IN CUBA, IS THERE A FEMININE
Who are devoted to this expression of visual arts in the island? What are their poetics, esthetics and the subjects they work on…? A young woman researcher answers these and other questions from a committed and critical standpoint.
Ever since she studied at the Faculty of Arts and Letters of the Universidad de la Habana, Aldeide Delgado began to get interested in researching about women who draw on photography as a means of artistic expression. She rummaged through the labyrinths of the history of photography, the esthetics of art… Along this path she made findings, asserted certainties and asked herself questions that brought about new questions, she put on her gender glasses and in this manner, gradually, she collected information until she conceived the Catálogo de Fotógrafas Cubanas (Catalogue of Cuban Women Photographers), “which in this moment—she explains—is in the process of design and structuring and already there is a team working on its viability from the editorial perspective.”
In what measure do you consider that the Catalogue… contributes to the visibility of this art and to dignifying women creators who use this means of expression? What names, subjectmatters and esthetics stand out in this project for characterizing the current Cuban women photographic creation?
It has been a fascinating project due to the histories that have been unfolded, the authors revealed and the photographs that I have been able to find. It is a work that involves searching and rescuing that will definitively give rise to other projects deriving from this initial investigation. It pretends—and in this sense lies its contribution—to generate a cartography, a tradition of women photographers that should provide paradigms and referents to contemporary women artists and at the same time will acknowledge and assess their creations. Concerning subject-matters I emphasize the treatment of the body, selfreferentiality, the gender discourse, the exploration of sex, identity as well as a more objective and experimental trend that is found in Grethell Rasúa, Sandra Ramos, Susana Pilar Delahante, María Cienfuegos, Marianela Orozco, Lisandra Isabel García, Linet Sánchez, Leysis Quesada and Khadis de la Rosa, among others.
How would you define the photographic art made by women in Cuba, as regards trends, subject-matters and poetics? Is it possible to talk about a feminine or feminist photography?
I will start by answering the second question because I would like to explain minutely the concepts of feminine photography which is not the same as feminist. First of all, I am not in favor of using the term “feminine photography”; rather the term photography in which the subjectivities and female universes are dealt with. My opposition to the first term lies on the cardinal criterion stated in the phrase. A “feminine” photography implies acknowledging the existence of a “masculine” photography, and that would mean to fall into the same sex/gender system which we want to come out of. What would be the features of the so called feminine photography? Would it deal with banal, non-transcendent and introspective subject-matters? Where would we insert the work of María Eugenia Haya, Nereida García or Mayra Martínez? Or is it that in their cases it is about the reproduction of an hegemonic masculine discourse? Nelly Richard in Masculine-feminine.
Practices of the difference and democratic culture has written that “feminine esthetic usually connotes an art that expresses women taken as a natural fact and not as a symbolic-discursive category, formed and deformed by the systems of universal representation. Feminine art—continues saying Richard—would be the representative art of a universal femininity or of the female essence that illustrates a universe of values and meanings associated to the sensitivity, corporealness and affectivity that in the allotment masculine-feminine have been traditionally reserved to women.”
On the other hand, feminist art assumes in a cognizant manner, a deprecating position as regards the stereotyped images of women and it is involved in specific social changes as a form of activism and impact in the world of art itself. For example, in
1972, Half Moon, the London gallery, started the photographic project Women on Women which integrated the photographers Maggie Murray, Sally Greenhill, Val Wilmer and Angela Phillips. Since this exhibition, these women creators—self-defined feminists—started to be considered as a group of discussion and critique of female representations, while they studied setting up alternatives to the use of photography in the capitalist society. They published photos of demonstrations of women as regards the abortion legislation and combined graphic design with the composition of their images to create texts to support the protest march. Feminist art—according to Eli Bartra, pioneer of studies concerning art with gender perspective—represents a struggle, rebelliousness against the subordinate condition of women.
It is a cognizant attitude both on the artistic production as well as in the theoretical field that is joined to the demands of women concerning social, cultural and civil rights.
In Cuba there are many women photographers concerned about the gender conflicts; however, the treatment of these subjects partly continues being stereotyped and lacking resourceful solutions both in thematic as well as conceptual levels. The imprint of the creative work by Marta María Pérez and Cirenaica Moreira is perceived in some of them, while others find in an object poetic the necessary elements for the discourse of an imagery on the feminine. Without any doubt, one of the contributions of making a research focused on the work of women artists lies in the possibility of analyzing from the critique perspective how women see themselves, within a context that has always set them on the other side of the camera. The Catalogue of Cuban Women Photographers is a contribution in this sense, because the work they have been making will become visible, and mainly, for those who are more contemporary it should mean a point of reflection as regards their forerunners and to what extent they recognize themselves or not in that tradition.
The insistence on my answer to the question whether there is a feminine or feminist photography in Cuba is based on the premise that I do not consider appropriate to refer to the photography made by women as a “feminine photography” due to the elements previously explained; and we cannot speak either of a feminist photography since, even though some authors approach the gender subject-matter, there is no political attitude to be found, neither is there a cognizant and active participation in the social reality, since they reject or fear their work be analyzed from this perspective. Its distinction stems from an attitude that demand the revision of history to search for hidden models and the possibility of unfolding thematic areas from a gender perspective.
What traits differentiate women photographers that in Cuba are inclined towards a more documentary photographic art from those who assume it from a more creative perspective? And I would like to clarify that for me both expressions are artistic.
Indeed. I think it is necessary to clarify concepts as I do not feel at ease making a distinction between documentary photography and a more creative one. In fact I think that in this moment we should broaden or revise judgments according to which we keep classifying Cuban photography. Frequently we speak of documentary photography as that which is more direct or testimonial and conceptual photography is defined by perhaps a more creative character and manipulation. I think we should be more flexible with these categorizations and encourage a more open interpretation of the photographic language. Some artists pretend to de-construct the codes of documentary photography by means of “subjectivating” concepts like a feature story or photo-journalism, others are led towards a more staged image, posed or performed, and there also approaches from an experimental trend. Juan Antonio Molina has stated that “the photographic image is no longer seen as an object enclosed in its technical and linguistic specificity, instead it is seen and considered as a mixed object, open to cross-languages and textual references. Events are staged, objects are invented, and subjects are disguised.” From this perspective, I can tell you that many times women photographers practice one or other tendency. Some of them assume higher levels of determination and focus on just one variant, while some others explore through the conception of series or projects the different ways of make.
I have observed that in the history of photography—in a general sense, but mostly in that made by women—it is frequent what is self-referential to approach social or sociological issues, as for example aging, social and spiritual deterioration, consumption, religion, race, maternity, gender representations, eroticism... What do you think this is due to?
As you have well stated the self-referential practice is not an exclusive phenomenon of women creators. In her paper to obtain her master’s degree, curator and researcher Onedys Calvo acknowledges the proliferation of discourses on identity and the reassertion of the individual since the 1990s. Artists like René
Peña, Marta María Pérez, Sandra Ramos, Aimée Garcia, Elvis Céllez, Carlos José García and some others that are more contemporary like Carlos Martiel, Susana Pilar Delahante or the winner of the Beca de Creacion Raul Corrales 2014 (Raul Corrales Scholarship for Creation) granted by the Fototeca de Cuba and Consejo Nacional de las Artes Plasticas (Photographic Library and the National Council of Visual Arts), Rigoberto Oquendo (Chacho) develop a production sometimes in a detailed form, that from the research on the self they set the problem issue into the sociocultural context.
However, for women artists, the relationship between selfreferentiality and photography is based on a tradition established approximately in the 1960s. Photography and video were the supports used by the authors with the purpose, in the first place, of moving away from the traditional artistic genres, and in the second place, of building a narration that started from the autobiographic, from a personal vision that would show the plurality and diversity of women in comparison to an hegemonic “must be” being. This “must be” set up since pregnancy establishes in women the femininity criterion associated to motherhood, wife, martyr, the sacrificed one, the ideal…, in a constant being for others but not for herself as Marcela Lagarde has also expressed. They, we, are facing a context in which subject-matters as maternity for example are constantly being idealized, in this way overlooking the disruptions, dangers, fears and difficulties that women have to face during this stage.
Like this, women creators find in photography the ideal medium to register their environment, their daily lives and their body in an attempt at exploration and recognition. For them it is vital to be defined beyond the values of an assigned identity and in correspondence to their particular life experiences. That is the reason why self-representation is a frequent exercise in the process of reassertion as subjects and in the redefinition of their bodies, concerns and expectations in order to confront a patriarchal discourse.
Since the 2000s there is an abundant photographic production made by women in Cuba which although it is diverse and heterogeneous in its subject-matters and esthetics it is unfortunately unknown at the level of critique and spaces to be displayed. Is it that women creators are at a disadvantage? Or is it a question of self-limitation? If there is production and even more, if the number of women who study and practice photography in Cuba outnumbers that of men, don’t you think it is dichotomic that their creation does not reach the visibility and promotion that photography made by men has got?
There are many creators at a disadvantage, and that is a problem of the critique commodity and the lack of multiple spaces where you can exhibit your work. There are very good attempts, though, for example, recently I was reading a text by Grethel Morell on the Movement of Women Photographers in Jagüey Grande, there is also the multimedia Women photographers in the New
“In Cuba there are many women photographers concerned about the gender conflicts; however, the treatment of these subjects partly continues being stereotyped and lacking resourceful solutions. The imprint of the creative work by Marta María Pérez and Cirenaica Moreira is perceived in some of them…”
Millennium created by Ana Gabriela Ballate. Dannys Montes de Oca has an available essay in the web, Contemporary Cuban women photographers in the construction of gender and identities, pioneer in the analysis of gender discourse in the photographic practice. Also the exhibition project Cuban art, voices and feminine poetics (1990-2013) was focused on the production of women and incorporated several women photographers. I would like to enhance the page Cuban Women Photographers by Sandra AbdAllah-Álvarez Ramírez which develops a campaign to make more visible and promote women creators at the same time that it promotes from the artivist project, La negra tiene mendó (The Black Woman has mendó), the exploration of topics associated to the issues of black and fat women.
In 2016, la Comunidad Artistica Creativa Yeti (The Creative Artistic Community Yeti)—with a seat at the municipality of Playa, Havana—convened the first edition of a salon of women photographers in Cuba with the name of Tina Modotti. At that time I wondered why, despite having outstanding national exponents, we keep dedicating our events to foreign authors, or is it that María Eugenia Haya’s or Marta María Pérez’ s work is not broad or significant enough to develop an event after them? Or perhaps Encarnación Iróstegui, recognized as our first women photographer. Evidently, there is a great lack of information due to the still weak system of artistic-photographic formation. Besides, our levels of analysis and approach to the medium are still inefficient and are not updated as to the international photographic performing or models of models of critic reviewers. However there is some evidence and here I have proved that the production made by women is not being neglected.
As regards the increase of women in photography, I would like to make it quite clear, projects are not to fill in statistical data. That is, we are not going to make an exhibition counting how many women are there, how many men, how many blacks, how many whites, how many are from provinces… we must avoid the non-visibility or the lack of information about the creative processes of other regions and social groups, but there must be some work to support their incorporation to the curatorial and research projects. Above all there must be an analytical judgment, if not, it is another thing.
LEYSIS QUESADA Sosiego, 2001-2005
From the series Paisajes de patio, 1978
Courtesy Catálogo de Fotógrafas Cubanas
LISSETTE SOLÓRZANO − Lo real es maravilloso, 2006 CIRENAICA MOREIRA − Abajo estoy despierta, 2003
MARÍA MAGDALENA CAMPOS-PONS − De las dos aguas, 2007
Courtesy Catálogo de Fotógrafas Cubanas