according to Jacqueline Loss, can signify many things, it is particularly tied to notions of refinement, not only in physical appearance but in moral rectitude (“Paper Cut-Outs” 36-9). For Cuban women, lo fino is tied to notions of a demure, modest femininity alongside a sense of beauty tied to phenotypical whiteness. As a young biracial girl growing up in Soviet-influenced Cuba, Rivalta often heard herself described as “a refined, ready to go out mulatto girl.” However, these memories are tied to the painful experience of hair straightening she underwent to get “straight hair ‘like whites’” (Rivalta 171). Rather than portraying demure femininity, Rivalta’s Cimarrona depicts a Black woman surrounded and covered in sequins, evoking a defiant runaway slave who liberates herself from plantation society. She smirks at the viewer, her body in black, brown and white fuses with the sequin flowers erupting through the surface of the canvas. Her excessive color presents an excessive defiance to the orthodoxy of lo fino. Instead, she presents a model of liberated sensuality, enacting what Jafari Allen theorizes as “erotic self-making,” or the exercise of “individual agency toward developing who we are in changing worlds, despite who we are told we are or ought to be” (96). The body is subversive, resilient and essential in these works, allowing for the actors to break out of overly restricted spaces of representation into one that is personally inscribed.

Rivalta also moves beyond the cover to the final pages of the magazines to probe the cuquitas, or paper-dolls, that were distributed in the back of these magazines during her childhood. Cuquitas are easily recognizable toys ever present in the lives of children on the island—not only were they circulated widely, they were also inexpensive and therefore accessible to all. As dolls for play, cuquitas modeled appropriate manners of being for young Cuban girls. These modes helped reinforce heteropatriarchal structures and shaped young girls under modes of control. The cuquita became the ideal model of "una mujer fina": beautiful, demure, white, and in her place. Rather than forcing herself into the mold of the cuquita, Rivalta instead extends her self into multiples: each embodying its own purpose, and no one more prominent than the other. In her enactment of multiple selves, Rivalta “bifurcate[es]” herself into avatars “and highlight[s] the extent to which the Black Cuban female artist cannot ‘dissolve’ into any of the hegemonic models” (Loss, “Paper Cut-Outs” 41). An avatar, according to Uri McMillan, can function as a “reliable prox[y]” for a person, acting as extensions of themselves, traversing locations, and discourses otherwise inaccessible to the primary self (11). Avatars have the ability to blur the boundaries between the material and the virtual world, as well as between subject and object, flesh and body. They function as human proxies in the world but are otherwise not bound to material rules and social constructs, enacting a transformative potential for the self. Instead of a singular model cuquita, Rivalta creates her teatrillos (puppet-theaters) with various characters, including as recurring characters her Cuquita and Black matryoshka, each an avatar of her self that allows for alternate embodied conceptions of being.

In the Afro-diasporic imaginary, the conception of avatars and of multiple selves is deep-rooted through the transformative and transcorporeal aspect of Afro-diasporic spiritual practice. This takes many forms, and in Cuba, it includes the Yoruba inflected practice of Regla de Lucumí (commonly known as Santería), where orishas, or guiding spirits, have multiple avatars that can fulfill different tasks and represent diverse ideals and communities. Considering the self through the Afro-diasporic mode of being “removable, external, and multiple” (Strongman 10) makes space and gives voice to non-normative identities “whose conjured forms break patriarchal and homophobic taxonomies” (Otero 184). These practices empower Black Cubans to take control and rewrite established histories of belonging through multiple selves that have lived in the past, present, and future, and command their representation.

As avatars, Cuquita and the Black matryoshka are able to perform that which Rivalta cannot: they may come and go as they please, do what they please, untethered to the conventions of space and time. Cuquita is an extension of Rivalta’s self that fits conformative models of Cuban womanhood, yet, simultaneously does not, because she is tied to Rivalta, who inherently cannot conform to these ideals. Cuquita instead shows the slippages that any idealized mode will create, and humorously points to the many fallacies present in any understanding of Cuba as a “raceless utopia.” Cuquita, for example, is never without a smile, no matter the situation, and is often oblivious to moments of tension in her own scenes. In Renglones, she thinks about listening to salsa music while Black matryoshka yells (in a speech bubble) about low sugar production. In Entendederas, Cuquita looks at the viewer with a smile while Black matryoshka yells that “nadie entiende NADA” (no one understands ANYTHING). In this way, by repurposing the form of paper cut-outs, Rivalta enacts her own subjectivity by “cutting a figure"—an action or gesture that creates a transgressive sharpness allowing for the Black subject to exceed “the fixed boundaries imposed upon black bodies” (Powell 212). 

The teatrillos present a playful overlapping of past, present, alternate, and parallel timelines, all of which reflect a multiplicitous conception of cubanía. Taking the ornamental  excess of sugar plantations in the colonial era and mixing it with the strange utopic functionality of the post-revolutionary Soviet presence on the island, Rivalta creates a peculiar lens through which to view conceptions of race, gender, and belonging. In Entendederas, she introduces a paper cut-out of a Mammy figurine who, along with the Black matryoshka, is the loudest in the scene, yelling out things like “1492,” “cimarrona,” and “lo negritos.” In its layering and almost shadow-box like construction, this teatrillo harkens to the use of assemblage in Afro-diasporic aesthetics, particularly through Betye Saar’s subversive works Black Girl’s Window (1969) and The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972). In Saar's and Rivalta’s pieces, the Black woman’s positionality is negotiated between the present and past, pointing to misconceptions of Black womanhood in relation to the larger world. Like Saar’s armed Aunt Jemima, Rivalta’s Black matryoshka can be seen as a representation of the loud Black woman who is measured by her excess and her incapacity to fit into the fino. The Black matryoshka always points out the illogical, showing us the glaring inconsistencies in official histories of Cubanness and always bringing up those little taboos officials like to sweep under the rug.  In Tres Tiempos. Uno (2021), Black matryoshka brings up slavery and the middle passage, and her form repeats, saying “La verdad no le gusta a nadie” (Nobody likes the truth) while Cuquita blabbers on about Indoeuropean peoples while surrounded by developmental marvels like sugar baron mansions, classic cars, and high-rises. 

Rivalta's varying avatars assert her personhood in realms that otherwise negate her presence. As E. Patrick Johnson explains, the performance of self “is also a performance of self for the self in a moment of self-reflexivity that has the potential to transform one’s view of self in relation to the world” (137-8). Avatars embody different aspects of the self in physical and virtual environments, which creates an “intensely personal and co-constituted sense of self” for the actor through playing and performing parts (Lau 388). Play, in particular, is a “project of self-realization” that provides “an expressive opportunity for the fractal self” (Henricks 190-2). In Cuba, play takes on multiple connotations of freedom and individuality, while also becoming “a creative strategy for survival,” in the words of Sujatha Fernandes (590). Specifically, play allows for a flexible approach to form-making and form-taking, giving the option of role-play to construct different aspects of selfhood and personhood. 

Engaging with play through avatars enacts an aesthetic slippage between self and other, between real and fiction, making one’s self and body opaque to external scrutiny. Rivalta literally creates means for play when she constructs her teatrillos as stages for her avatars Cuquitaand Black matryoshka. Each avatar presents different aspects of her personage, ranging from those that are self-constructed to those aspects that are imposed on her by exterior forces. Her use of play is also a means of subverting the many ways in which play with idealized cuquitas in the past enforced restrictive models of Cuban womanhood for young Black girls. Empowering deviance through play, humor, and theatricality in the teatrillos allows for Rivalta’s matryoshka to be defiant and to exist on her own terms.