The works of multidisciplinary artist Gertrudis Rivalta are on exhibit for this, her first solo art show in New York City.
Five large canvas paintings and seven smaller dioramas are showcased as part of “Selected Pages,” an art show curated by University of Connecticut Professor Jacqueline Loss. The exhibit is on view at the Thomas Nickles Project gallery (47 Orchard St., Manhattan) until April 24.
The works on display are meditations on Afro Cuban life, from past to present, and demonstrate Rivalta’s interpretations of the extent to which Black Cubans have been incorporated into the local social fabric.
“To me we are living an illusion. We are not really free,” Rivalta explained in a recent interview. “I see Black people here, Black people in Cuba—we don’t have power. And when I say power, I mean presence. Power is to have presence. Other people don’t see us, they only see us from the same angle: we are never the intellectuals, the scientists. Instead, we are the dancers, we are the musicians, we do less consequential jobs.
“I don’t want that illusion, I want our reality—I want this, our reality, to be true.”
In works such as “Cheerleaders, 2009” Rivalta depicts one of the many busts of the Cuban national hero, José Martí, which remain dotted in towns and cities throughout the island nation. On this canvas, the Martí bust is encircled by young, mostly white Cuban admirers who offer flowers to the famed independence hero. But Rivalta places the overbearing image of a muscular, virile Black woman in the foreground of the painting—it nearly obscures the adoration of Martí in the back.
The very name of Rivalta’s “Cimarrona, 2022” painting evokes the formidable image of self-liberated descendants of Africans in the Americas. A cimarrona was specifically a female who had freed herself from enslavement—think Harriet Tubman, Jamaica’s Queen Nanny of the Windward Maroons, or Haiti’s Cecile Fattime—Rivalta draws the image of this militant figure with sequins and paints her as a coquettish, sweet, bright, rainbow color-infused Black woman, a cimarrona, who is free and inspiring.
Rivalta likes to juxtapose language and imagery so that they sometimes work together but at other times contrast to tell the viewer different messages.
“You know, we are surrounded by images and even when we have images in our heads, we have to describe the image when we want to talk about it,” said Rivalta. The seven dioramas in her show focus on Black people living their everyday lives amidst the images and words that surround them. “I didn’t want to only show our Cuban reality by only working with images, there are all those layers and, I wanted to talk about the way we talk about reality, because it’s made of layers and layers and layers of conversations.
“Sometimes coquita—you know this main character in the dioramas—she’s thinking, she’s not talking, but you can see what she’s saying. That is very important because what exists only in the mind of a person, now you have access to see that or to read that or to understand that. And that’s very important because many of us from Cuba, we couldn’t talk. The conversation about Afrodescendant people was not an open conversation; it was not an open issue. Most of the time, all of us, we were talking behind the scenes. All we could do was just present images: it was acting. So when you come to read my dioramas, at the same time all [of what you are seeing] is an act: it’s a scene, a theater. All of those layers where you have one thing in the background, but it can sometimes move to the front and you know there is an angle on another side—it all becomes a game. It’s a game with the language, it’s a game with the images and it’s a game with the positioning of the language and the images.”
Rivalta’s “Selected Pages” exhibit is an attempt to spotlight the depths of Afro Cuban lives and the impact the Black community has had on Cuba. “Racism persists in Cuba. I mean institutionally you can think that it was eliminated, but it wasn’t. It remains among the people because of our colonialist past. And that is some of what is behind my dioramas,” Rivalta added. “There is more in them, because there are some symbols that you can find there and if people know Cuban history, they can understand those symbols. But I made the dioramas as works for people to return to. You’re not finished when you see them only once: I want you to return to read them for as many times as you need to read and understand them.”