Listen to this article by Mailyn Machado

On May 9, 2021, Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s Twitter account posted a message wishing Cuban women a happy Mother’s Day. The tweet featured an image of three blonde women in straw hats and plaid shirts—an image that garnered a great deal of reaction from the platform’s users, who suggested it looked as if it had been taken right out of an old issue of La mujer soviética (The Soviet Woman) magazine. The image, belatedly justified by the official press as the photo of a peasant family from the outskirts of Havana, reproduced, with the confidence of decades of restrictive cultural policies and centralized mass media, a representation of women shaped by the publications from the period of the Cuban Revolution. These images, which received immediate criticism on the president's Twitter account, could have been the cover of any one of the magazines transformed by artist Gertrudis Rivalta into oil and sequins on canvas paintings in her series Mujeres/Muchacha.

The works in the series titled after the Cuban substitutes for Vogue and Teen are also responses to the state's construction of individual identity. Rivalta's pieces dismantle the socialist massification of Afro-descendant female subjectivity and participate in the contemporary reinvention of Cuban iconography.

Mailyn Machado

One of the most well-known features of your work is the variety of media that you employ in their creation. How do you decide which to use? What guides your movement from one to another?

Gertrudis Rivalta

I work by creating series. In each one, one or another media takes precedence, depending on the subject I want to focus on. For me, the medium is just that—a means to express what I want to say. If I want spectators to reflect more or do so more slowly, I use drawing or painting. I know that many people say it is not the case, but I don’t really believe I'm a good painter. I am a sculptor. A sculptor's vision of color is volumetric; a sculptor sees volume in everything, including in color. That is very important. In fact, there is also volume in the information and the background that I provide within my works; the information in the works is volumetric. In those cases, I use painting, with a volumetric perspective. That is also very consistent with the layers that I want people to discover. My work is volumetric in every sense.

Mailyn Machado

The relationship that you see between more traditional media, such as painting and drawing, and more contemporary media, such as video, is also remarkable. I’d like to ask you about the way in which that relationship is produced, because sometimes it’s established through allusion. I see a connection with contemporary formats and platforms in some of the pieces that were included in your 2022 solo exhibition Selected Pages at Thomas Nickles Project, which brought together two distinct series and media.

Gertrudis Rivalta

That’s right. Why do distinct media have to be concordant? I have never understood that. I tend not to look at what other artists do or don’t do. I don't know if such and such video artist solves a problem in one way and if another solves it in a different way. That's not where I seek answers. I look for them in other essences. I find what light does with sequins to be very interesting, and they are two different media. Many artists have worked with lights, bulbs, and candles. But what about reflection? Light has been extremely important throughout the history of art, even for the painters in the Altamira caves. I am deeply interested in the volumes created by light, in the ways in which light draws or blurs. Light also adds content—those things that concern us that are in the shadows and need light to be perceived and that when seen, change. Half-dreamlike, schizophrenic, paranoid, psychedelic things that I think define the world.

Perhaps my style is characterized by that diversity of media and the transversality between them, because the themes I address are also like that. I don't have a single approach, my approach consists of multiple approaches. I sort of join them together and, at certain points, they converge. A case in point is the issue of being of African descent, which is a central theme in my work. I don't shy away from representing the physical realms, since most of the time others seem to be focused on religion or folklore. However, I'm also interested in how to represent psychological and emotional dimensions. Forms and figuration create conflict for me. This is what has led me to search for the right medium. When I was making the sequined pieces, I bought a ceiling lamp that emits intense but, at the same time, very dim light that changes very softly into bluer and yellower tones and, based on those lights, I created the works. When you contemplate them under such a light, you figure out they're never the same.

Mailyn Machado

These layers or, to put it differently, this overlap of artistic strategies refer to contemporary technologies of identity construction. Do you think there's a relationship between your current work and these new platforms that promote self-representation and self-exposure, such as virtual spaces and social media?

Gertrudis Rivalta

Yes, there is. For example, in some pieces like Tu cara ante la luz, I wanted viewers to have material to be able to interact with their social networks, to prepare a foundation for taking a different kind of self-portrait that somehow both of us have helped devise. That is to say, it is a portrait and self-portrait at the same time. Viewers can take pictures of themselves while multiple images are projected onto their faces. These images are symbolic of my country’s identity and, in turn, evoke feelings, emotions, and thoughts in those interacting with them. Seeing these images somehow causes them to make different faces while having their pictures taken. The result is a portrait/self-portrait of their internal experience and not so much of their physique, which they then publish on their social media. The search for complicity within the current language of the continuously-evolving image seems crucial for keeping up-to-date with the visual languages that are becoming so important in our society. People want to be present themselves all the time. They want others to know they exist. From a Buddhist point of view, it would mean being dominated by craving, by the superfluous. The ego has phagocytized the self. It no longer matters if the story you’re telling about yourself or others is true. What matters is to be out there on social media and create an identity for yourself that may or may not be fictitious. The image has an overwhelming power today, and artists no longer have exclusivity over their creation. As an artist, what you can do to distinguish yourself entails steering the image in a particular manner. We live in very individualistic societies where it’s all about the ego, about dedicating as little time as possible to the other. We do things quickly and don't listen, and we want everything immediately. We are always involved in endless activities and commitments. I think we’re sick. The notion of the collective has been dispersed into infinite individualities. How to represent all this?

Magazines are no longer a new platform for representation; however, in these sequined works, the fact that light can transform them already indicates an intention to create multiple realities with a power of sequential narration, in comparison to other media like video. Besides, they are figures that are looking at the spectator, they are all looking at you, they are all chasing you. I did this before with Quinceañera con Kremlin (Fifteenth Birthday Girl with Kremlin) as well, and with several other pieces in which the images look at you; they are present. In the end these works act like a "virtual" platform, not an online one, onto which spectators can project notions of their own identity, their own selfie.

Mailyn Machado

Do you consider Quinceañera con Kremlin a kind of selfie?

Gertrudis Rivalta

It is a selfie. Well, not really, because the original photo is from my sister's quinceañera, but the work does suggest that. This kind of work goes beyond my own self-representation, and that's where the psychological dimension that I'm interested in representing lies. I want them to take you to the deepest parts of you, and for you to even feel intimidated by that, because they are asking questions of you. And that's TikTok, that's YouTube. But they are also an account of something.

When you see Cimarrona 1 and Cimarrona 2 (Run-away Slave I and Run-away Slave 2), the piece of the female figure and the piece of the hibiscus, they are reporting something, a fact. And it's very interesting, because if you don't see it—which happens a lot with YouTube—you have to look again, you have to keep looking. That has to do with the layers that make up the work. In all these new media for making art, which are also very popular platforms, the important thing is that they report on something or that they teach you something, like a tutorial. When you’re watching something on these platforms, everything around you disappears. You are focused on information and what you are learning. I would like my works to be tutorials on the Afro-descendant psyche.

Mailyn Machado

I am interested in talking about the use of portraiture in your work, from the use of the self-portrait with you or people close to you as the protagonists, like your sister in Quinceañera con Kremlin, and also in relation to the magazine covers. That portrait, even with its personal dimension, becomes a community reference, about gender, race, social origin... without being standardized. We might say it's an ever-changing formula for the autonomy of the subject and its representation, in the tension between what defines the subject and its struggle to free itself from imposition. How do you see it?

Gertudis Rivalta

The first portraits I made came out of Walker Evans' treatment of a person's image. When he went to Cuba, during the 1933 Revolt of the Sergeants, he just narrated a situation he knew nothing about. But he portrayed the people in their environment, and that is very important because of what the gestures and the looks convey. What I did was to steal that attitude. When you create emotional distance, logic appears with an impressive clarity. That's when you ultimately understand emotion. And what I found was the discontent, the destructuring of the Cuban family. I realized that I could express that through portraiture. Then I began to observe my own family environment, a somewhat conservative family, and how my parents related to the subject of the revolution, how they went in and out of all those discourses, sometimes against, sometimes in favor. All of those dynamics. That was the idea, to show what was around me, how it was seen. That's why when I do a self-portrait, the result doesn't even have to look like me, because in the end, it looks like everyone.

In El auto-retrato infinito (The Infinite Self-Portrait ), you can take any photo you want and post it wherever. The interesting thing about it is that people think they're going to take a picture, but then they get stuck. When I did it in Cuba I said, "I did it." I set it up in Ciego de Ávila and Havana, and also in Spain. The piece does not require much, just a chair, a mirror, and a projector that reflects images of Cuba on you, all the myths of the island: Afro-Cuban culture, Cuba's relationship with Spain, wars, Russia, China, etc. Meanwhile, you are watching yourself in the mirror and music (donated to me by the maestro Luis Aguirre, an excellent Cuban musician with contemporary compositions linked to Yoruba religions) is playing. I asked him for a piece related to Oshún. He composed one that rises gradually in crescendo to create very peculiar emotional states in relation to all those images. People usually come and sit there laughing, and then they change their attitude when they see what is happening to them. Depending on the images, people react in a certain manner, and the faces that emerge are amazing. They start taking pictures of themselves, and there comes a point when they can’t keep up. All the attention on recording the portrait is lost and instead they concentrate on the interior portrait. The selfie is inside. I'd like people in the United States to go through that filter and see what happens.

Mailyn Machado

Your work is an aesthetic reconstruction of identity production (racial, gender, national), an archive of that superposition of cultural maps or layers that form the subject, particularly in a society like Cuba's post-1959 and post-1991, loaded with national and foreign references that intersect, exclude, and re-integrate. In this sense, what variations have there been in how you have been approaching the subject?

Gertrudis Rivalta

I can answer that in one word: diaspora. Before it was a trickle, because those who had the possibility of emigrating were mostly whites, and the black community would feel, "well, we are here, the revolution supports us, diaspora has nothing to do with us.” But that’s a lie, an empty discourse.. We never had access to spheres of power to say that we are really present, and if you’re a woman, even less so, especially in the visual arts. My experience has been in the realm of visual arts, but also, on the everyday level, throughout society, it has been like that. What happened? The most important diaspora has been white, but that's changing. In the 1990s, people who got married and left were not as many as was said. Not all women were jineteras or hustlers, and it is a mistake to think that.

On a sociological level, the Black population, especially the Black female population, is the one that, throughout history, has had less possibility to emancipate itself from the very serious economic, political, and social situation in Cuba. Black men and women in Cuba have not had the same representation in institutions. Since Afro-descendants aren’t attending university in the same numbers as the rest of the population, those who emigrate, to a large extent, do not hold as many qualifications. So once outside of Cuba, they are experiencing a new discrimination. Although it’s tempting to say, "well, I escaped, I'm fine now,” it’s not always like that. Outside, you find these people sometimes living in far worse conditions.

That strong conflict is also in my work: "I have left to be better, but it turns out that here I can be worse off than I was there." And that is a reality—there are people who do not admit it, but it’s true. Despite the fact that in Cuba Afro-descendant discourse has been somewhat hijacked, turning it into something folkloric and nostalgic, I think there have been certain programs that have favored Black people, such as access to education for everyone, and yet, the system still reflects the sense that "You can get here, but not beyond this point.” So that means everything has failed.

There’s a piece of mine that I couldn’t exhibit in Galería Habana or elsewhere yet in Cuba. It is a piece about the Black diaspora, a crucial topic that I felt wasn't being addressed back in 2014. It’s a large acrylic with the image of the sea entering the coast from an aerial view. Very simple, the water, the wave, and the sand, that's all. You can see it very clearly, and right on the sand where the water is coming in, there’s an Afro wig that you don't know whether it’s coming in or going out to sea. This uncertainty is a very good illustration of the uncertainty of the Afro-descendant person in Cuba, which is obviously traumatic.

And I am going to conclude this commentary with a phrase by Angela Davis that says, “freedom is a constant struggle.” No matter what you want to free yourself from, it’s like that. Part of that struggle is to be very attentive to what is not seen, to what is interwoven, because we are very quick to believe things, and there are layers behind layers.

Mailyn Machado

How have the changes in the Cuban and global context, coupled with your experience living in Spain, informed your approach to the subject matter you work on? How do you think that experience has changed your work?

Gertrudis Rivalta

It has made me more conscious. Awareness comes from knowing something. I don't have to change my subject. I don't want to. And look, my approach toward making a portrait, a self-portrait, our self-portrait, of Afro-Cuban descendants and what they have lived through, has become so serious that I am considering studying psychology as a tool to do so. I need us to have a self-portrait, of our psychologies. It is not about actions or memory, it is about something that's intangible. It's like something that comes out of the frame and merges with everything.

Mailyn Machado

These contents also translate into technique for the realization of your works, from the selection of materials to the accumulation of procedures. Could we talk a little about this? How do these results come about?

Gertrudis Rivalta

Each piece corresponds to a material. Each symbol, each part of the title of the piece has a formal representation as well. In La medida de uno mismo (The Measure of Oneself), a huge installation I was able to put up in Cuba, in Santa Clara, when people arrived the first thing they saw was a pile of ropes, lights, pigeon traps, hanging candles and many dolls with fabric faces.They all looked up until they stopped and, following the ropes with their eyes, they realized that a small cuquita (paper cut-out doll) on the floor was the one that was pulling all that immensity with strings of thread. The doll is made out of paper, which seems fragile, but it’s not. Have you noticed how dependent we still are on paper, despite computers? When you have an important piece of paper, and it gets ruined, and you don't have any more copies, what do you do to save it! And it's just a piece of paper. The cuquita is that, and it’s all of us. In the case of sequins, I was looking for something that would allow me to make an infinite painting; something that, along with the lights, would make it possible for those portraits, those figurations that I am showing, not to end in the painting. Then I found that the way to talk about that was through a simple sequin. But not just any sequin, because if it's flat, it would only take advantage of one facet of the light. By having six sides, the viewer has at least six possible ways to see the piece, depending on how it moves with the light. In addition, most of the sequins are iridescent, which creates yet another pictorial body. This is the relationship between an idea, a discourse, and the material.

The other pieces in the exhibition are paper dioramas in wooden boxes. I've been working on these teatrillos (puppet theaters) for many years as they allow me to deal with numerous topics that seem very relevant to me in a lighthearted way. The paper cuquitas, within a world made by a large theater, allow me to talk about any topic with great freedom. Some people have told me they wished these little theaters had movement, but I like the idea of them being static. All the movement is produced in our imagination, the diorama is the starting point for a debate in the spectator, who ends up completing the work. I don’t rule out the possibility of making an animated version of the dioramas at some point, if the work demands me to do so. In fact, for the virtual exhibition Silent Specific, I made a 3D version of these teatrillos in which not only the image, but also the sound, enriched the piece’s intention.

Mailyn Machado

The transparencies you achieve in the works of the Mujeres/ Muchacha series are technically complex, as if the process of making the work, which also includes its reception, were on display. Is it important for you to let the background of the construction (of the work, of the individual, collective identity) show through?

Gertrudis Rivalta

I started the first of these pieces, Cheerleaders, in 2003, and it was a process in which I myself was discovering how to talk about the process. In fact, transparency is nothing more than a layer of the process on top of another layer of the process. Each one with what I want to say, each one with the right material. It’s in that first work where you can best see the different uses of materials. I finished it in 2014 and framed it in 2017. There are moments when, if you want to make transparencies, you have to paint, you have to use oil. For example, when I wanted to put the figure of the black woman on top, who is actually the Olympic athlete Ana Fidelia Quirot (although I'm not so interested in relating it exclusively to her), I started to use sequins, but it didn't give me the kind of fusion I wanted. "I'm going to put oil on it and see," I said, and then I realized that the crux was in combining those two elements. You can paint or glue on the sequin and, in some cases, leave some colored areas only with oil. The process has its complexity. There's a Da Vinci technique that I also use, which is the glazes. What you see is not paste, there are parts that are dry brush and others that are glazes to tone down the sequin’s brightness underneath. This is the only way to achieve such blending. In fact, if you notice, the sequins can shine underneath the paint, and that is thanks to Da Vinci’s glazes, overlapping layers of paint with different densities.

Mailyn Machado

How do you arrive at the compositions that serve as the basis for the works in this series? Are they taken as they are from magazines, or are they the result of combinations of different references?

Gertrudis Rivalta

There’s a lot in those magazines, the flowers, for example. Do you know what they are? They are the embroidery templates included in them, and I want to make a series of drawings out of them. Those magazines are a universe unto themselves, a very complex one. Everything is in there. From beyond the magazines, I can introduce poster art, but there’s a lot of propaganda in it just like in the magazines. Design was part of the image that circulated at that time. Besides, it was inevitable, everybody was contaminated with propaganda because of the many processes happening in tandem. So something may seem as if it’s from outside the magazine, but it's not. I have a lot of Cuban magazines, and I studied Vanidades, whose headquarters moved to New York City after the revolution. In fact, when Mujeres and Muchacha came out, their predecessors were eliminated, and when you compare them, they are the same thing. What changes is the discourse. It is also interesting to see how the Russian presence gradually emerges in them, becoming more and more important over time.

Mailyn Machado

In Mil ideas (One Thousand Ideas), the drawing, made with Chinese ink and pencil on paper, imitates the assembly of the real Cuquitas, the paper dolls that appeared on these magazines' final pages with their limited wardrobes in a unitary society. But even so, this piece, like the readers before it, plays with the idea of multiplying the possibilities of thinking oneself within those restrictive frames. Although your work concentrates on issues of race and gender in Cuba, do you think the mechanisms of power for identity construction that you expose, and your methodologies for resisting them, can be useful in the global context?

Gertrudis Rivalta

I think so. In fact, that is an important point, because it's what makes these pieces universal. Many people in Spain have asked me if the cut-outs are the ones they used to play with as children, and I tell them no, that they’re from Cuban magazines. But the notion of constructing a reality that does not exist and making it exist is universal. And suddenly it emerges from a piece that not only touches Cubans. That also happened to me in France with a work I did entitled Central (Sugar-mill) about sugar-mills closing in Cuba. It was a very large installation with a complex wooden structure supported by portraits of people who had worked in the mills. A woman came to the exhibition and thought that the piece was about concentration camps, and no matter how much we tried to explain to her the meaning of Central, there was no convincing her otherwise. She cried because her memories were so vivid. We had to find her a chair, because she did not want to leave. I always share this anecdote, because it explains how something so local is suddenly capable of stirring someone’s consciousness. And it's the same with the cut-outs.

Mailyn Machado

I feel that Selected Pages is, to a certain extent, a summary of all your work, although without addressing all the media. How was it conceived?

Gertrudis Rivalta

The exhibition started with the series Mujeres/Muchacha, which I have been working on for years, since 2002 approximately. There are some previous works in which I didn’t use the magazine itself yet, but with what I was reading, I made the pieces. It’s a series that follows Walker Evans, in which I tried to apply his very vision, but taking from what was in the very text of magazines. Quinceañera con Kremlin and Van Van, all those works belong in that series. Then I began to realize that I would have liked things to be represented differently in those publications, and I began to search and investigate. I saw that there were things that were not well-represented, and they’re still not. The whole society is not represented, all women are not there. After this series, I began to make the covers that finally "conclude" with these sequined pieces that were exhibited at Thomas Nickles Project, under the curatorship of Jacqueline Loss, who knows my work very well and has been following it for more than fifteen years. These works would not have been possible without the invaluable support of the residency granted to me by the Hemispheric Institute at New York University; the watchful eyes of Ana Dopico and Marcial Godoy are a strength for me. All these valuable people, the residency and the gallery, helped me to take that step further and make all those covers with sequins. From all sides, I have felt their trust in me so that I could give my best. It has not been an easy task, because they are very laborious works that demand physical wear and tear, but they allow you to reflect on many things while you are working on them. The most recent work is really a continuity, it is not a summary, the work is not finished yet. Rather, it is leading me to what I was telling you about before, about wanting to represent the emotional and psychological realm. What is not seen; what is seen in actions in the disruptive behavior of the day to day, in the effect on the broken, separated family, the desperation of the people, in the boredom. All of this has been a long road to understand how I can adequately represent that psychological world. These pieces are not the end, but rather a way, a gateway. The sequins in combination with the oil and the lights—I think they are a medium that I will use for a long time. If I were to decompose those images and take them out of that environment, off the wall, out from their flatness, I could arrive at what I want to show. I have seen how people of all races and cultures have felt involved and represented, and that makes me think that there is something psychological in them that is working. I believe representation ends when the psychological realm reveals itself. There is no representation there. I don't know what to call it. I can't find a name for it. So these works cannot be a summary. They are the first step for what comes next.

Mailyn Machado

There is a participatory condition in your work, because it does not only concern the performer, who is you, nor the participant who takes sides in the piece, but also the one who observes. Spectators have a more active position, because they always intervene and are the ones who contribute the final layer to the construction of that identity or identities on display. Do you feel that you have been ceding the performance in your work to the spectator, understanding performance as the responsibility of doing and acting?

Gertrudis Rivalta

It is not a performance, it is a happening—something is happening—and yes, I have been ceding it. I want you to get into it, I want you to arrive at a decision, because in the end, the reading is yours, the experience is yours. I do want things to happen to you, but when you yourself render the meaning, then the work is no longer mine. It seems to me that it is a way of freeing art. I think there are spectators who have known me for a long time who could speak very well, perhaps better than me, about my pieces. And in fact it is very nice that something like this happens to an artist, well, if that is what she is looking for. A very interesting thing happened to me with this exhibition. When I arrived in New York City, about three weeks after having sent the works there for my first solo show in the United States, I felt as if I was seeing them again. They seemed like people to me. I think they have a consciousness; it might be a consciousness of something inanimate, I don't know if that can exist, but I was moved by them as if they were people, isn't that a happening? Maybe a "silent happening," intimate, but it is clear that something is transferred outside the piece to generate an impact on people, who end up completing the work with those "impacts.” And, in fact, I think that when I leave I will feel them. And it's not the first time that has happened to me, there are works that are friends. They are my family. But family has to be let go. They have to live their own lives, and that is in the hands of the spectator.