Current exhibition



A swift glance at the art of René Peña


While the Havana art scene of the late 80s and early 90s was debating how to cope with its dismemberment, having been ripped apart and renewed following the departure of many of its leading figures from the island, Cuba’s visual panorama changed. The first symptom manifested by this change was the primacy of photography as a dominant artistic language beyond mere reportage. The years of workshops, exhibitions, exchanges, and “cultural transfers” promoted by Cuba’s photographic library, the Wifredo Lam Centre, the Centre for the Development of Visual Arts, and finally the newly founded Ludwig Foundation of Cuba, finally bore fruit. A transformation that was supported by the curatorial perspective of the great Juan Antonio Molina. And from there, a whole new generation of Cuban photographers or “Image Artists” (a term I far prefer) emerged. Since then, these artists have developed a relationship with the production of imaginaries that is less concerned with realism, moving beyond and focusing on the narrative and fictional capacity of the photographic image, casting prejudice aside, and shrugging off indoctrinating formalisms (what Iván de la Nueza called “Iconocracia” as a system of fetishisation of the pro-revolutionary as state propaganda, when the curator and essayist argued – in broad terms – that in Cuba there is no statuary of the Revolution because there is an iconography of it), with no schools – many of them did not in fact study Art – and with no homogenising discourse. Quite the opposite in fact, since that a-scholastic, self-taught independence, and those “hushed voices” saying that photography at that time was still taking place as planimetrics on a domestic rather than a museum or biennial scale (the post-industrial gigantism of Ilfochrome, a technique that became so very fashionable in those decisive years for Global Photography, had not yet arrived in Cuba, and neither had the subsequent digital printing systems and technologies) might well have brought about what Molina calls, revising Vattimo, and I am paraphrasing here, “the dissident freedom of photography as a weak object, as unofficial thought.” Within this context, the work of René Peña emerges, an artist who, from the outset, set himself apart from his contemporaries through his exquisite technical expertise when it came to constructing images printed in a singular contrast, as if everything had been observed in the mid-day sun, but under an artificial neon spotlight.


Perhaps because this perfectionist mastery set him apart from the sometimes-shoddy aesthetic of regular photo-reportage, what theorists call “Direct Photography”; and even as a means of distancing himself from those who had already embarked on a purely artistic path, using photography as a mere tool, such as José Manuel Fors, Marta Maria Pérez Bravo or Carlos Garaicoa, in whom a certain technical disdain endowed them with a reductionist artistry, riding the wave of post-conceptualism. Those for whom photography was and is only a means, not an end. This is not the case for René. For him, right from the get-go, just before the shutter snaps open on his shot, the whole process of building the image is both means and end. That and the fact that he incorporated into his story the hitherto disguised – or denigrated – “racial issue of the black body,” as a focus of attention in everything he does. And I say it almost as an aside because what was a radical gesture for many, for René was a “natural discovery” of self-recognition.


Omar-Pascual Castillo

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