Listen to this article by María A. Cabrera Arús

There is no visual record of the day in June 1963 when Valentina V. Tereshkova returned to Earth, successfully concluding the spaceflight that made her the world’s first female astronaut. Although it was revealed to the public much later, the press images of the young Soviet astronaut emerging from the capsule of the Vostok 6 spacecraft were staged. They were filmed the next day when Tereshkova had to play herself and emerge from a hatch opened by a supporting actor. On the previous day—the day of the actual events—the astronaut ejected from the capsule during its descent and made a parachute landing on a remote location in Kazakhstan. There, she was assisted by some local villagers, who greeted her without shame or glory, or the fuss of television or photo cameras (“8 Surprising Facts”).

Tereshkova's feat, the Soviet Union's latest milestone in the space race, was packaged in gender discourses that sought to position the former USSR at the forefront of the struggle for women's rights. At least in that context, such packing was more about artifice and representation than true equality. No other woman was allowed to train in Star City for nearly twenty years (Sheehan 31). Tereshkova’s space mission was, above all, a propagandistic affair—one more in an ongoing war of speeches and proxies that, after the end of World War II, pitted the two superpowers against each other, each bent on proving its superiority over the other.

In the context of the Cold War, industrial design, fashion, and consumerism were particularly contentious battlegrounds on which the Soviet Union aimed to surpass the United States in order to position socialism as the leading symbol of modernity and world progress.6 This supposed Soviet superiority, however, did not transcend the realm of rhetoric insofar as it lacked an objective, “real” foundation7, much like the gender discourses surrounding Tereshkova’s mission.

Cuba was neither immune to this war of symbols, nor was it an exception in regards to the representational character of many of these symbols. Soviet influence on Cuba manifested itself partly in the institutionalization of representational practices aimed at portraying socialism as a socio-economic system that was more advanced than capitalism. This was the result of a vision of socio-historical progress in which the human species, throughout its phylogenetic evolution, had evolved from primitive communities to socialist society. During its course, it had moved through different, less evolved stages, including capitalism, on its unavoidable path toward communism.8 

This notion mapped out the Soviet Union’s present. The country had declared itself to be in the third of the four phases that would lead to communism, a preview of the future that would materialize for the rest of the world. In the case of Cuba, the country had declared itself to be in the first stage of this teleological vision of history, just beginning to build the bases of a socialist society (Cabrera Arús 195). As early as 1962, Mujeres magazine, which was founded in 1961 by the Federation of Cuban Women (Federación de Mujeres Cubanas, FMC), published the following headline: “The USSR: A Mirror of Our Own Future” (80).

In this way, Tereshkova, a symbol of the Soviet socialist woman, the New Woman, became a mirror for the future of Cuban women. This is what Mujeres magazine wrote in July 1963 in the editorial titled “On the Path to the Stars.” It presented the young astronaut with white skin, a fine nose, blue eyes, and brown hair as a “symbol for all women” and a “radiant and shining symbol of the future” (3).

Gertrudis Rivalta grew up under the unavoidable influence of this myth, one that the Cuban press attempted to update from time to time. This explains the mestiza artist’s interest in dismantling, through her work, the “grand spectacle of pretense” that characterized the Cuban regime’s discourse on modernity and progress (Power 6). From a perspective where issues of race, class, and gender intersect, Rivalta problematizes some of the most widespread representations in the Cuban socialist imaginary.

According to Jacqueline Loss, Rivalta’s diptych Todas queremos ser como Valentina Tereshkova (2004) can be read as a critique of the “homogenization of the Cuban sphere in the name of ideology” (“Persistent Matrioshkas” 189). Yet it can also be regarded as a critique of both the artificial nature of the socialist narrative of modernity and the Soviet normativity that marginalized mestizo identities.  

Rivalta recreates, for example, the capsule of the Vostok 6 spacecraft cruising through a sky that is the Cuban flag. If we interpret the capsule as a symbol of progress, we could say that it represents a Soviet product that suddenly and violently bursts into the Cuban imagination. Rivalta thus suggests that the eruption of modernity into the Cuban melting pot displaces representations that are more or less established in the island’s imagination, inscribing not only a particular notion of progress but also new standards of beauty made in the USSR

In the second part of the diptych, Rivalta confronts the chimerical nature of Soviet modernity, evinced in the symbolic gap left by the vanishing of the socialist regimes of Eastern Europe and the disintegration of the USSR just a decade before the end of the twentieth century. “What became of our Valentina Tereshkovas?” she asks, offering in response several pairs of false eyelashes that allude to curtains signaling the end of the performance.

In the series Mujeres/Muchacha, Rivalta also explores the relationship between criolla and mestiza subjectivity, on one hand, and the simulacrum of Soviet socialist modernity on the other, gesturing towards the impact of the latter on the former. This series is inspired by the women’s magazines Mujeres and Muchacha. The FMC has edited the latter publication since 1980. In particular, the subserie Puro teatro, the second of the Teatrillos series, is composed of ink and graphite teatrillos (puppet theaters) made of paper. This work allows us to read revolutionary politics as a form of spectacle.9

Vintage paper doll set with a central doll in a polka dot swimsuit surrounded by outfits including a red jumpsuit, a pink dress, and a blue coat with a matching skirt, all against a beige patterned background.
The image displays a vintage paper doll set featuring a cut-out doll and an array of clothing items. The doll is illustrated in the center of the image with black hair styled in unbraided pigtails, wide eyes, and a small smile. She is wearing a two-piece swimsuit with a red polka dot pattern. Surrounding the doll there are various clothing items, separately drawn and colored, indicating these can be cut out and placed on the doll's figure. To the doll’s left, a long-sleeved red jumpsuit nearly spans the height of the doll and a matching pair of socks is situated between the jumpsuit and the doll. To the doll's right, a pink dress is outlined by a segmented white line to indicate pleats. There is a pair of dark blue flared pants, and a striped red and white t-shirt with white collar. Below the doll a white coat with a red bow and blue pattern is situated next to a blue skirt matching the coat. A red and blue shirt with T-shaped white stripes occupies the bottom right edge of the image. The background features a beige paper texture with faded scissor icons and dotted lines representing classic sewing patterns.

In the baroque scenarios of this subseries, Rivalta stages the interaction between two central characters of the Cuban-Soviet imaginary, Cuquita and Matryoshka. The first is inspired by the paper dolls known as “Cuquitas,” predominantly white figurines that, since 1961, could be cut out from the children’s section of Mujeres magazine; the second, a recreation of the traditional wooden doll of Slavic folklore and handicrafts, was popularized in Cuba thanks to the cultural exchange with the Soviet Union. Rivalta racialized these figures in Puro teatro, exaggerating Cuquita’s features and darkening the matryoshka’s complexion, in a gesture of appropriation and creolization of foreignness. 

According to the artist, these figures should not be regarded as her alter-egos, but rather as depictions of Cuban women. In Puro teatro, the Cuban woman has split into as many roles as Cuquita has embodied in the hands of little girls who cut her out from Mujeres. In the same work, the Cuban woman assumes as many versions of herself as one can find inside the matryoshkas on the shelves and dressers of Cuban homes.10  In one of the subseries’ teatrillos, one Cuquita says to another: “Tú eres la auténtica” (You are the authentic one). The second one replies, “Yo soy la auténtica” (I am the authentic one). The iterative nature of the dialogue undermines the referent’s originality, challenging, in turn, the notion of originality itself. In the words of Rivalta: “One must always resemble someone else, always in reference to the model in vogue at any given time, which is a misguided notion of what it means to be up-to-date and functional. In this way, the true sources, if we may call them that, are always overshadowed” ( Powers 10).

In some cases, the multiplicity of identity leads to a fracture, to a state of liminality. ¿Does it lead to trauma as well?11 In Brevísima historia del Padre de las Casas (2015), a Slavic matryoshka contains a matryoshka of Elpidio Valdés, the white mestizo protagonist of the most famous Cuban animated cartoon who became an archetypical nationalist symbol. Valdés, in turn, contains a matryoshka of Mickey Mouse (known in Cuba as Ratón Miguelito), the most famous American cartoon character. This semiotic multiplicity allows Rivalta to call into question the notion of lo cubano (that which is distinctly Cuban). Where does lo cubano begin? Where does it end? What distinguishes it? How many identities does it contain? Which ones are excluded?

The multi-layered and fluid character of identity is also the theme of Corte de pelo (2021), one of Rivalta’s most recent works (an earlier version of this piece, Muchacho (2012), was not fabricated with sequins). In this work, the artist addresses transgender subjectivity. For Rivalta, every haircut is a transformative action that serves as a metaphor for the gender transition process. Through the comparison with an everyday beautification ritual, the gender transition is normalized. Rivalta’s approach here does not shy away from fluidity but, at the same time, it is suffused with a sense of biological inevitability, since it is presumed that trimmed hair will inevitably grow back. 

Perhaps this is why Rivalta does not seek simple solutions to the problem of identity. Instead, she brings forward the notion of cimarronaje (marronage), which serves as the title of more than one of her works. Her Cimarrona (2022) is an oil portrait of a woman of African descent covered in sequins. The portrait appears as the apocryphal cover of an issue of Mujeres magazine. This cimarrona woman does not hide or flee. As other critics have noted on the Afro-Cuban struggle for emancipation, she is “out of the reach of her white persecutors and their network of domination; outside, therefore, of the Eurocentric hegemonic system” (Casamayor Cisneros 308).12 Rivalta’s cimarrona women appropriate symbolic spaces that are pivotal to the spread of the Western canon—spaces that have been traditionally controlled by white cisgender identities.

Rivalta does not reject or run away from Western culture. Rather, her pictorial subjects appropriate the tools used to discriminate against them in order to make their identity visible and (re)present African identity as a constitutive, central character of Cuban identity. The potential of their agency lies precisely in the possibility of revaluing a previously neglected alterity. By contesting how Afro-descendant women have been represented as subaltern subjects and by showing a cimarrona woman covered in sequins on the cover of magazines where the official discourses on fashion, beauty, and femininity are constructed and publicized, Rivalta depicts the Afro-descendant woman as a co-protagonist of Cuban history. 

However, at the end, as at the beginning, the paper eyelashes that Rivalta places on the cimarrona’s bodies, like those she places on the Cuquitas and the matryoshkas, present these characters as cut-out figures. This is suggested by the title of another piece in the Mujeres/Muchacha series, Recortable (Cut-Out) (2010). These small details allow us to discern how limited or futile the agency claimed by Rivalta is. No matter how much symbolic protagonism we are willing to confer on the cimarrona or the matrioshka, they, like Cuquita, will always be paper dolls.