Listen to this article by Suset Sánchez Sánchez

Gertrudis Rivalta has continuously challenged the often conflicting discourses upon which Cuba's historical narratives have been built, starting with her first works in the 1990s. These narratives are defined by a history of exclusion and silencing. Rivalta examines them through her intertextual compositions, where we can find the intersectional political agency of a woman of African descent from Cuba who lives as a migrant in Spain. Whatever medium or language Rivalta uses to express her antiracist message—whether it be painting, photography, installation, performance, or collage—her testimony emerges from the surface of the artwork, bringing attention to the body of a feminist activist of African descent advocating for her citizenship rights and fighting against everyday racism and xenophobia within the Spanish state. The presence of a skilled mulata artist in the heart of the epistemic colonial matrix is still uncomfortable in the 21st century. Such discomfort reveals the unrelenting fears that corrode the hetero-pathriarcal system that defines global capitalism, where the subaltern that can speak (to use Spivak’s term) becomes the object of ideological, political, cultural, economic, social, and aesthetic projects of domination.

In Happy Birthday, Gertrudis (1998)5, one of her early works, the artist uses a photograph from her childhood to frame her own image within a composition where microhistory, or private history, becomes intermingled with the official history. In this way, Rivalta attempts to reconfigure the contours of a racialized memory across time and historical discourse. Here, Rivalta’s childhood image is surrounded by a series of characters, most of them white men who are linked to Cuba’s history. The birthday cake—called cake in the Island too— reproduces the figure of the USS Maine. In 1898, this armored cruiser sank in Havana Harbor, leading to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. The painting features Disney party decorations. Next to the girl, one can distinguish two figures that stand out due to the different colors used to paint them. These are one of the few major figures of the Cuban Independence Movement that are of African ancestry: Mariana Grajales and her son, Lt. General Antonio Maceo y Grajales, second-in-command of the Cuban Army of Independence. 

Through narrative and aesthetic modes of self-representation, Gertrudis Rivalta comes back to the trope of childhood in her most recent series of collages. This work reveals the extent to which childhood is crucial for creating subjectivities marked by colonialism and racism, where multiple forms of oppression and violence are inflicted on the body through formal and informal structures of learning that are present in the spheres of both the family and the school. In Rivalta’s work, there are two recurring characters. This may have to do with the fact that each of them is associated with different archetypes that, in turn, embody social models that define the gender roles that have traversed the artist’s life. These definitions are inseparable from the fact that she grew up in a postcolonial context. Far from reifying childhood, however, these creatures, or little figurines, may be understood as possible  alter egos that channel critical interpellations in a situation of epistemological discomfort produced by historical experience.

One of these alter egos is Cuquita, a small paper cut-out doll which bears the artist’s childhood face. Her name comes from the fashion clippings featured in the Cuban magazine Mujeres during the 1970s and 1980s. These magazines introduced the artist to the societal construction of gender, evident in articles on women’s involvement in labor and the defense of socialism, and others devoted to fashion and beauty advice. In each of these cases, these magazines always featured white bodies as the prototypical Cuban woman. Rivalta’s second alter ego is a Black matryoshka doll, a small paper clipping that joins Cuquita in her travels across different historical tableaus. By using the Russian symbol of the matryoshka doll, Rivalta underscores the Soviet influence on Cuban culture between 1961, when Fidel Castro declared the socialist nature of the Cuban Revolution, and 1989, when the Soviet-era governments in the Eastern Bloc collapsed. The Black matryoshka doll interpellates Cuquita through brief sentences that appear in speech bubbles, like a comic, as if the matryoshka doll stood for a vigilant mother or a Black consciousness. In this way, Rivalta points to the implicit racism present in each of the scenes that the artist herself calls teatrillos (puppet theaters). By looking at these fragmented visual installations, we can glimpse a tentative genealogy of the geopolitics of coloniality. 

Rivalta’s teatrillos borrow elements from the visual structure of dioramas. Dioramas became popular during the 19th and 20th centuries as science and natural history museums looked for ways to replicate nature. They restructure perception by creating fetishistic scenes that simplify the complexity of anthropological and historical experiences into a single point of view. The artist deploys this mode of organizing the colonial gaze to orchestrate a palimpsest of ethnographic landscapes and historical scenes in which there is an attempt to deconstruct Western knowledge. Through these hybrid paper worlds, Rivalta examines the discourses and disciplines that have been used to justify the racist stereotypes and the structural hierarchies that constitute the discourses of colonialism and gender in modernity. Along with Cuquita and the Black matryoshka, Rivalta travels across the history of art, cinema, science, religion, medicine, politics, and philosophy in an attempt to unveil the ideological foundations of the meta-narratives of Eurocentric modernity, where the bodies of racialized, enslaved, Black women are at the center of the capitalist system of exploitation and domination. 

It is interesting, in any case, how Rivalta’s latest series features a meta-operation where the most important   thing is not the content of the teatrillos, but rather the regimes of visuality that they reveal.

The autonomy claimed by the right to look is thus opposed by the authority of visuality (...) Despite its name, this process is not composed simply of visual perceptions in the physical sense, but is formed by a set of relations combining information, imagination, and insight into a rendition of physical and psychic space (...) A given modality of visuality is composed of a series of operations that can be summarized under three headings: first, visuality classifies by naming, categorizing, and defining (...) Next, visuality separates the groups so classified as a means of social organization. Such visuality separates and segregates those it visualizes to prevent them from cohering as political subjects, such as the workers, the people, or the (decolonized) nation. Finally, it makes this separated classification seem right and aesthetic (...) Classifying, separating, and aestheticizing together form what I shall call a “complex of visuality.”
(Mirzoeff 3-4)

The teatrillos challenge the racist tradition of nineteenth-century Cuban Bufo theater, a vernacular and carnivalesque form of local comedy characterized by the portrayal of characters such as the “negrito” and the “mulata,” which are performed by white actors wearing blackface paint. In contrast, Cuquita and the Black matryoshka symbolize the racial, gender, and class tensions in the construction of Cuban national identity. In Rivalta’s collages, all attempts to impose order or taxonomic classification onto visuality are reduced to the chaotic and temporal depiction of historical simulacra. Even if the viewer wanted to interact with these paper universes, it would be impossible to move the pieces of this heterotopic puzzle that the artist has created by combining historical epochs, places, cultures, artistic styles, and more. These are the fictional worlds through which Rivalta disturbs the violence of the reality imposed on her as an Afro-descendant woman born on a post-colonial Caribbean island. Everyone can use this approach to develop their own unique and dissident epistemic battlescapes. 

We encounter the teatrillos here and now, in the present, a time that carries the burden of the past and is provocatively projecting itself into the future with the anguish of subaltern memories. In Rivalta’s teatrillos, the bodies of Black women are no longer the object of the colonial gaze. In other words, no longer the object of the white, bourgeois, Western, Christian, and heteronormative subject. This opens up a space for what Mirzoeff calls a decolonial “counter-visuality,” where the political agency of an Afro-descendant migrant woman may finally be exercised.