Listen to this article by Inileidys Hernández

In Tu cara ante la luz (Your Face in Front of the Light), an interactive performance accompanied by photographs, Gertrudis Rivalta once again focuses on the theme of identity, a central concern in her work. The artist had been working on this project since 2010 with the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba. In 2018, Rivalta performed it at the Lonja del Pescado art space (Alicante, Spain) as part of the collective exhibition Tol el que veus és art (Everything You See Is Art), which centered on Valencian portraiture. In this work, Rivalta questions normative assumptions. Using images, it registers the individual who, empowered by light (which represents the transgression and the breaking of norms), discovers within themselves an inherent plurality, assuming it as agency to make their existence visible and acknowledged. In this way, Rivalta aims to prove that every subject is always someone else, one that is different and independent of all norms. She achieves this by projecting “light” onto the darkness of the face of the marginalized individual. In the artist’s own words, this “changing” illumination is a “carrier of images that allude to memory, to the collective memories of a whole nation.” In that sense, the performance seeks to “represent the elements that underlie the construction of collective identity, whose abstract synthesis can be found in the recognition (or lack thereof) of individuality within that collective” (Rivalta). 

Rivalta argues that her work questions the principles that legitimate “a singular notion of portraiture.” The result is a hybrid and polysemic image that blurs boundaries and, as she asserts, “is at the same time a portrait, a self-portrait, and a performance [...] simultaneously, it is an image and a re-presentation of identity.” Just like the new vision of portraiture that Rivalta re-imagines, identity is no longer a “unique construct” but rather a combination of actions, memories of events, experiences, and images. For Rivalta, understanding identity as a portrait, as something that “is realized,” allows her to conceive it as something that can be “narrated almost like a sequence,” much the same way as the series of portraits and self-portraits we find in her work. The artist, moreover, highlights the parallels between these visual representations and identity construction because identity, just like representation, undergoes a “constant process of self-realization by society” and by the subject themselves (Rivalta).

In the photographs of Tu cara ante la luz, light appears as a metaphor for searching, transgressing, and breaking away from the dictates of power manifested in categories such as race, gender, and social class, whose purpose is to establish distinctions between abject identities and bodies that matter. Rivalta’s series also explores how society perceives otherness once it has empowered itself and, from its subordinate position, manages to deconstruct the ways in which power attempts to build a singular notion of the subject. The part of the body that is exposed to the light is the face. This is a highly meaningful choice. Rivalta identifies herself with the subject lacking face, turning them into a being of light. This is her way of denouncing the falseness of social norms. By highlighting the subject’s helplessness, the work underscores that the discourses that justify the inferiority of some human groups by virtue of their physical traits are indefensible. 

Light does not simply ensure the quality of the photograph. It is rather the central element that allows for the vindication of the existence of the excluded subject, giving rise to new identities, to beings that are reborn. The subject is seen and sees themselves through the gaze and the light that the other projects onto their body. It is interesting how, upon coming into contact with the light, the illuminated subject unfolds, overlaps, and reappears as a being that evokes the plurality in everyone. The subject seems unaware of this plurality until the moment the light (¿the light from others?) “illuminates” them. In this regard, Rivalta’s work can be linked to the ideas of Emmanuel Levinas, who argues that the “face is a living presence; it is expression,” one could say, of the “privileged manifestation of the Other” (66). Rivalta’s work invokes the agency with which the subject poses, using it to show themselves and flirt with the light. Conscious of their own enjoyment, the individual wants to be illuminated by the light so that they can take possession of their own shadows as a sign of their empowerment. Rising up from the darkness, the subject now allows themselves to be seen in the way they think of themselves, a transgressor of all norms. The plural subject in Rivalta’s work speaks to the ontological richness of being different, posing questions about their own nature, conscious of the coexistence within themselves of two planes: the natural and the physical, and the spiritual and the cosmic. These correspond to the ways in which silenced cultural and religious elements are reinterpreted and assimilated.

The body projections replicate in front of the light to give rise to an anonymous, new, different corporeality that emerges from the fusion of the dark, real being and the silhouette drawn by the light. The resulting infinite body objects to oppression inasmuch as plurality blurs the external features that racialize and separate the subject into categories. The projected individual is a kind of specter, a confusing shadow. It is challenging to find the limits of the bodies, which end up becoming a dark, multiple, human stain. This last being, the third one in a trilogy formed by the material body and the light-generated shadows that replicate, bears the hybrid’s sexual indeterminacy, lacking the sexual attributes associated with its subordinate condition. In this way, oppression becomes collectivized among the masses. This transfigured body can thus destabilize “the hegemonic [forms] of sexed identity” and operates as a “wild, unsettling mob” against any power system (Manada de lobx 54). Rivalta’s proposal reclaims this third space, configuring it as a transgression, and as the creation of something new and different that breaks with the process of “regulation aimed at producing an expected human being” (Manada de lobx 54).

Rivalta even plays with the physical properties of light: each body reflects not only the color of its skin, or the one imposed by society, but also the myriad tones that each body can reflect. With this, she makes a reference to the ironic idea that everyone, even those who have not been racialized, are also “people of color.” The presence of this element in the photographs does not appeal to a racial condition. Instead of hiding or masking the faces, it belongs to a personal history. Some shades recall violence, evoke strength, invoke hope, refer to the surreal, or simply hark back to the sea. None of these shades covers the face completely. They are ephemeral brushstrokes, as fleeting as emotions and moods. Some shades resemble blurry stains that do not indicate whether they are taking over or leaving the body. Other hues resemble the passage and the rhythms of time, the arrival of new stages to present life. 

Some tones perpetuate the sensual nature imposed on the woman’s body by sexist gender stereotypes, which construct the female subject’s identity by identifying it to Oshún, a deity in the Ifá Oral tradition. It is no coincidence that the light reflected on the images draws curious patterns on the subject. Their arrangement in the form of a beehive alongside opaque yellow tones constitutes an allusion to honey, cinnamon, and sweetness, some of the most important characteristics of this orisha. The resulting stain gradually covers those who stand before the light, turning them into individuals lacking the intensity and joy of Oshún. Once the viewers notice these allusions, they can understand the extent to which the myth has been distorted. The fact is that power does not pretend to identify women with the orisha who uses the erotic power of her body covered in honey and cinnamon to defeat Ogún, to face Olofin, or to fool Orula. Nor does it want the female subject to learn to use seduction and free sex as means to revel in her body or as weapons for battle. Instead of letting the individual worship Oshún because she laughs and dances while resolving quarrels between gods and mortals, the heteropatriarchy uses its legends to demonize African heritage. In Rivalta’s images, the equivalence between the deity and the subject is not the result of a personal or divine choice, but rather a consequence of imposing the other onto the racialized female body, based on a Western reading of the Yoruba Pantheon. The white translation recreates the African myth in the image and likeness of Christian moral precepts, looking at how the orisha takes on sexuality and gender through the lens of a moral standpoint that is alien to the African worldview. As a result, the characteristic imaginary of this worldview—its attributes, dances, rules, foods, and patakies—are seen as a set of reprehensible and indecent customs. Based on this, the heteropatriarchy has constructed an oversexualized image of the Black woman, especially the mulata woman, who is seen as the epitome of the “femme fatale.”

Equating women with the divinely promiscuous orisha of the Yoruba Pantheon justifies violence against the female subject, punishing her eroticism and voluptuousness. At the same time, it reinforces the racial distinctions that privilege the mulata woman over those who have a darker skin, thus naturalizing the unequal distribution of labor among racialized women themselves. In this way, the golden hues that characterize Oshún represent in Rivalta’s images the way the “pornographic gaze” (Segato 146) is imposed on the female subject. The golden beams resembling honey do not function as one of her most important attributes, but rather as an identity label that cancels out the agency of the female subject, exposing her to violence, social marginalization, and silence. The female subject therefore cannot trust the “sweetness” of the myth created by heteropatriarchy because it makes her body vulnerable. Nor can she believe that the “honey” that comes from Oshún is a blessing, as it turns women into the object of others’ pleasure.

Other images explore the imposition of maternity on the female body as a social duty associated with the female essence. This is when the other’s light speaks to the imagery related to the Yemayá, using its attributes to conquer the female space. We see the idea of worship as a means to control women’s choices—choices that, in this case, are associated with their reproduction. This is why, in some images of the series, the intense blue color is shared between two people, binding bodies until creating a bond—the female subject coupling with her opposite until the spiritual, female world disappears, as well as its dreams of future realization. 

In the photographs, animality nearly seizes the body, but just before that, it transforms into the cimarrón4 power that the subject does not hide. Crowded by a knot of intricate affects, this mysterious being reaches out to the other and saves them, giving them life. Naturalized silence and loneliness turn into flowers, into laughter, into new beauty. The blow, the blood of the wound, the outraged face perhaps can turn red into the energy of a new beginning, into the power of the fire that burns in all. The life that has been denied to the Black subject emerges in loose brushstrokes, among the orange, purple, and blue hues that blend and explode in faces that come to light for the first time. There is no lament, no agonizing suffering in Rivalta’s work; there is only experience accumulated in the pain and exclusion. In the illuminated faces, there is stillness, awe, and sad tranquility. The figures allude to those who survive and face oppression by using the female body to defy the shadow of the heteropatriarchal power that renders them invisible. For this reason, Rivalta plays with the symbolism of colors, creating new relationships between them and the female subject. In her work, the woman reclaims her place as the owner of the secrets and masculine domains of the mountainside, the owner of war and fortune telling originating from African heritage. By crossing the boundaries of the divine realm, the female subject recognizes her ability to undo and cross over gender constraints. New identities arise from the chaos of shades. The bodies no longer recognize their essence; rather, they recognize the middle ground that allows the cimarrón subject to circumvent the classifications of the system and activate, from their subaltern position, the ability to oppose oppression.