A BOOK FOR REMINISCING
DAMAS, ESFINGESY MAMBISAS: Mujeres en la fotografía cubana (1840-1902),
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. 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