Listen to this article by Odette Casamayor-Cisneros

Gertrudis Rivalta continually delves into the question of what it is to be a Black Cuban woman. Her narrative immerses us in a back-and-forth between past and present. 

Using few words she tells a story, guiding us through the concealed corridors of our national psyche without us even realizing it. Following her lead, we find ourselves unearthing a newfound understanding of Cuban identity and its practice.

In Evans or not Evans, esa no es exactamente la cuestión, a series of paintings made in the late 1990s, Rivalta uses her gaze—that of a Cuban mestiza—to reinterpret the famous photographs of the white American photographer, Walker Evans, who sought to document the Cuban reality of the 1930s. She mercilessly throws us into a playful mise en abyme of Cubans captured by Evans and of Evans himself. Once the photographed object of a Eurocentric gaze, the mestiza woman now obtains agency within Rivalta’s artwork. Who, then, are these Cubans? On whom does the function of the examined object fall? Are the Cubans seen by Evans and painted by Rivalta "the others"? Or is it the foreign photographer who is examined as the other? Or is it Rivalta? Are we spectators "the others"? Who constructs the image and the identity? These are the kind of questions that run throughout all of her work.

Let us now consider Cheerleaders. There is a lot of glitter in this piece. We might say it is spilling over with sequins. This may or may not seem an apt choice to allude to the Mujeres magazine, the official publication of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC). Yet, despite the sequins, nothing in the work is uplifting. Why is that, given that nothing in it explicitly points to sadness or gloom either?

What emerges from the intentional opacity of this work is the notion of the palimpsest, wherein a new function overlays and intertwines with an old structure, and we get a glimpse of two dissonant elements that re-energize the totality. A palimpsest of images, Cheerleaders exudes brilliance at the same that it drags us deep into that tunnel of our national subconscious.

Two important dimensions of Cuban nationalism are recreated in the piece: devotion to Martí and pride in our star athletes. Both José Martí, beacon of patriotic light, with his symbolic star and his ideological vision, and the multi-medalist athlete, who for many years has been recognized as an ambassador of the island's excellence, shine brightly. A group of young people lays down flowers before Martí, characteristically represented in an iconographic stone bust. Judging by their expressions, drenched in the morning light, the homage seems sincere. Nevertheless, that splendid image is distorted by the figure of the athlete, positioned between the Cuban girl scouts (pioneras), and Martí, and the spectator. Her skin is black. Among Cubans, it is common to consider sports a skill especially associated with Black people. But this athlete is very Black. She's indeed very muscular, and the power that radiates from her body ends up competing in luminosity with the scene behind her. Very focused on her inner strength, her expression does not seem to be related to that of the group of young people who respectfully lays flowers. Her sudden appearance shatters certainties and disrupts the clear scene of Martí with the girl scouts, creating a threatening imbalance. Nevertheless, the intrusion of the black of her body on the blurred image that remains behind her is not definite. Instead, the work's translucency allows us to continue witnessing the patriotic spectacle, albeit in a diffuse way.

The palimpsestic intervention that Gertrudis brilliantly carries out offers a narrative of nationalist constructs that is as enigmatic as it is deconstructive. Everything is a construction, she reminds us. A crafted object itself, her piece invites us to deconstruct it. Thus, guided by the artist's hand, within this constant game of illusion, we lose ourselves in the piece. Despite this, we don't get lost. Instead, along the way, we as Cubans find ourselves in our most visceral complexity.

While under the reverberating effects of Cheerleaders, it's not joy that we experience, but rather a certain spirit of celebrating cubanía (Cubanity). Each of the work's elements exalts a distinct way of envisioning Cuban identity. In the background, copied from the cover of the September 1986 issue of Mujeres, the pioneros2 celebrate the monumental nation, its foundational ideas. In the foreground, as portrayed by Rivalta, a Black athlete celebrates herself and her muscular strength, rewarded with medals that are offered to the altar of her country. Both situations exude heroism, crystallized in flesh and stone. The hero is white; the heroine, Black. It may not seem as if there are points of contact between them, but that's not the case. These two dimensions of Cuban nationalism are inevitably connected.

Is there only one homeland?

Without merging into each other, the images overlap: Martí, the young women, the flowers, the muscles, the stone, the Black skin. All thanks to the glitter of the sequins. Let us not forget that the piece's title is Cheerleaders. And it is precisely the sparkle of the sequins, placed with utmost care by Gertrudis Rivalta, which draws the path between the two allusions to Cubanness. The artist creates well-defined figures, but their dispersion is undeniable. The sequins that form the athlete's Black body simultaneously depict the hands, arms, legs, torsos, and faces of boy scouts, and additionally, red flowers. The sequins are part of both figures, leading our gaze from one scenario to another, just as in Carlos Enriquez's paintings, for instance, where each stroke traces movements among the different characters of the story he narrates, the natural environment, and the spectators. Similar to what occurs as spectators of Enriquez's painting, in this piece by Rivalta, we succumb to multiple beams of unexpected and intense movements. We do not perceive the celebratory rejoicing, but we sense a secret languor underlying the carnivalesque whirlwind. It is the chaos in the aftermath of a party, the moment that always comes when the multicolored confetti lies lifeless, scattered everywhere; when the sequins have come off the costumes, and we discover them mischievously adhering to every surface, giving off their shine with reluctance. The end of the party.

At the end of the story that Gertrudis has told us, we confess our exhaustion on account of all that movement among the girl scouts, their Martí, and the athlete's pose. So much fuss! We have lost the center, or perhaps we never had one and only pretended it existed. But the sequins have erased it. The center that, since the dawn of the nation, we strive to imagine. Now, exhausted by the shining back-and-forth, we allow ourselves to fall down into the corner (where undoubtedly there will be scattered sequins). We don't care. We only manage to ask ourselves, again and again, after this palimpsestuous whirlwind, after so much movement from the pale stone to the dark flesh, and from the flesh to the stone—who are we? Who have we been? Who have they wanted us to be?

An infinite and brilliant confusion destined to elude a definitive explanation.