Cuba in the 1980s was a country still reeling from the departure of many artists into exile in the 1970s after Fidel Castro’s 1961 declaration in his “Words to the Intellectuals,” “with the revolution everything; against the revolution, no rights,” and the subsequent interpretation of this statement to mean that artists couldn’t pursue political content in their work. While this statement was never codified within Cuba’s constitution, as Ivan de la Nuez affirms, nonetheless it “hovered over Cuba ever since as an official stamp higher than any law or constitution. It has operated, above all, as a founding principle, and the fate of the cultural life, art and the intellectuals has often hinged on how liberally or strictly this dogma was interpreted.” Thus, the 1970s was characterized in retrospect as a kind of “grey period” marked by legislation of censorship and in which creative efforts to continue the construction of national identity through art and culture started in the early, “glorious” years of the revolution was stifled.
With the change in the decade came a parallel change in attitudes towards art and the role of the artist in society. The drab years of the 1970s gave way to a new period of Cuban art supported by socialist state institutions differentiated by the 1976 birth of the Ministry of Culture and the simultaneous establishment of the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA). This paved the way for a new generation of artists to effectively cannibalize the art from previous generations in order to establish themselves as the new voices for Cubans in the 1980s. This generation of artists, who took the scene by storm in the Volumen 1 exhibition, also stands out as the first generation of artists to know no other Cuba than the revolutionary Cuba. Gerardo Mosquera, reflecting on the potential of this new generation of artists, characterizes their work thusly: “The artistic forms and contents used by these young people do not have a homogeneous quality… They have updated the creative resources that had, until then, been dominated by photorealism, pop, neofiguration, and the epigonal derivations from the avant-garde of the beginning of the century.”
Among the artists that stand out at this time is Marta María Perez, one of the few artists among her peers experimenting with photography. Educated at the new ISA, her photography at this time is a complex blend of Afro-Cuban religious imagery, folkloric imagery and commentary on the nature of womanhood and motherhood in Cuban society. Writing in exile from the United States at this same time was Cuban novelist and essayist Antonio Benítez-Rojo. Like Marta María Perez, Benítez-Rojo’s writing can be characterized by a complex layering of images that attempts to construct and relate some idea of Cuban-ness, and more broadly Caribbean-ness, in the 1980s and 1990s. Specifically, his seminal book on the Caribbean consciousness, The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and Postmodern Perspective, similarly employs rich, tactile and evocative language that is based heavily at times on images of the female body and a feminized embodiment of nation.
What follows is a comparison between the language Benítez-Rojo employs to describe the Caribbean, and images of motherhood in the photographs of Marta María Perez. Scholarship on Perez’s work until this point has focused narrowly on her connections to ritual and Afro-Cuban religions. I, however, hope to show that her work can be understood as part of a wider dialogue on nationalism and the female body. Specifically, this paper seeks to understand how images of the female body, particularly the highly sexualized images of the birthing female body, operate for Benítez-Rojo, and how his written language parallels or stands in contrast to the visual language employed in the syncretic images of the pregnant female body in Marta María Perez’s work. Through this comparison emerges a broader picture of the formation of Cuban national identity and how it may or may not be staked on the female body.
Nationalism, the female body and representation
Women are represented as the atavistic and authentic 'body' of national tradition (inert, backward-looking, and natural), embodying nationalism's conservative principle of continuity. Men, by contrast, represent the progressive agent of national modernity (forward-thrusting, potent, and historic), embodying nationalism's progressive, or revolutionary, principle of discontinuity.
This paper argues that a narrative of national identity as seen in the book, The Repeating Island, and in the photography of Marta María Perez, continues to represent a specifically female embodiment of the nation. But, before looking at the specific ways in which a feminized idea of nation is inscribed in these works, it is necessary to establish a framework for nationalism, and how it can at times be staked on gender. Specifically, I will be drawing on constructions of nationalism described in Benedict Anderson’s authoritative text on the subject, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, and in selected essays from the equally pivotal 1992 compilation of essays, Nationalisms and Sexualities.
Historically, Benedict Anderson sees nationalism as a modern phenomenon, arising with the help of print capitalism and print technologies as a system of signification used by political states or cultural institutions to unify a group of heterogeneous people under a homogeneous, communal, and imagined identity. Anderson prefers to classify nationalism along the same lines as “kinship” and “religion,” rather than as an ideological construct or “ism” like fascism or fundamentalism. In this way, nationalism can be defined for Anderson as “an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” Continuing along these lines, Anderson specifies the ways in which these ideas of nationalism operate as “limited,” “sovereign,” and “community.” According to Anderson, the nation “is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations.” Put simply, the United States does not imagine itself to be infinite, but relates its own idea of nation in context with other coexistent nations. The nation is imagined as “sovereign” in Anderson’s view “because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm,” and when people as a whole were demanding freedom in this historical period of plurality. Lastly, and most critically in terms of this paper, nation is imagined for Anderson as “community” due to the fact that “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship” of the sort that propels people to kill or invokes them to die for their imagined nation. In this way, we can begin to see the power that nationalism holds over people, and how these ideas of nationhood can be manipulated in various forms to empower certain narratives describing where national identity is formed. In this vein, Mary Layoun, author of the essay “Palestinian Women and National Narratives,” asserts that nationalism, “for a given time and specific space, constructs and proffers a narrative of the ‘nation’ and of its relation to an already existing or potential state. Nationalism lays claim to a privileged narrative perspective on the nation… and thus justifies its own capacity to narrate its story.”
Looking more to this idea of nationalism and the kind of narrative or perspective on nation it favors, Andrew Parker, Mary Russo, Doris Sommer, and Patricia Yeager, in the introduction to their collection of essays Nationalisms and Sexualities, expand on Anderson’s idea of community, taking it to the realm of sexuality and gender. At the outset, they draw attention to the fact that “whenever the power of the nation is invoked—whether it be in the media, in scholarly texts, or in everyday conversation—we are more likely than not to find it couched as a love of country: an eroticized nationalism.” Indeed, it is in questioning this often-blind love of nation that leads Anderson to the idea of national identity constructed at the communal level as a shared imagined ideology. Despite the fact that Anderson’s book lacks a discussion of gender in a nationalistic context, Parker et al next argues that Anderson’s comparison of nationality to gender, as something that one possesses in relation to another person, enables the logical formation that nationality is derived on a “system of differences,” in the way that “’man’ and ‘woman’ define themselves reciprocally… national identity is determined not on the basis of its own intrinsic properties but as a function of what it… is not.” Clearly this is just another iteration of Anderson’s notion of national identity as being “limited,” but expanded here to relate to gender differences. They see additional parallels between nationalism and sexuality in that the image evoked in the kind of “deep, horizontal comradeship” that Anderson conceives as one of the key elements of these imagined communities, “spills into and out of libidinal economies in ways that are at once consistent and unpredictable.” As such, we can begin to see how nationalism, in its construction as a community of eroticized ideas of nationhood, can be modeled in a variety of different ways on gender and sexual paradigms.
A prototypical example of these gender and sexual paradigms is the nation-as-woman construct seen in cultures throughout the world as the primary mode of anthropomorphizing the abstraction of nation. Blatantly obvious is the case of the frequent nominalization of earth as “Mother” in discourse surrounding a perceived responsibility to preserve the environment. Operationally, for Parker et al, this paradigm relies “for its representational efficacy on a particular image of woman as chaste, dutiful, daughterly or maternal.” Extrapolating back to my example, then, the efficacy of the term “Mother Earth” comes from powerful psychological associations of the term with comfort, nurture and love, which in turn engages a powerful need to protect and defend these perceived ideologies behind the term. Thus, it becomes clear that the rhetoric of nationalism, in using these kind of “woman-as-nation” constructs, “makes use of gender from its own ideological perspective and frames women narrowly…Like any framework whose finitude is the representation of its own limited and ideologically-based interests.” Nationalisms that play on these sentiments in the narratives they construct cannot be valued simply as ideal or detrimental. Though they may narrow understandings of gender (as R. Radhakrishnan asserts above); they may also simultaneously promulgate woman as goddess and something to be revered—espousing a level of respect a woman would not normally garner on her own. The fact that this could also stand parallel to a nationalism that either leaves women out of the dialogue, figures women solely with respect to their relationship as womb to create more men, or favors masculinity and homosocial forms of male bonding, begins to shed light on how complex and problematic the construction of a national identity staked on gender can be.
The Repeating Island
Using this framework on nationalism, and how it can operate in the formation of a national identity based on the female body, we can move now to a textual examination of several passages from Benítez-Rojo’s The Repeating Island. First, a little background on Benítez-Rojo. He was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1931. After working for years for the Cuban government in cultural departments and becoming increasingly disenchanted with the revolution, on a trip to Paris in 1980 to attend a symposium on the Latin American short story, he defected to the United States. For the remainder of his life (he died in 2005 at the age of seventy-three), he worked at Amherst College, writing fiction and essays from there on constructions of the Caribbean self. His book, The Repeating Island, was originally published in Spanish in 1989, released in English translation in 1992, and is considered to be one part in a trilogy of works focused on constructing an idea of what constitutes Caribbean identity. It is esteemed as the authoritative text on this subject, using a postmodern critique of Caribbean literature as its primary mode of operation.
In the book, “he uses strategies including the simulacrum and theories of fractal mathematics and Chaos in order to define the indefinable, one of the least known and most elusive regions of the modern world: the Caribbean.” Running beneath his superficial focus on literary works from Caribbean authors is language teeming with images of pregnancy, birth, and motherhood—all conveying a sense of regional identity based substantively on the female body. It is important to note at this point that while Benítez-Rojo’s book as a whole focuses on constructions of Caribbean identity as observed in literature from the region; I am extending his ideas here to speak specifically to a Cuban national identity—a leap feasible in light of the fact that Benítez-Rojo spent the first forty-nine years of his life in Cuba and presumably is basing his own reading on Caribbean identity in part based on growing up in pre- and post-revolutionary Cuba. It is through this extension that my later comparison of his writing to Marta María Perez becomes a viable exercise.
Using some perspective from Ben Heller’s essay, “Landscape, Femininity and Caribbean Discourse,” I will unpack some of the complexities of language surrounding birth and motherhood that Benítez-Rojo employs in The Repeating Island. Heller’s essay focuses primarily on the literature of Antonio Pedreira, José Lezama Lima and Rosario Ferré (all of whom are contemporaries of Benítez-Rojo), shedding light on how this theme of landscape and the female body appears throughout a body of writing by Caribbean authors. According to Heller:
“A signal characteristic of Caribbean discourse has been the tendency to figure the shaping environment as female, or with qualities such as fluidity and relationality that have often been associated with women, femininity and the female body in both patriarchal and feminist discourses—and both positive and negative effects have been ascribed to this feminized landscape.”
In The Repeating Island, this can be seen most definitively in passages in the introduction to the main text. In the introduction, Benítez-Rojo begins by describing the obstacles to those foreign scholars who would try to define the nature of the region: “its fragmentation; its instability; its reciprocal isolation; its uprootedness; its cultural heterogeneity; its lack of historiography and historical continuity; its contingency and impermanence; [and] its syncretism.” Just in this initial passage Benítez-Rojo begins to convey a kind of fragmentation and rupture of identity, caused by the push and pull of this litany of expectations and circumscriptions. He next moves to his most dense and rich description in the chapter, that of the literal birth of the Caribbean as he sees it. He begins: “Let’s be realistic: the Atlantic is the Atlantic (with all its port cities) because it was once engendered by the copulation of Europe—that insatiable solar bull—with the Caribbean archipelago.” Though there is no direct reference to the female body in this specific instance, his choice of “that insatiable solar bull” to describe the imperialist forces of Europe begins to set up a gendered dichotomy between a male Europe, and a female Caribbean archipelago, which come together in heterosexual unity to create. Underlying here in this language is the implication of rape through the description of the bull—an animal typically imagined as sexual and forceful—as “insatiable” in its pursuit of the Caribbean. Additionally, Benítez-Rojo’s relation of the Caribbean to Europe can be read as falling into one of Anderson’s qualifications of nationalism by relating the Caribbean identity in relation to an “other,” as in Anderson’s principle of the limited nature of nationalism.
In the next few lines of this passage, Benítez-Rojo inscribes the female body into this metaphor more directly. He writes: “the Atlantic is today the Atlantic (the navel of capitalism) because Europe, in its mercantilist laboratory, conceived the project of inseminating the Caribbean womb with the blood of Africa.” In the phrase, “inseminating the Caribbean womb with the blood of Africa,” Benítez-Rojo is not only furthering his construction of the Caribbean as female, but also starting to unpack the fragmentation, cultural heterogeneity and syncretism he describes in the first page of the introduction. Clearly this blend of blood from Africa in the creation coming forth from the Caribbean uterus is significant in the blended national identity that it inherently engenders. Additionally, it is important to note here that Europe continues to be depicted as male, and as the imperialist interloper or instigator (rapist?) that puts these two distinct elements—African blood and Caribbean womb—together in a cold, harsh “mercantilist” laboratory.
The undertone of violence Benítez-Rojo suggests in these first few lines becomes more explicit in the final, admittedly dense, few lines in this passage. Benítez-Rojo completes his metaphor of the creation of the Atlantic with a graphic depiction of birth and labor. He states:
The Atlantic today is the Atlantic…because it was the painfully delivered child of the Caribbean, whose vagina was stretched between continental clamps, between the encomienda of Indians and the slaveholding plantation, between the servitude of the coolie and the discrimination toward the criollo, between the commercial monopoly and piracy, between the runaway slave settlement and the governor’s palace; all Europe pulling on the forceps to help at the birth of the Atlantic… After the blood and salt water spurts, quickly sew up torn flesh and apply the antiseptic tinctures, the gauze and surgical plaster; then the febrile wait through the forming of a scar: suppurating, always suppurating.
There is obviously a lot to unpack in this section of text. Benítez-Rojo emphasizes the violence that this birth wrought with words like “painfully,” “stretched,” and in the final sentence, phrases like “blood and salt water spurts,” “torn flesh,” and “febrile wait.” All of these images convey bodily pain vividly to the viewer. The image of the Caribbean’s vagina forcibly stretched by the hands (or forceps) of Europe also particularly evokes this creation as something aggressive and brutal, not pretty and peaceful. In terms of the identity of the Caribbean, again here Benítez-Rojo stresses an inherent multi-faceted, fragmented composition of different imagined and fragmented communities by introducing us to the island natives, slaveholders, “coolie[s]” and “criollo[s],” imperial governors, and commercially-driven colonialists—all of whom have some stake in this feminized Caribbean body. Ultimately, in this last sentence, this leads for Benítez-Rojo to rupture and a wound that never fully heals, but remains heated, festering, ready to explode at any moment. In terms of a feminized idea of nation, in using such graphic descriptions of first rape, then birth, it becomes clear that Benítez-Rojo is engendering the Caribbean region as female. Not only that, his construction of female falls into line with notions of nation-as-woman as described in terms of nationalism above. Specifically, the Caribbean in this case takes on the qualities of a maternal figure, though at the mercy of a male interlocutor (Europe). Positive associations of mother are disrupted, however, by menacing language of destruction and violence. These conflicting images and associations reveal a complex and layered notion of national identity constructed through an exclusively feminine, though not ideal, process, while also underscoring the rupture and fragmentation of community that results out of this birth.
In a passage later in the text, Benítez-Rojo offers yet another, though equally feminine, perspective on the culture of the Caribbean. Instead of focusing on birth and maternity, Benítez-Rojo moves to another typically feminine mode of discourse. He elaborates:
But the culture of the Caribbean, at least in its most distinctive aspect, is not terrestrial but aquatic, a sinuous culture where time unfolds irregularly and resists being captured by the cycles of clock and calendar. The Caribbean is the natural and indispensable realm of marine currents, of waves, of folds and double-folds, of fluidity and sinuosity.
Moving beyond the obvious vaginal images of “folds” and “double-folds” he employs here, in this passage Benítez-Rojo plays on typical associations of femininity with fluidity, and the natural, cyclical ebb and flow of water. As Heller explains, “women possess a diffuse sexuality and multiplicity of libidinal energies which can act as the basis of new forms of expression which would challenge masculine logic and textural practices.” Key to this is the fact that, as with Caribbean culture Benítez-Rojo describes, “change, fluidity, are central. Not only do women possess multiple sources of bodily pleasure, female language is also multiple, contradictory, setting off in several directions at once, never assuming an invariable position but constantly mutating.” This idea of a flowing, evolving, constantly mutating female essence comes up multiple times throughout this chapter, not just in this example. Though Benítez-Rojo conjures the idea of Deleuze and Guattari’s machine, the Caribbean version of this machine is not structured, robotic, but possesses these same feminine qualities of aquatic motion, repetition, and inconstancy. Ultimately we see here a landscape and national consciousness that is consistently “figured as feminine—both explicitly and by emphasis on certain attributes, such as fluidity and relationality, which have been associated with femininity by traditional stereotypes.” Clearly Benítez-Rojo’s interest here is in how Caribbean identity, and arguably Cuban identity, is formed on the basis of these feminine and maternal images—which stands in marked contrast to his earlier construction of Europe as powerful and male. What is not seen here is a positive, eroticization of country—the “love of country” that Parker et al identify. Instead, this creation of national identity rests on a violent rupture and fragmentation that is coded as exclusively female. Looking now to the photography Marta María Perez, we can see a similarly violent, though subtly different variation of Benítez-Rojo’s construction of national identity staked on the female body.
Pregnant images: Marta María Pérez
Born in Havana in 1959, Marta María Pérez can be firmly situated in the group of Volumen 1 artists that came of age in the 1980s, knowing nothing but the revolutionary Cuban state. Pérez studied at the Instituto Superior de Arte and later at the San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts, both in Havana, taking advantage of the opening in the socialist system of education, and post-revolutionary laws that gave women equal opportunity in these institutions. Both of these institutions were pivotal at this time in forming the new generation of the Cuban artistic avant-garde, of which Pérez is definitively a key member at the very least because of her experimentation with photography at a time when the focus was on painting, performance, and installation work. Indeed, she counts among her peers such renowned artists as Jose Bedia, Flavio Garciandia (who is also her husband), and Elso. Additionally, according to Gerardo Mosquera, in his article “Marta María Pérez: Self-Portraits of the Cosmos,” Pérez was the first Cuban artist to work with “her own body and in close relationship to her feminine experience.” He also states that she was “the first to make use of photographs for her objectives, employing her own image.”
As mentioned earlier, scholarship on her work has previously focused on how her work is infused with images from Afro-Cuban religious practices. However, by focusing on work specifically from her two late 1980s series, Para Concebir (To Conceive), 1986-7, and Recuerdo de nuestro bebe (Memory of our baby), 1987-88, her work can also be characterized in terms of a feminized national identity in similar ways as Benítez-Rojo’s writing in The Repeated Island. As Mosquero describes, these series “tied her intimate biography directly to the artistic act, which functions almost as a live discussion of events of her own experience.” Pérez, in these beautiful self-portraits both pre- and post-partum, allows the viewer to “know a physical view of maternity, consisting of infants’ constant demands, fluids, and scars, while stripping away its lyrical narrative.” It’s clear in both series that for Perez, her “photographs become a medium for a ritualization that is shaped by different perspectives, in which she positions herself as the owner of her space and body. Her nudes deliberately conceal and reveal, cutting off the head, the face or other body parts or dissolving them in shadow or fusing them with the surface on which the figure rests.”
Looking first to one of her most charged works, we can begin to see how Pérez constructs the maternal, female body. In the photograph, No matar, ni ver matar animales (Neither Kill, Nor Watch Animals Being Killed), 1986, Pérez’s nearly full-term, stretched, pregnant abdomen is depicted in profile. In one hand she holds a knife, aimed threateningly at her round stomach. The simple, stark black and white composition and dramatic use of shadow in the photo adds to the portentous mood. Like Benítez-Rojo, maternity is not being characterized here as something beautiful, brimming with the glow of fertility, but rather as something raw and coarse in the way it burdens and frustrates the identity of the mother. Indeed, the viewer is not privilege to the mother’s identity because Perez deliberately crops her own head and face. The title of the piece, No matar, ni ver matar animales, refers to a Cuban superstition that a woman should neither kill nor watch animals being killed while pregnant. While it is outside the scope of this paper to consider the effects of her reference to superstition, by choosing this title Perez does put her work into a broader dialogue on what constitutes the role of the mother in Cuban society. It is clear that in this photo she is challenging the notion that a woman’s identity, and implicitly her actions, be dictated by the state of being pregnant.
In another work from the Para Concebir series, Te nace ahogado con el cordón (Born to You Strangled by the Cord), 1986, Perez comments similarly on superstition in Cuban culture, referencing this time the belief that by wearing a necklace while pregnant, your baby would be born strangled by its own cord. In this image, Perez faces the camera, shoulders slightly slumped with a string of what appear to be pearls around her neck, the initial curve of her milk-filled breasts dominating the bottom half of the photograph. Perez incorporates a similar, minimalist visual language here with her choice of a black and white compositoin. The viewer is once more cut off from the identity of the woman, this time by cropping the top half of her face, leaving just her bottom lip and chin. Perez again frustrates a need to find individual identity in the woman; her identity is again subsumed to this greater discussion on maternity and the role of the maternal woman in Cuban society. Indeed, by limiting “the gaze of the observer [he/she] is directed to the experience of being a mother, linking the physical view of maternity to popular beliefs” and associations of the role of the maternal woman.
As Mosquera affirms, “the anti-romantic exhibition of maternity, based on the “objectivity” of the body,” is communicated through a distinct, consistent set of visual tropes, seen clearly in both of these photographs. This same anti-romantic notion of maternity parallels the violent, disparaging language used in the birthing scene described by Benítez-Rojo. Looking back to constructions of national identity as enunciated in The Repeating Island, Pérez seems more intent on fragmentation of that identity as seen through the fragmentation of the body in both of these images. Despite this slight difference, however, like Benítez-Rojo, Pérez constructs a narrative of national identity that is based inherently on the female body, and how that female identity is supposed to behave in a Cuban, nationalist formation.
Looking at a few images from her other series Recuerdo de nuestro bebe, chronologically right after Para Concebir, shows similar ideas on national identity and motherhood playing out in her work. This series, which she photographs after giving birth to twins, acts as a kind of album relating her experience and feelings as a mother. Like in Para Concebir, she problematizes the expectations of what motherhood should be like for a woman by visually articulating her own personal experience and frustrations in photographs.
Her 1986 photograph in this series, No vi con mis propios ojos (I did not see with my own eyes), depicts Pérez in the center of the frame with her arms raised above her head and bound with rope near her elbows. Pérez also works once more in black and white, letting shadows create drama in the image. Placed over each eye, and seemingly held in place by the rope, is a small toy baby, representing each twin. Like in the photographs from Para Concebir, by blocking her own eyes Pérez frustrates construction of her identity as a cohesive, identifiable whole. Instead the viewer focuses primarily on the fragmented images presented here, trying to make sense of their disruptive effect. Close cropping of the image distorts the outer edge of her arm, and cuts off her body below her clavicle, and also contributes to the sense of fragmentation from a greater, whole body. The title seems to reflect a kind of helplessness, or blindedness caused by her new status as mother. Her identity, where previously it was problematized along the lines of pregnancy, is now a contested space, with her children’s views and interests taking over her own. The same anti-romantic tropes Mosquera identifies with relation to Para Concebir play out in the same way, deconstructing national identity based on the female body in ways similar to Benítez-Rojo.
These themes continue throughout this series for Pérez. In the photograph, also from 1986, Excesiva atencion (Excessive Attention), Pérez is shown with her mouth open, as if in a scream. The twin dolls appear again, though this time they are propping her mouth open, not blocking her eyes from view. Cropping of the frame once more limits the view to only part of Pérez’s face and body. In this instance, her head is cut off just above her nose, and the left half of her body disappears into the edge. Once more, Pérez insinuates a loss of freedom to truly express herself due to her new role as mother. Her construction of motherhood in this case is limiting, narrowed, in the same way that Radhakrishnan problematizes the typical formations of national identity in terms of chaste daughter/fertile mother. Thinking back to nationalist ideas of “mother as country” or “mother as homeland,” it is clear that Pérez, similar to Benítez-Rojo, is working within a similar vocabulary. Her continual explorations of how motherhood actually operates in a Cuban context ultimately fall victim to the same masculine hands as the Caribbean in The Repeating Island. Also like Benítez-Rojo, Pérez’s sense of motherhood is contested, at times violent, and leads to a fragmentation of identity. In all of these photographs, Pérez explores “issues of identity, expanding the notions of portraiture from the focus of exterior physicality to depiction of the internal fundamental identities. [She uses her] own bod[y] as terrain to be viewed on [its[ own terms, highlighting [her] agency as producers.” Arguably, however, her agency still is limited by her own status within this nationalist system as mother, progenitor, creator of new life, and reified here in these works.
Cuban art in the 1980s presented such a vibrant rupture from the 1970s, as is apparent just by looking at the complex, multi-layered photographs from Marta María Pérez. As Mosquera states, this new generation of artists, “who had only known the Revolution, and for whom the Revolution was not a myth but daily life,” introduced a “new consciousness that has spread from the visual arts to become the nucleus of energy of all intellectual life.” Part of this new consciousness entailed a new “intention of the artists… to find a Cuban answer” to problems in representation both in the works of Cuban artists from the generation immediately prior, and in works on an international scale. As Luis Camnitzer asserts, these artists “expressed a wish to create an informed nationalistic art rather than one stemming from isolationism…[Volumen 1] began a process of increasingly radical ruptures with Cuban art traditions. It also fueled the break with an epic past, opened the way for self-referential issues about art that were absent during the 1970s, and dealt with the international art scene without a guilt complex.”
These ruptures, and the national identity they espouse, are not without their problems, as seen in the examination of The Repeating Island by Antonio Benítez-Rojo, and in the photography of Marta María Pérez, and especially in light of a Cuban revolutionary culture based primarily rhetoric, from leaders like Che Guevara, focused on the male role in the new state. Women, in this formation, “are predictably enshrined as The Mother, a ‘trope of ideal femininity, a fantasmatic female that secures male-male arrangements and an all male history.’” Benítez-Rojo and Pérez present their own view of nationalism, also predicated on the female body, and Parker’s “mother-as-nation” argument. Images of the female body in both The Repeating Island, and in Para Concebir and Recuerdo de nuestro bebe, operate for Benítez-Rojo and Pérez in a way that ruptures, fragments, and challenges these constructions of national identity on the female body. Both artist and writer use visual and textual language respectively to construct an image of a feminized national identity that is rooted in violence, and at the liberty of a “Cuban society [that] continues to be machista, and despite its Marxist-inspired agenda regarding women,” where power is ultimately “structured from a military, phallocentric authoritarianism based on the patriarchal figure of the caudillo.”
Ann McClintock, “Family Feuds: gender, nationalism and the family,” in Feminist Review 44 (Summer 1993), 61-80. Quoted in Saraswati Sunindyo’s essay, “When the Earth Is Female and the Nation Is Mother: Gender, the Armed Forces and
Nationalism in Indonesia,” in Feminist Review 58 (Spring 1998), 1-21.
Antonio Benítez-Rojo, interview by Robert Antoni, BOMB 82 (Winter 2003), http://www.bombsite.com/issues/82/articles/2536.