Listen to this article by Jacqueline Loss

We are centering Gertrudis Rivalta's vast work because of its exceptional aesthetic and conceptual qualities, but also because it has been overlooked, despite outstanding critical interventions and curatorial championing over nearly three decades, with art critic Kevin Power leading the cause.1 

What constitutes “a Gertrudis Rivalta”?  “A Gertrudis Rivalta” resists being seen as a finished product. It lets us into the subject in process, seeking our entrance into the very process of creation, out of which distinct and sometimes opposing meanings emerge, as the authors in this dossier make clear. It demands our continued looking, since addendums—new pieces, new series—are interlaced thematically and stylistically.

A Gertrudis Rivalta necessitates spectators' actual movement, as if in a dance choreographed by the artist. It is itself mobile, even in the most seemingly static of moments— something that is difficult to fathom in digital reproductions. It entails getting up close to the painting, diorama, or performance, lifting our heads into it to investigate its depth, its layers. Might that canvas actually be a tablecloth underneath all that oil and sequins? This is the case of Guajira (2021), which asks us to contemplate it from different angles in order to appreciate the way it transforms according to perspective and the way we transform upon engaging with it. 

Gertrudis Rivalta is a visual story-teller who interpellates spectators into her narratives that she renders using different mediums. Her spectators become her characters. If you look, you will participate and cannot remain neutral. Her work, however, also suggests that ideological entrenchment is shortsighted; it calls attention to inequities, dominance, and excesses in power at the same time that it evokes the flawed beauty of being human, in all its forms, using different and interspersed tonalities from ecstasy (see Cimarrona II [Realizing the Freedom of the Forest], 2022) to historically-inspired irony and humor (see Todas queremos ser como Valentina Tereshkova, 2004), to utter pain, and even death (see Mulata tropical, 1996). Sometimes her work proposes textual explanations for different states of being, using strategies such as speech bubbles, which appear in her teatrillos (puppet theaters). For instance, in Tres Tiempos. Dos (2022), orchestra members, who are, for the most part, Afro-descendant, utter in a Cuban-inflected language: “The Spaniards are coming¡¡¡¡Joer the pinga”; “the Russians are coming mi madre”;”The French are coming, coñó¡¡¡¡”; “En chino por si acaso”; “The Americans are coming¡¡¡Oh,lord¡¡¡Candela¡¡¡”; “The Italians are coming¡¡¡¡¡¡¡¡¡” Here, her puppet theater alludes to the revolutionary state's democratization and strategic implementation of the “high arts” amidst the deficit of a concrete means to feed the “people”; national self-reliance would appear to be a pipe dream. This is just one of the many occasions where postcolonialism and post-Sovietism weigh upon individuals' heads and humors (see Quinceañera con Kremlin, 2004), and socialist and capitalist rhetoric similarly penetrates her subjects' psychologies. 

In an installation in progress entitled Instalación Cepero Brito, Rivalta has it out with José Antonio Cepero Brito, one of the most “illustrious” radio and television personalities of the twentieth century in Cuba and spokesperson for Cuban socialist modernity, contrasting past and present “feats of the revolution” with everyday images of scarcity. 

Rivalta was formed by this meeting place of modernities, by its television, by its schools; she is within the story. Born in 1971 in Santa Clara, Cuba, Rivalta studied at the Escuela Nacional de Arte, marked by professors such as Enrique Ángulo (sculpture), René Francisco Rodríguez, whose initiative DUPP (Desde una Pragmática Pedagógica) was instrumental in her formation), Isabel Santos (drawing), and Georgina Gainza, who Rivalta describes as the only Black professor she had there. In 1996, Rivalta went on to graduate from the Instituto Superior de Arte in Cuba, an environment she characterizes as “open” and “collaborative” in those years. She participated in workshops with Lupe Álvarez, María Magdalena Campos Pons and many other internationally acclaimed artists and critics (it was there she met Kevin Power), alongside peers and artistic collaborators that included Belkis Ayón and Tamara Campo. She was the only female artist in the first Queloides group show in 1997, the first-ever exhibit in Cuba focusing on race and the place that Black people occupy in Cuban society, curated by Omar Pascual Castillo and Alexis Esquivel. She also participated in the second iteration of Queloides in 1999, curated by Ariel Ribeaux Diago. However, in the 2010 Queloides, curated by historian Alejandro de la Fuente and Elio Rodríguez Valdés, with an international reach with shows in Pittsburgh, New York City, and Cambridge/Boston, she did not appear, although the show’s catalog did address her work well and  in 2022, Alejandro de la Fuente included her work in the pioneering El Pasado Mío/My Own Past: Afrodescendant Contributions to Cuban Art. Rivalta's work has been exhibited in Spain and in Cuba, in addition to the United States, Puerto Rico, France, the Philippines, and Haiti.

Rivalta's portraits of others are very often self-portraits. One of the most spectacular is Las Dos Gertrudis (2004), a large format oil painting referencing one of Frida Kahlo's most famous self-portraits. Here Rivalta speaks to the impact of the local and international spheres on one's identity, but does so in no way suggesting that the so-called “local” is more naive or authentic, but rather always configured through the foreign. The tragedy of always already being dependent even in the individual or national quest for sovereignty is evident throughout her work, as is what it feels like to be dependent or cast as less than within society as a woman, as a mixed-race woman. She is interested, moreover, in drawing out the psychologies of those who have been historically subjugated and in exteriorizing those aspects of her own psychology that have undergone collective trauma —whether the Cuquita (paper cut-out doll of her child) or the Black Matryoshka (the nesting doll who is Cuquita's alter-ego) that Rivalta invented as an antidote to the lack of true hybridity in the Soviet period, or any of the other subjects she represents, be it Black athletes, her sister, the national family of heroes, the masses in the parks congregating for WIFI in the first decades of the twenty-first century, among many others. 

In this dossier, critics just begin to tap into the breath of Rivalta's curiosities, curiosities that she has exploited since the 1990s. Odette Casamayor Cisneros's “¿Quiénes somos? Meditaciones ante la obra de Gertrudis Rivalta” explores the connection between what Rivalta does in Un paseo con Walker Evans (1997), riffing on 1933 photographs only to turn the tables on who is the examiner and who is being examined, to more recent work. For instance, José Martí, declared by Fidel Castro to be the “intellectual author of the revolution,” is hijacked in Cheerleaders (2003-2017), by a Black female athlete, whose body and deep immersion in her ownthought interrupts the young patriots' homage to the apostle. Rosa Marquetti provides the sociopolitical and economic context for the confluence of music and visuality in Rivalta’s most spectacular Van Van (2004), while Inileidys Hernández grapples with Rivalta's performance and photographic series Tu cara ante la luz, first performed in 2010, explaining how a challenge to the categorizations of race and gender occurs through the indifferentiation and multiplicity of selves that Rivalta renders. Multiplicity is also at the core of Dantaé Garee Elliott's “Beyond Limitations: Rivalta’s (re)telling of Afro-Cuban multiplicity,” which suggests that, much like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, the artist sheds light on the problem of a “single-story narrative.” Elliott situates Rivalta within a global vernacular trajectory that defies systematic attempts to employ yet invisibilize Black women. Meanwhile, Suset Sánchez Sánchez's “Facing the Crisis of Historical Experience: Political Agency and Visual Culture in Gertrudis Rivalta,” elucidates the extent to which Rivalta's teatrillos deconstruct the anthropological obsession evidenced in dioramas of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Gwen A. Unger's “Escaping the mold: the radical potential of avatars in Gertrudis Rivalta’s work” identifies Rivalta's use of Cuquita and Black Matryoshka as avatars rooted in “the transformative and transcorporeal aspect of Afro-diasporic spiritual practice,” and in so doing establishes links between her work and those of other Black Cuban artists and with Afro-diasporic aesthetics. “Gertrudis Rivalta: On Spaces, Sequins, and Tendederas,” by Lázara Menéndez primarily focuses on three aspects of Rivalta's oeuvre—the artist's re-insertion of individuality in collective entities, her implementation of sequins in a “revolutionary” sociopolitical context that prides itself on sacrifice and austerity, and her representation of clotheslines in the teatrillos to express diverse necessities in everyday life and demonstrate how individuals themselves transform day to day—tabs don't just appear on paper cut-out dolls in Rivalta's representations, but even on “real” figures. María Antonia Cabrera Arús investigates this latter dimension in “Cimarrona and Other Ways of Seizing the Metaphors of Revolutionary Spectacle,” where she emphasizes the extent to which Rivalta 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.” Closing out this dossier is Gertrudis Rivalta in her own words, interviewed by the dexterous Mailyn Machado. Through these critical reflections, it is my wish that readers can come closer to the multiple and profound identities and universes Rivalta creates in her vast oeuvre.