Judit Gera holds MA degrees in English and Hispanic Studies from the University of Szeged. Email:
There is no original past to redeem; there is the void, the orphanhood, […] There is above all the search for origin.
What if we make the canvas a lung through which we can breathe? A place where the memory can cure beyond the devotional and commemorative images.
Apart from recent tendencies of globalization, a phenomenon that is transforming our world to a radical extent is that more and more space is given to the cult of difference and otherness. Together with the impact of progress towards the global attitude, local elements are also moving to the foreground, which, at certain moments may appear as means to fight any occurrence of devastating dominance. At the same time, due to many changes in our perception of reality (including space and time) the local needs redefinition. The local does not any more have its roots in well-defined territories, essential truths or universal values. Instead, today it carries the possibility of constant change due to its process-like nature, linguistic mediation and subjectivity.
To demonstrate the complexity of our perception, let us suppose we have to give the definition of the common name “island.” If we think of Puerto Rico or Cuba, for instance, we can say that they are pieces of land surrounded by the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Yet, the two places play an important role in this study precisely because, in this case, political, social and cultural factors hinder the acceptability of such an essentialist definition. In the case of Puerto Rico, the concept of ‘local’ is not entirely valid. The place politically belongs to the United States of America and has a great number of people who declare themselves Puerto Ricans by nationality but live on the mainland. The population of the Puerto Rican diaspora maintains the island’s cultural traditions with the same intensity as islanders do.
Nevertheless, what helps us approach the definition of local and global, is the concept of identity. In spite of all the conceptual ambiguities, in the minds of those with ties to the island, there is a collective identity, through which millions of people declare themselves Puerto Rican. They share a culture, which is articulated through different social discourses; therefore, anything that evokes self-identification and self-justification – national literature, the baseball team or the photo of the Puerto Rican beauty queen – may be regarded as basic part of their collective identity. Every cultural representation they perform is also their own narrative, and their relation to these narratives defines their identity (Hall 70).
Visual arts can also be considered to be one of such narratives. Works of art can teach us a lot about current questions emerging in the artists’ surroundings. The present study was written with the assumption that the oeuvre of an artist who works against the global culture enriches the general picture of the local. In the case of Puerto Rico and Cuba, this is performed through a discourse that may be termed postcolonial. According to Cameron McCarthy and Greg Dimitriadis, “postcolonial art forms are products of colonial histories of disruption, forced migration and false imprisonment” (McCarthy and Dimitriadis 60). This definition underscores the fact that the given works of art are not isolated from their colonial legacy, but they problematize the relation between the colonial and the postcolonial. As of representation, McCarthy and Dimitriadis claim that the postcolonial aesthetics works with the motifs of the critique of hegemonic representations and the strategy of double or multiple coding.
In the following I intend to discover the dynamics of the search for national and cultural identity in a postcolonial context, through contemporary visual arts from Puerto Rico and Cuba. I will analyze a selection of artworks by the Cuban performance artist Ana Mendieta and Puerto Rican painter Arnaldo Roche-Rabell with the purpose of discovering what artistic methods and techniques they use in the complex process of the construction of national and cultural identities. Although many contemporary artists deal with the problem of identities all over the world, I reduced the focus of my study to the two Caribbean islands due, especially to their rather complicated relations with the United States.
In addition, two of the many acclaimed artists dealing with the problems of self-identification are from the region. Arnaldo Roche-Rabell was born in 1955 and lives on the island of Puerto Rico, although he also has connections with North American arts circles; he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Chicago. Ana Mendieta was born in Cuba in 1948. At the age of thirteen, she and her sister were taken to the United States within the Operation “Peter Pan,” a Christian program to save Cuban children from the Castro-regime. In the United States, they lived in orphanage and foster care, in a state of quasi-exile. Though she returned to Cuba a couple of times, she lived and worked in the United States until her death in 1985. The reason for treating these particular two artists from the Caribbean region in this study is that their search for identity is not only a central theme in their works but their artifacts present similar approaches to this topic.
II. Cultural Resistance in the Art of Contemporary Latin American Artists
Without the intention of creating a dichotomy between the Latin American (in itself both a geographically and culturally debatable concept) and the so-called mainstream Euro-American art, it is apparent that artists of Latin American descent – and I consider Roche-Rabell and Mendieta to be two of them – often embody a profound historical consciousness in their work. Roche-Rabell and Mendieta worked with the aim of recapturing what only exists in individual and collective memories and presented them in widely varied forms. However, looking at the past – for these artists – is not a matter of nostalgia or lamentation over ‘old days;’ their gaze attempts to revisit past events and interpret them from a contemporary perspective. In fact, most of the art pieces by these two artists present a form of cultural resistance, since most Latin American cultures, to a certain extent, respond to the former or actual domination by another culture.
However, to give sufficient voice to this form of cultural resistance while reaching a broader public is not an easy task, since these visual artists have to face the sharp distinction between mainstream art and that of marginalized others. Carmen Hernández speaks about the influence of the hegemonic art sphere, which is
an institutional network that acts like the articulating axis of hegemonic thinking, of a Euro-American nature, which sustains the autonomy of the artistic field through a series of academic, museological, editorial and market-related mechanisms, which are extended from institutions located in the most important European and North American cities. (Hernández 168)
This means that the evaluation of most productions takes place in cultural centers and artistic circles, such as Paris or New York, that adopts a strong Eurocentric canon supporting the cult of the artist’s personality and the supposed universal character of their artistic language (169).
Consequently, this dominant vision privileges the universal as opposed to the ‘local,’ where the term ‘universal’ is usually applied to works produced in Europe or in the United States. Therefore, the representation of the local can be assumed as a sign of resistance in itself against a homogenizing impulse that requires the artist to use codes that are not inscribed in their direct context and do not belong to any particular locality. However, according to Marta Traba, this kind of resistance is not determined by a previously prepared program or a political obligation, but it has its roots in a defensive behavior against cultural colonization (Traba qtd. in Hernández 172).
Born in a dichotomized distinction between universal and local art, the designation of Hispanic artists has been used to classify artists of Latin American descent. Mainstream art often discriminates the works of non-Anglo artists – not to mention the art market –, and even if they work along the guidelines of the latest trends, they are still considered mostly as ‘derivative.’ Although there is less and less total rejection of or lack of interest in the ‘other’ art in the U.S. and Europe, most viewers, who are influenced by mainstream values, expect to see something that would justify the difference between their culture and the others, and thus, conform to the prevailing stereotype about the artist’s cultural background. According to the Mexican performance artist and writer-critic, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, monumental and successful multicultural exhibitions never make mention of the social inequities and crimes that lie beneath the neocolonial relationship between Anglo-European culture and its surrounding others. “Like the United Colors of Benetton ads, a utopian discourse of sameness helps to erase all unpleasant stories,” claims Gómez-Peña (27).
The reception of Latin American visual arts in the United States – on the part of the general public, on the one hand, and critics, on the other hand – is influenced by curatorial politics of exhibitions presenting the works of Latin American artists. The art critic Shifra Goldman accused the directors of museums in the United States that organized Latin American-related art exhibitions of forcing a stereotypical perspective on the collections. As for the exhibition Hispanic Art in the United States: Thirty Contemporary Painters and Sculptors organized in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in 1987, Goldman declared that with the categorization and ordering of the artworks, the curators – apart from mentioning under the same designation (Hispanic) the heterogeneous societies of Latin America – highlighted only the folklore features and special, traditional characteristics, as if no high art existed there (Goldman 411-3). According to art critic and gallery owner Ivan Karp, the poetics and politics of exhibitions in large museums are signs exposing information on how objects, images and texts are selected and ordered so as to become objects of the ideology of the current political power (Karp 1).
Contemporary artists from Latin America seem, in this context, to continuously face difficulties caused by dominant ideologies. In the art world, there is a dependency on Euro-American authority, against which many artists protest by elaborating unique, local forms of expression. In those pieces that provide an alternative against the hegemony of another culture, resistance obviously pairs up with a search for cultural or national identities.
III. National Identity and the Critique of Hegemonic Representation
The artistic productions of Arnaldo Roche-Rabell, dweller of “The Enchanting Island” (“Isla del Encanto”– the Spanish slogan that is also on the U.S.-Puerto Rican car license plates), may easily be considered as forms of resistance against a dominant culture. As they highlight the historical, political and cultural ambivalence that characterizes the situation of Puerto Rico, these works also serve as a valuable perspective in analyzing the complexity of Puerto Rican identity.
Among Latin American countries (and I consider Puerto Rico to be one of them), concerning their relations with the United States of America, Puerto Rico’s case is unique in the sense that it still faces a version of U.S. neocolonialism. As a symbolic replacement of Spanish domination, the United States entered the island in 1898 and made it an unincorporated territory subject to the powers of the Congress. In 1952, the United States declared the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which was granted political autonomy in certain fields. However, the political status of the island is still not clearly defined, since American jurisprudence uses a legal oxymoron for the political definition of Puerto Rico, and states that the island belongs to the United States, but is not part of it (Burnett and Marshall in Duany 1).
The population is divided when it comes to the political status of the island, and the status polemic continues to be the most important political issue in Puerto Rico even today. According to the results of the three plebiscites (the last one was in 1998), the majority of Puerto Rico’s population does not support any alternative to the commonwealth status. A slightly smaller number of Puerto Ricans are pro-statehood. Although the U.S. had also considered the option of incorporating the island as the 51st state, the idea never achieved further discussion because the territory is mainly Spanish-speaking. The third status option – that of total independence – has less and less support, which is due to the fact that the majority of Puerto Ricans do not want to lose the privileges granted by American citizenship. Another argument against independence is that half of the nation lives on the mainland and would thus be separated from the island. According to the 2000 census, 3.4 million people living on U.S. mainland consider themselves Puerto Rican, while the number of the islander population is 3.8 million (Guzmán quoted in Duany 13).
Since the 1940s, the political nationalism (fighting for independence) has been replaced by cultural nationalism (this also includes Puerto Ricans that migrated to mainland U.S.). Despite similarities but due to significant rhetorical differences between the former and the latter, cultural nationalism has become the leading discourse for the definition of national identity in Puerto Rico (Duany 18). This strategy points out that national identity cannot be squeezed into essentialist discourses based on geographical borders and homogenous communities that political nationalism presupposes. This is why Jorge Duany, author of the book The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move, found it necessary to redefine the concept of the nation as a translocal and postcolonial community with a collective identity based on common history, language and culture, and not on geographical and demographic factors (Duany 4). Yet, according to Stuart Hall, the subjects do not own a fixed identity. This is shaped by their relations to the modes the cultural systems of their environment that symbolize and influence them at the same time (Hall 63). Since one of these modes is the realm of visual arts, they are a good terrain to examine how the search for identity is articulated in a given case.
Arnaldo Roche-Rabell is mainly concerned about historical, political and cultural ambivalence that characterizes his home country. Some of his paintings are particularly illustrative of the effort to construct an identity from the fragments of an agonizing and tragic past and present. Roche-Rabell’s work incorporates “a political subtext regarding relations between the United States and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico” (Hobbs 16). In 1996, his pieces evolving around the dialogue between the United States and its Caribbean dependency were compiled for an exhibition titled The Uncommonwealth, curated by Robert Hobbs. One of Roche-Rabell’s most celebrated paintings is You Have to Dream in Blue (1986), in which the contrast of superimposed blue eyes on a mulatto face underscores the life complexity of a colonized individual. He is obliged to dream in blue by a dominant culture whose members are ethnically and culturally different; this painting also offers the possibility of a political interpretation. Here, and in his other portraits where a similar motif appears (Asabache, 1986), the United States is symbolized by intensive, Caucasian blue eyes. With these visual tools, the artist expresses the complexities of an unstable, double identification process.
Another Roche-Rabell painting focusing on national identity is entitled The False Prophet (1996), where the issue of doubling plays an even more important role than in the above-mentioned one. The painting shows an extremely fine fusion of two faces in one; only the eyes are different, they are blue and brown. Yet, only one mouth belongs to the eyes, which seems to be a metaphor of the island represented by a star taken from the Puerto Rican flag. The different eye colors imply here a difference in points of view concerning Puerto Rico’s destiny. The false prophet, as the title suggests, is an individual who preaches about his homeland from a mixture of perspectives that includes that of North Americans, as well. An aggressively intense blue look is contrasted with a more subtle brown one; this contrast represents all inherent difficulties of making decisions about the political status of the island, since this situation cannot be solved for the satisfaction of the whole society, hence the double look and the twofold color.
In Roche-Rabell’s art, the pair of blue eyes on a dark face constitutes the emblem of the complex situation of the individual together with the community that is partially or totally under the dominance of a foreign culture. Roche-Rabell’s criticism of hegemonic representations is effective and expressive, and – despite the fact that we are talking about single portraits – they speak about their subject as part of a given community. However, the message regarding the question of the nation is implicit in these images, especially when compared to the works of other Puerto Rican artists, like Juan Sánchez and Pepón Osorio, who use flags, photographs of well-known politicians and excerpts from nationalist literature in their works. Roche-Rabell searches rather for the personal and spiritual side of the question of identity.
IV. Cultural Identity – Multiple Coding in Mendieta’s and Roche-Rabell’s Art
1. Cultural Identity on the Border
Apart from the issues of nationality, citizenship and that of common historical-political consciousness, another layer of subject construction that many Latin American artists depict is that of cultural identity. According to Stuart Hall, there are at least two different ways of thinking about cultural identity. The first position defines the concept in terms of shared cultural codes that provide stable, continuous and inalterable meanings and reference points; nevertheless, this vision imposes a false coherence over a postcolonial experience of dispersion and fragmentation (Hall 223). According to the second point of view, which for Hall provides a better explanation of the postcolonial experience, cultural identity is not subject to an essentially fixed past, but to a constant play of history, culture and power. Although cultural identity is not a fixed paradigm, it is not a trick of imagination either, since it is always constructed through memory, fantasy, narrative and myth, Hall emphasizes (226).
Contemporary postcolonial art refers and tries to capture this unstable aspect of cultural identities. Cameron McCarthy and Greg Dimitriadis affirm that postcolonial artists tend to mobilize two or more fields of idiomatic reference and may combine the traditional with the modern or images of the First World with cultural elements of the Third World in order to visualize the community they belong to (McCarthy and Dimitriadis 65). With the use of a plurality of signs, the artists represent the complexity of the search for identity, which is particularly difficult for individuals and communities that exist on the border of two or more different cultures.
According to Jonathan Friedman, “the fact of difference is not an autonomous cultural fact but the product of the practice of building walls, fences and boundaries” (Friedman 254). Gloria Anzaldúa, the Mexican author frequently uses in her theory about the phenomenon of unstable identities the metaphor of the “border” in order to describe the desperate situation of mixed-race women in the United States. She assumes that borders are artificial lines established to distinguish “us” from “them,” and those who live on the boundary are considered to be strangers and transgressors (Anzaldúa 3). Here, Anzaldúa literally refers to the border of the United States and Mexico, but also symbolically to that dim mental territory that develops in the consciousness of those who exist between two or more cultures (4). Her poem below reflects on this complex situation:
Because I, a mestiza,
continually walk out of one culture
and into another,
because I am in all cultures at the same time,
alma entre dos mundos, tres, cuatro,
me zumba la cabeza con lo contradictorio.
Estoy norteada por todas las voces que me hablan
The clash of different worlds results in insecurity and indecision in unquiet personalities. Anzaldúa assumes that, for those personalities that live in the threshold of cultures, this clash of two or more systems of reference (consistent but essentially incompatible) causes a specific cultural collision. For her, “[T]he answer to the problem between the white race and the colored […] lies in healing the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our languages, our thoughts” (80).
It is precisely this rupture that postcolonial art intends to reconcile through the use of a multiplicity of codes and perspectives. Artistic productions of this kind contain various cultural references, which, in the case of the Caribbean art can be Euro-American, African, Hispanic or Taíno (pre-Columbian culture in the Caribbean), besides strong national characteristics (such as Cuban, Puerto Rican or Dominican). Artists working with diverse elements suppose that the inclusion of a plurality of codes in their art helps spectators forget about essentialist, binary oppositions like white versus colored, sophisticated versus primitive, English-speaking versus Spanish-speaking, Protestant versus Catholic, and many more. Instead, these artists offer a synthesis without borders.
Ana Mendieta’s creative consciousness also works within this ‘frontera’ identity, since living in the United States as a Cuban-American left her with a fragmented identity. In an early performance dating from 1972 entitled Death of a Chicken, the naked artist is standing in a room holding a sacrificial chicken. On the recording, we can first see that the chicken’s head is being cut off and its body reaches Mendieta. The artist holds it away from her body in a way that the neck stays at the height of her pelvic level. Mendieta closes her eyes for a few minutes, while the chicken jerks and spills blood over her body. The naked feminine body splashed with sacrificial animal blood shows elements connected with gender consciousness and concern for women’s vulnerability, depicting their exposure to violence, brutality and marginality. However, in this ritual, the woman also takes up the role of an ancient priestess, which is there to become a fertile force full of potential and a source of new creation, similar to the woman in another one of Anzaldúa’s poem below:
at a crossroads, a simple mound of earth
a mud shrine for Eshu,
Yoruba god of indeterminacy,
who blesses her choice of path.
She begins her journey. (Anzaldúa 80)
Apart from gender issues, the performance and the poem also tell us about specific constructions of cultural identity. Mendieta’s Death of a Chicken is a sacrificial ritual, where the use of blood serves not only to evoke violence, but to indicate the artist’s interest for Santería, the Afro-Cuban religion, which attributes blood to ashe, that is, to a divine force (Dornbach 39). In addition, the performance is the imitation of an initiation ritual, which is what Anzaldúa’s poem also evokes. Here, the writer mentions Eshu in her poem, and calls it the god of indeterminacy. Eshu is probably the only one of the denominations of Eleguá, the god of roads, crossroads and destiny (Dornbach 69). During the inititation rituals Eleguá is the only god for whom a chicken, not a dove, must be sacrificed (135). There is another point where the performance can be connected to the poem, apart from the fact that both works closely connect the complicated position of women and individuals endowed with a mestiza, double identity.
2. African Presence in Mendieta’s and Roche-Rabell’s Art
Third World artists often use specific cultural codes to refer to traditions originating in the distant past. Therefore, it is not surprising that Caribbean artists work a lot with Taíno and/or Afro-Caribbean symbolism. What Fernando Ainsa writes about Ibero-America in general gives a palpable representation of what happens in the Caribbean:
The arts’ own visual world offers a display in successive historical layers, where it is possible to perceive, at the same time, indigenous art, the symbolic cross of the Baroque church, African voodoo and what we understand as modernity. (Ainsa 9)
Gerardo Mosquera agrees with Ainsa when he refers to the Caribbean as “an ethnogenetic soup cooked up by the West” (Mosquera 30). This definition extends to the whole Caribbean region and Fernando Ortiz’s metaphor adds to this complexity. According to him, Cuban culture is like an ajiaco, a soup with plenty of different ingredients (Ortiz 69). Although one can think that the essence of Cuba is an integrated nationality and a product of ideological synthesis, Ortiz also adds that it is necessary to take into consideration the continuous and dynamic process of the creation and re-creation of the nation in this case, too.
Mosquera adds that the happy, (seemingly) just and idyllic narrative of hybridization implies an unconscious discrimination or rather neglect of certain values or narratives. This neglect manifests itself (among many others things) in the fact that the immense cultural variety that Africans brought to America is not recognized enough, and is mostly referred to only with the term of voodoo (Mosquera 31). There are, however, certain facts that modify Mosquera’s assumption. One of them is that Africanism became one of the most fundamental features of Cuban identity especially for the emigrants that live in the United States. Santería, for instance, survives in the United States because, according to Mária Dornbach, fulfills a social mission: identification with Cuba (190). Another evidence for the importance of African influence in Cuban culture is that nowadays most Latin American artists use African culture as a source of inspiration: “… [t]his is not a coincidence. Much of the richness and originality of Latin America derives from the nonoccidental, dominated, popular sides of our cultures” (Mosquera 38).
The analysis of selected works by Ana Mendieta demonstrates her concern about giving alternative interpretations of the racialized female body and expressing her feelings about a forced exile. The artist often uses codes referring to indigenous cultures and Afro-Cuban culture, and especially to Santería. Santería is a synchretic religious system born from the incorporation of Catholic elements in the religious cult of the West African ethnic group, the Yoruba, which “has conserved, to this day, the animistic and polytheistic character of the African religion” (Dornbach 193). The deities, the orishas, are patrons of the human race, and define themselves through their attributes: colors, favorite food, plants and animals.
During the 1970s, Mendieta turns from the exposition of her body and the demonstration of the subjection of women to a more focused search for identity and cultural connections. In her series of installations, entitled Siluetas (1973-1980) that were carried out in the nature, she leaves an ephemeral imprint of her body on the ground and documents the process of its disappearance in photos and film. These personal traces on the ground represent the mythical intention of finding links with the earth, the home while also relieving the pain of exile. The artist, in an interview, said that she was “trying to find a place in the earth and trying to define myself” (Cabañas 14). Mendieta sees art like a refuge for her, and as the only means of building a connection to her culture.
My exploration through my art of the relationship between myself and nature has been a clear result of my having been torn from my homeland during my adolescence. The making of my silueta in nature keeps (make) the transition between my homeland and my new home. […] Although the culture in which I live is part of me, my roots and cultural identity are a result of my Cuban heritage. (Merewether 144)
Mendieta makes her first important Silueta in 1975 on a creek close to Iowa City and gives it the title Silueta de Yemayá. The piece consists of a constructed wooden raft which is covered with dark red velvet outlined with the artist’s own silhouette lined up with white flowers. She lets this arrangement go with the flow and films how the raft is dragged down by the currents while moving up and down until it finally disappears. The reference to Santería is apparent in the title which refers back to the orisha, to the Yemayá, one of the highest deities in the pantheon of Santería. According to Dornbach, in the Cuban Santería, Yemayá is the highly worshipped goddess of maternity and fertility (Dornbach 82). This installation is, accordingly, an offering to pay respect to maternity, creative powers and motherland; its ephemeral existence and the movements of the water conveys the message of instability and insecurity, as well.
Incantation to Olokun-Yemayá (1977) is another important piece from Mendieta’s silhouette series. Its title reveals its dedication to the orishas. Olokun in Cuba is the goddess of the bottom of the sea (or the ocean); she is also the mother or grandmother of Yemayá (Dornbach 87). This part of the Silueta series documents the trace of a feminine body excavated from sand and surrounded by large hand-made heaped sand. According to Cabañas, Olokun and Yemayá are usually invoked when one is in need of a place to call it home (Cabañas 14), which proves that this installation suggests the expression the desire for a return to the home and the need of the individual to reconnect itself with its lost origins.
Roche-Rabell, on his part, also alludes to cultural history through references to Santería, one of the most important legacies of Afro-Caribbean culture (though it is more so in Cuba than in Puerto Rico). Robert Hobbs claims that Roche-Rabell is the Wilfredo Lam of his generation, taken that Lam was one of the first modern artists that openly incorporated Santería in his artistic production (Hobbs in Cabanillas 45). However, one can spot the difference between the modernity of Lam and the postmodernity of Roche-Rabell in the sense that “if the first believed in the efficiency of the pictorial language, in the case of Roche, there is a simultaneous faith in the pictorial language and in its slipperiness” (ibid.). Santería manifests itself in his work through the spiritual and religious dimensions of his images, the syncretism of the applied codes and the combined play of materiality and spirituality, a procedure that approaches his art to that of Mendieta (Cabanillas 60). Another element of Santería in Roche-Rabell’s work is the prominence of colors, which can be interpreted as one major attributes of the orishas.
You Have to Dream in Blue (1986) connects also with the Santería trope; it is one of the portraits of Roche-Rabell created with frottage technique, which consists of covering the object (or the body, or the face) with the canvas and painting its contours on it. According to Cabanillas, this technique becomes a ritual during which “the materiality of the stroke intensifies the play with the material and the spiritual because it turns the dialogue between the body and the image in a simultaneous experience (ibid.). The symbolism of colors has a stronger connotation in this painting than in any previous ones. This work of art can be taken as a tribute to Yemayá, the goddess of the sea and maternity, whose attributed colors are blue (the eyes) and white (the background). However, blue is also attributed to Olokun, the goddess of the bottom of the sea (Yemayá’s mother). Moreover, the number linked with her is nine similar to the number of the leaves of the sugar cane plant that surrounds the face on the painting (Dornbach 171).
The syncretism of codes (Catholicism and Santería; dark skin and blue eyes, materiality and spirituality) and the syncretism of techniques (Roche-Rabell’s work can be regarded as the intersection of painting, sculpture and graphics), together with the symbolism of colors attributed to orishas and the allegoric use of plants, food, numbers and other attributes of Santería deities are some of the most important aspects that connect the artistic production of Arnaldo Roche-Rabell to his Afro-Caribbean legacy. The artist integrates these elements into his art with the aim of reconnecting himself with the past and folk traditions in order to reinterpret them and put them on display in the context of what constitutes the present.
3. Indigenous Cultures in Mendieta’s Art
Culture and history in the Caribbean consists of various different layers: pre-Columbian, Hispanic, African elements interact with the Euro-American influence of North America and also with those homogenizing tendencies of globalization. Many postcolonial artists deal with this ambiguous diversity through the reinterpretation and re-contextualization of the roots of his/her culture. The pre-Columbian heritage is an essential subject in the art of Ana Mendieta; in the work of Roche-Rabell this aspect is of less significance.
According to López-Cabrales, the imprint of Mendieta’s American life in her art seems to fade when she visits Cuba, where she reconnects with her primordial source of inspiration (López-Cabrales, notes). She says that, “[I] was frightened before going there because I felt that here I have been living my life with this obsession in my mind ‘what happens if I discover that it no longer has anything to do with me?’ But when I arrived, this sensation of belonging emerged again” (ibid.).
In 1981, during her stay in Cuba, Mendieta starts working on her Rupestrian Sculptures in a national park outside of Havana called Jaruco Park. She carves ten figures in the limestone walls of the Cave of Águila and two on the Stairs of Jaruco, to which she gives titles in Taíno (and referring to the ready works as creation goddesses). “All her works show a strong consciousness of gender, and this makes Mendieta feel a union with the rest of the women on the earth and the Taíno feminine deities who inspire her and give her strength,” says López-Cabrales stressing that the artist’s work never ‘tells’ only about one fragment of identity, but depicts at least two: the sexual and the cultural (López-Cabrales 4). It is precisely for this reason that Mendieta selects from Taíno mythology the elements that are in connection with maternity and fecundity. The goddesses carved in Rupestrian Sculptures include Guanaroca (The First Woman), Iyaré (The Mother Goddess), Atabey (The Mother of Waters), Guabancex (The Goddess of Wind), Itiba Cahubaba (The Old Mother Blood) and Maroya (The Moon); Guanaroca is the most powerful goddess of all, she is the first woman that populated the Earth (ibid.). The two sculptures entitled Guanaroca show emphasis on the genitals, which directly refer to the fertility and sexuality of the creation goddesses. Apart from these two sculptures, Iyaré, the Mother Goddess, is represented without any sexual marking: she looks like an infinite bowl capable of keeping all the children of the world in her stomach.
Maternity, fertility and sexuality are all fundamental elements composing the identity of the woman. In Rupestrian Sculptures, these are represented by symbols of femininity: moon, sea, blood and other natural forces like wind and water. Yet, the fact that the artist chooses to invoke these Taíno deities implies that her objective was not to say something only about femininity but also about femininity as perceived in the Caribbean region.
Individuals and communities living under the dominance of a culture distinct from their own are obliged to reconcile diverse cultural elements to be able to find their own identity. However, identity is not a fixed, transparent concept, but a construction of different layers and elements that are articulated through discourses and narratives. Contemporary visual arts in the postcolonial context are such discourses that may help reveal less known perspectives in the process of searching for identities.
Mendieta’s and Roche-Rabell’s works are created within the framework of cultural resistance, an artistic standpoint that rejects the idea of a universal art; they rather tend to build in local elements that represent their communities, even if by this they (might) exclude themselves from mainstream art circles or the elite art market. The critique of hegemonic representation is apparent in these two artists’ works because they are intrinsically concerned with the ambiguities of a search for national identity. A special mode of expressing the slipperiness of the concept of identity and the difficulties of reconciling its ambivalences is the juxtaposition of multiple perspectives, the use of elements from a range of cultural systems. In the case of the above-presented artists, these perspectives and elements come from indigenous, African, Hispanic and Euro-American cultures. Taken into this context, visual arts are an incredibly rich source of possible representations of the otherwise quite difficult process of self-identification. The analyzed artworks are as hybrid as the perception of identity of those individuals that live on the border of two or more cultures and/or nations. This plurality might cause confusion for those who try to see themselves in only one category and find themselves among various possibilities; but diversity also has its positive aspects, one of them being precisely this large selection of options in creating one’s new identity.
- Ainsa, Fernando. 1986. I_dentidad cultural de Iberoamérica en su narrativa_. Madrid: Editorial Gredos.
- Anzaldúa, Gloria. 1987. Borderlands: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute.
- Cabanillas, Francisco. 2005. “Arnaldo Roche: Africanía a dos voces,” Centro Journal 17: 42-71.
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