DA­MAS, ESFINGESY MAM­BISAS: Mu­jeres en la fo­tografía cubana (1840-1902),

Art On Cuba - - INDEX - Clau­dia González Machado by Grethel Morell

A trans­ves­tite young ac­tress poses at the Stu­dio J.A. Suárez and Co., in a set­ting dec­o­rated with a bu­colic land­scape which was painted around 1890.This is the im­age that il­lus­trates the cover of a very sig­nif­i­cant and un­usual book re­cently pub­lished by Edi­ciones Boloña, of the Ofic­ina del His­to­ri­ador de la Ci­u­dad de La Ha­bana.1 The book is en­ti­tled Da­mas, es­fin­ges y mam­bisas: mu­jeres en la fo­tografía cubana (1840-1902) (Ladies, sphinxes and mam­bisas: women in Cuban photography), a first ap­proach to the fem­i­nine pres­ence in the photography made in Cuba. Un­doubt­edly, a vol­ume that is highly ap­pre­ci­ated since it un­veils zones that up to now were un­known in Cuban his­to­ri­og­ra­phy, and it is made with a plau­si­ble re­search sharp­ness, thanks to the au­thor’s la­bor, the cu­ra­tor, re­searcher, pro­fes­sor and art critic Grethel Morell.

Con­ceived as a pho­to­graphic al­bum, Da­mas… as­sem­bles more than a hun­dred im­ages from the col­lec­tions of some in­sti­tu­tions (Fo­toteca de Cuba, Bi­b­lioteca Na­cional José Martí, Fo­toteca de la Ofic­ina del His­to­ri­ador de la Ci­u­dad, Archivo Na­cional and Fondo de Li­bros Raros de la Univer­si­dad de la Ha­bana) and from pri­vate col­lec­tions, both in Cuba and in the USA. Pre­ced­ing the al­bum there is a brief and rig­or­ous es­say that of­fers a new look about the his­tory of photography in Cuba, in this case that photography per­formed by women from the most di­verse so­cial and/or eco­nomic back­ground.

There they are, women pho­tog­ra­phers who made and prac­ticed them­selves an ex­pres­sion which at that time was mainly per­formed by men. In this sense the names of En­car­nación Irástegui and Fran­cisca Maderno stand out as “the first da­guerreo­typ­ists that since the 1850s set up a stu­dio and a busi­ness.” Also, there are the ladies of noble lin­eage, al­most al­ways in im­ages that turn out to be “copies of Euro­pean im­pe­rial por­traits that were in fash­ion and in­debted to cham­ber paint­ing”, as Morell as­serts. Ac­knowl­edged in­tel­li­gentsia per­son­al­i­ties are not miss­ing, like the poet and play­wright Gertrudis Gómez de Avel­laneda; ac­tresses and opera singers, po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists or revo­lu­tion­ary fight­ers (Mariana Gra­jales, Ana Be­tan­court…); mam­bisas, stan­dard bear­ers, nurses, cooks, teach­ers, ser­vants or “maids”, cigar mak­ers and in a lesser num­ber, slaves. Fe­males re­gard­less race, in in­di­vid­ual or group pic­tures, pos­ing in sump­tu­ous stu­dios or to­tally ab­sorbed in their daily work; bour­geois or liv­ing in the most op­press­ing and hope­less poverty.

From the con­sid­er­able num­ber of im­ages as­sem­bled in the book we could high­light some of them as the one ti­tled The flag bearer, in which the way that young Cuban girls were pho­tographed like per­son­i­fi­ca­tions of the isle of Cuba can be seen, which was, un­doubt­edly, a way to dis­play their pa­tri­o­tism. Equally en­gag­ing are the pho­to­graphs of Eloísa Piñeiro, iden­ti­fied as the first Cuban black teacher in Har­vard; that of Bernarda Toro de Gómez, pho­tographed with her chil­dren in Ja­maica when she was 30 years old; the pho­to­graphic mon­tage ded­i­cated to The Cuban wo­man in the Rev­o­lu­tion; or Mam­bisa girl, one of the most beau­ti­ful im­ages of the book for the pu­rity and in­no­cence of the pho­tographed girl.

Not less strik­ing are the pho­to­graphs that un­veil some of the crud­est as­pects of our re­al­ity dur­ing those years. Such are the cases of Reparto de co­mida en una cocina económica de La Ha­bana (Dis­tribut­ing food in a soup kitchen in Ha­vana), in which the fam­ished faces of girls, el­derly women and men will for­ever haunt us; Wretched Poverty of a Cuban Peas­ant’s Home, Prov­ince of San­ti­ago, im­age from 1899 that ex­poses the hard liv­ing con­di­tions of a peas­ant fam­ily within the con­text of the first North Amer­i­can in­ter­ven­tion; or Reparto de ran­cho y recon­cen­tra­dos en un poblado de Pi­nar del Río (Distri­bu­tion of food and peo­ple con­cen­trated in a Pi­nar del Rio set­tle­ment), that shows the in­hu­man con­di­tions in which a group of peo­ple lived dur­ing the de­nom­i­nated Recon­cen­tración de Weyler, per­haps the most re­pres­sive and mon­strous pol­icy adopted by the Span­ish mil­i­tary com­mand in Cuba es­tab­lished to pre­vent the peas­ant pop­u­la­tion from co­op­er­at­ing or join­ing the Ejército Lib­er­ta­dor (the mam­bises army who were fight­ing for the In­de­pen­dence).

The pho­to­graphs are or­ga­nized in six sec­tions, in a chrono­log­i­cal or­der, cov­er­ing the years that elapsed from the ad­vent of photography in Cuba (1840) to the end of the first North Amer­i­can in­ter­ven­tion fol­lowed by the foun­da­tion of the Repub­lic (1902). “First tech­niques of im­pres­sion and stu­dio por­traits” is the first sec­tion and it is fo­cused mainly on da­guerreo­types, fer­rotypes, al­bu­min im­pres­sions and the small post­cards or carte de gavinet, the lat­ter typ­i­cal of Amer­i­can stu­dios and very pop­u­lar in Cuba. It is fol­lowed by head­ings like “Group por­traits and im­ages for the press”, in which most of the pho­to­graphic im­ages have ba­si­cally a so­cial and pro­pa­gan­dis­tic func­tion (in pub­li­ca­tions like El Fí­garo) or rep­re­sent mem­bers of pa­tri­otic so­ci­eties and revo­lu­tion­ary clubs; “The war. Mam­bisas in cam­paign or in ex­ile” that as­sem­bles an in­ter­est­ing group of pho­tos of rebel women, fight­ing in the woods to­gether with the troops or bear­ing the flag, wear­ing uni­forms or in in­di­vid­ual por­traits; “Subor­di­nate women. Slaves, needy, wan­der­ing, refugees. Ru­ral women” and “Women in ur­ban spa­ces” as­sem­ble im­ages that fa­vor an ap­proach more fo­cused on lo­cal cus­toms on im­ages that were cap­tured—most of them—by for­eign­ers or re­porters (José Gómez de la Car­rera, Miles or the North Amer­i­can firm Un­der­wood & Un­der­wood); and lastly, “Wo­man-Flag. The in­ter­ven­tion” which presents por­traits with a high level of pro­pa­ganda, in which the women ex­hibit at­tributes such as the flag or the Phry­gian cap, de­lib­er­ately in­tend­ing to sym­bol­i­cally sup­port the na­tion­al­is­tic cam­paign or to show

Ladies… not only ev­i­dences the ex­er­cise of cri­tique by Morell but also it re­veals an ap­proach from other dis­ci­plines that ap­peal to other fields of knowl­edge such as so­ci­ol­ogy, psy­chol­ogy, cul­tural stud­ies and those of gen­der.

ac­qui­es­cence or docil­ity. All this head­ings of­fer a panoramic vi­sion, though not a hasty one, of women (and what they looked like, when seen as a rel­e­gated gen­der fac­ing a lens gen­er­ally ma­nip­u­lated by men) in dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances of the 19th cen­tury Cuban so­ci­ety.

Al­though Morell an­a­lyzed pho­tos from dif­fer­ent regions of Cuba, like Matan­zas, El Co­bre, Pi­nar del Río or Sancti Spíri­tus, her re­search was mainly fo­cused in Ha­vana. The hun­dred pho­tos that il­lus­trate the book are the re­sult of a strict se­lec­tion of ap­prox­i­mately three thou­sand im­ages that the au­thor had as­sem­bled dur­ing six years of in­tense re­search.

Ladies… not only ev­i­dences the ex­er­cise of cri­tique by Morell but also it re­veals an ap­proach from other dis­ci­plines that ap­peal to other fields of knowl­edge such as so­ci­ol­ogy, psy­chol­ogy, cul­tural stud­ies and those of gen­der. It is also a book that fa­vors the fem­i­nist dis­course, and she does it from an un­prece­dented sub­ject, that con­trib­utes to new ap­proaches to fu­ture re­search works on the his­tory of Cuban photography. There­fore it is an es­sen­tial sum­mary not only for the pro­fes­sion­als in this fields but also for his­to­ri­ans, for those who study gen­der is­sues, for so­ci­ol­o­gists or for all of those are in­ter­ested in a sub­ject-mat­ter that is so spe­cific as well as di­verse and fas­ci­nat­ing.

The laud­able re­search work un­der­taken by Grethel Morell was rec­og­nized with the Premio de In­ves­ti­gación (Re­search Award) spon­sored by the Fo­toteca de Cuba and the Con­sejo Na­cional de Artes Plás­ti­cas in 2009, and more re­cently with the Premio de Crítica de Arte Guy Pérez Cis­neros 2016, a com­pe­ti­tion that was cre­ated in 1999 with the pur­pose of en­cour­ag­ing art crit­i­cism.

What was the role of women in the Cuban so­ci­ety dur­ing the pe­riod 1840-1902? Which were their main ac­tiv­i­ties and their re­la­tion with the epoch? And mainly, what did her cap­tured im­age look like? These are just some of the ques­tions that Morell an­swers in: Da­mas, es­fin­ges y mam­bisas: mu­jeres en la fo­tograf ía cubana (1840-1902), a book which is a trib­ute to EV­ERY WO­MAN, re­gard­less her fame or anonymity dur­ing a de­ci­sive stage in the for­ma­tion of our na­tional iden­tity. ƒ Edi­ciones Boloña emerged in the 1990s and, since its cre­ation, its prin­ci­pal in­ter­est has been in books that have a his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ter, mainly those fo­cused on the city of Ha­vana.

La Aban­der­ada / Ál­bum 73, Bi­b­lioteca Na­cional José Martí Cover of Da­mas, es­fin­ges y mam­bisas...

Cour­tesy Grethel Morell

Mam­bises Group, sin más datos / Ál­bum 75, Bi­b­lioteca Na­cional José Martí

Court­yard, Reme­dios, 1899 / Un­der­wood & Un­der­wood / Bi­b­lioteca Cen­tral Univer­si­dad de La Ha­bana

Cour­tesy Grethel Morell

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