Listen to this article by Rosa Marquetti Torres

The sun was not the usual sun. It was a sun from which everyone sought something different. For some, its light was music and supposed to be pure amusement, a kind of ancestral artifice, capable of conjuring spells and misfortune; for others, it did not illuminate, but rather, it burned their brains, poorly protected by their outer shell, vegetable heads buried with a shocking propensity to uniformity. It was 1970, the year that in Cuba the vocation of historical transcendence began. Although one might think otherwise, Gertrudis Rivalta did not experience any of this because she was born a few months later. That is difficult to imagine, seeing that Rivalta created Van Van (charcoal and oil on canvas, 2004), one of the most dramatically-representative pieces of the spirit and significance of the first year of the 1970s. The piece captures its impact on the thought, history, and lives of millions of Cubans. It is one of the first pieces of her series, based on the Mujeres and Muchacha magazines—a series which played a significant role in her later artistic output. 

Eleven years after assuming power, Fidel Castro embarked upon the impossible 10-million-ton sugar harvest in rebel Cuba in order to avoid Cuba's economic dependence on the new metropolis, the former Soviet Union. This effort sought to preserve the country’s distinct voice amidst the socialist countries of Eastern Europe, and would make Cuba the undisputed leader of the national liberation movements in Latin America.

Paralyzed by the illusory goal of surpassing 10 million tons of sugar production, the country only allowed itself to indulge in the pleasure of observing, marveling, and dancing when the music of the new orchestra, Los Van Van, began to flood that politically uncontrollable space of amusement and joy that is intrinsic to Cuban nature. It was evident that the name of the new band, which was struggling to triumph, recalled the slogan launched by Castro, repeated in a thousand ways, unequivocally anticipating a victory, his victory: "¡Los 10 millones van. De que van, van!" (“We'll reach 10 million, no matter what!”). 3

In Cuba, individuals and their personal aspirations were eroded. They found themselves involved in an economic campaign framed as a collective epic and organized as a military exercise that forced them onto the sugarcane fields. This led to the demand for millimetric loyalty to political concepts in the face of literature’s and art’s questioning and rereading of the revolutionary project. The overvaluation of "voluntary" agricultural work as a formative element for the youth and as a means to replace the productive effect of salaried labor; the glorification of erroneous masculinities that characterized the ethics and aesthetics of the Rebel Army then in power; the severe intolerance toward homosexuality and any kind of music associated with "the harmful influence of the American empire" have all been crystallized and effectively synthesized in Rivalta's Van Van. In it, the artist unmistakably brings to light the heated controversies between the collective and the individual, the playful and the political, the sacrifice of the present for the promise of a better future.

Music sheds light on this landscape, and Gertrudis Rivalta assigns it a crucial role. It is not just a travel companion evocative of identity, by which I mean a vital aspect of Cuban culture to which we continuously turn. It is an unforeseen element, to some extent foreign to official discourses and to a worldview that was not just suggested, but imposed, by the Cuban state. Unlike Nueva Trova, popular dance music was never viewed by political authorities as the type of music that seemed to be the bearer of their ideological principles. Such music could be considered the Revolution's soundtrack. However, tradition and identity prevailed. The complex cultural debates that took place within or parallel to the political processes in the early years of the Cuban Revolution were accompanied by important creative feats in Cuban music, especially in popular dance music, which was renewed by the emergence of Los Van Van and Irakere. The former incorporated elements from traditional son cubano, rock, and pop, while the latter were influenced by jazz and African drum music.

In the Cuban context, the singularity and centrality of dance can be seen if we consider it a prominent playful element that holds the potential of becoming a liberating outlet for individual anguish and rebelliousness. Dance finds its right place in the balance of symbols and facts present in Rivalta’s Van Van. Many of Juan Fornell's songs became authentic icons of their era, a kind of musical chronicle that, like Gertrudis Rivalta's work, navigates and portrays Cubans' lives in the 1970s, using unique resources and patterns without appealing to pretense or fluffy metaphors.

Gertrudis Rivalta recognizes that the frontality in her work comes from, among other elements, her preference for the use of photography as a conceptual and aesthetic resource par excellence. In the case of Van Van, however, the immediate shock also comes from other features: the symbolic capacity of the images chosen, conceived and crafted, in some cases, from their appropriation and intervention, as in the case of the photograph by Raúl Corrales. The work’s effect also emanates from the suggested presence of music through the vinyl record, which, at the subliminal level, becomes an essential element for understanding momentum, that turning point marked by an enormous economic error, which resulted in the reinforcement of economic and political dependence on the Soviet Union and the Eastern European bloc, the intensification of internal policies of exclusion and marginalization, and the choice of a stubborn and utopian path of mistakes in pursuit of illusory and unattainable goals.

Rivalta's work delves into various aspects of Cuban reality. Even if she did not personally experience these moments, she centers herself in them as an active and thoughtful character, with an almost archaeological dedication to exploring media aimed mainly at women. The multiplicity of resources she appropriates condition the inner rhythm of each of her works and their place in her series as a whole. Their rhythm is also music, and while it is not as explicit as it is in Van Van, it is intuitive and identifiable, and it becomes another point of communion between the artist and her public. It reverberates with the aura of the times and the tone of an era. Popular music always accompanied those glorious and traumatic years visible in Gertrudis Rivalta's work. Music, rhythm, and the bustling sounds of Havana's streets, surely accompanied her during her creative process.