Listen to this article by Lázara M. Menéndez Vázquez

Gertrudis Rivalta is a bold black artist who considers herself a cimarrona. When she felt that patriarchy and heterosexism were excluding her and making her invisible, she left Cuba, as she herself recounts, with her “machete in hand” to find new mountainscapes. She wanted to find—and find herself on—new paths with new passersby. Since the late 1990s, Rivalta has sought to fracture the aesthetic, ethical, and political boundaries that are anchored in the legacy of colonialism. She has worked to destabilize the links between the public and the private that have been constructed around Afro-descendent woman as an expression of the colonial matrix of power. No less important, she works with her own experience to show just how fragile the intersection of inequality and equality, justice and injustice, can be. The tension between the local and the global has also not been missing from Rivalta’s poetics, perhaps because borders and sequins are back, and while the former reinforce colonial differences, the latter retain, in their glimmer, a great deal of the history of humanity.

Rivalta’s work, however, seldom adheres to a strict Manichean attitude. By subjecting to critique both her memory and her day to day reality, the intersection of ideas and relationships offer an opportunity for blurring boundaries. Using the cover of a magazine does not negate its nature, since there is a history of prior theoretical and cultural operations that have left established behavioral patterns. In fact, the covers of women's magazines have not ceased to function as a mechanism of censorship and self-censorship for women. The artist is willing to take on the challenge, presenting a Guajira (2021) and a Cimarrona (2022) that are subtly removed from the representation of womanhood that Cuban magazines displayed during the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

In Cuba, the standards of female representations are deeply rooted, among other things, in notions like the masses and collectives. It is worth noting that both in painting and photography during the sixties and seventies, the representation of the masses was a key theme. Art critics from this period, for example, identified it as a significant element in the work of Mariano Rodríguez (1912-1990), a master of the Cuban avant-garde who is known as the painter of roosters. These motifs were explored by Cuban artists from different aesthetic orientations. In the socio-political order, the notion of ‘the masses’ was not just a concept; it was also a way of thinking about the world and organizing society. It seemed to be the ideal form of social organization because it insisted that liberation was possible because of the emancipatory potential represented in the people. 

In theory, the concept of the masses was not supposed to nullify the individual, spiritual growth, and personal responsibility, all of which are necessary for developing culture. However, in Cuba, from 1959 onwards, there was always the risk of falling into this trap. While individualities were not erased, many of its voices were silenced, and individuals were made invisible. The masses were thought to be a homogenous set encompassing militiawomen, athletes, women workers, peasant farmers, and students, thus obscuring the differences within these groups. Those who belonged to these groups were expected to act in a predetermined way. 

Rivalta is very much aware that there are many ways to be an Afro-descendant and to be a woman. In her work, the intersection between gender, race, sexual orientation, and class does not go unnoticed. In that regard, Rivalta’s work proposes a critical assessment of the universalism of modern thinking. We find this same critical assessment in María Lugones’s “Towards a Decolonial Feminism”: “If woman and black are term for homogenous, atomic, separable categories, then their intersection shows us the absence of black women rather than their presence” (742). Rivalta’s work is significant, given the extent to which the history of art in Cuba has been discriminatory, particularly, in regards to the representation of racialized, female bodies. While in Eurocentric Western art the identity of non-white women tends to be blurred and completely decontextualized (and thus exoticized), Rivalta resignifies the use of space, clotheslines (tendederas), and sequins from this perspective.

As Michel de Certeau’s work on everyday life demonstrates, subalternized cultural practices are not mere exercises of obedience and uniformity. They are also not simple reproductions of the dogmatic discourses of the ruling institutions. On the contrary, these practices express how subjects appropriate, create, recreate and subvert these discourses according to their individual contexts, and their understanding is dependent on shared codes and signs. 

Rivalta’s work thus locates the viewer at the point where thinking, saying, and making intersect. The way subjects act, think, and consume in their everyday lives, as well as the outcomes of these practices, can be understood as the expression of the movement between people’s “micro-resistances” and “micro-liberties” in their specific contexts, as they result from unequal relationships between power and individuals.

One of the resources used by the artist to articulate connections is sequins. The history of these tiny objects dates back to Tutankhamun, passes through an artifact designed by Leonard Da Vinci, and reaches the carnivals of the Caribbean and Latin America. Associated with glamor, status, fashion, and spectacle, sequins deviate from the way of life that Cuba adopted after 1959, which was articulated on revolutionary values such as sacrifice, austerity, sternness, and even a hypocritical puritanism that pretended to reject vanity and flamboyance. These were seen as evils of bourgeois life.

Guajira and Cimarrona also underscore the fact that sequins have been used in the private space of Santería, also known as the Regla de Ocha-Ifá, a syncretic religious practice that is deeply rooted in Cuba. In the country 's cultural context, Santería is metaphorically as cimarrona as Rivalta’s characters. In them we can find examples of how Cubans relate to the Regla de Ocha-Ifá through clothing, the use of certain beads, and in expressions such as “aché,” widely used in everyday conversations and various artistic practices. Resistance, acceptance, and negotiation in any given situation are the result of a community’s shared way of understanding and living in the world. The production of everyday life has an impact on how the self is understood by the artist. The dialogue between the new and the old always involves cross-fertilization and intersection.

     In pieces like Entendederas (2022) and Presente (2022), Rivalta turns to the body as a site that allows her to appeal to material, cultural, and spiritual concerns, because the body provides the raw material that allows us to posit tensions and conflicts. In Entendederas, the space where the narrative unfolds is marked by a set of tendederas, which are clotheslines where clothes are hung to dry. Equally significant is the use of the term tendederas for the garlands of lights used to decorate homes, shopping centers, city squares, and parks during Christmas celebrations. The same term also refers to the cables that people use to illegally connect to the electricity network in order to illuminate both public and private spaces. On these cables, people do not “hang” clothes, they “hang” their homes. We find ourselves in the messy realm of  everyday life, attending to phenomena ranging from the most intimate domestic habits to illegal practices of survival.

We can thus see Rivalta’s work as an exercise in heteroglossia, incorporating the disparate voices that accompanied her journey of personal and professional growth. In this sense, Rivalta’s work is part of a process that seeks to rebuild memory. The interweavings suggested by the artist through diverse aesthetic supports enable a meaningful contamination of icons originating in distinct semantic fields.