René Peña was already shifting the focus from the public space to the domestic interior in the early 1990s, relocating the concept of “social space” according to an imaginary that at that time continued to be peripheral within the documentary rhetoric. In this context, Hacia adentro (1989-1992) is the series that most completely summarizes the first stage of René Peña’s work and his contributions to a new sensibility in Cuban documentary photography, on the threshold of the “special period”.
Inward focuses on the domestic space, everyday gestures, the family circle, seemingly disconnected from history and which became, in the early 1990s, a metaphor for the wear and tear of the collective relationship with history. The main motivation of the photographs was the photographic act itself and the aesthetic situation it generated. The value that René Peña sought to produce was, above all, formal. And yet, this aesthetic turn already carried a self-referential impulse that would place the keys of identity and otherness at the center of his subsequent artistic projects.
René Peña introduces as an aesthetic program something that Cuban photographers had only tried out in an isolated and collateral way: the beauty of black skin, its symbolic and formal power. It was not a sentimentalist vindication of the black subject as beautiful, but to produce photography as an aesthetic situation, making use of the materials with which the photographer was most familiar. And one of those materials was skin. Working with natural light and in narrow spaces, René Peña always seems to be very close to the people photographed. The series has an introverted and intimate tone that justifies the title “inward,” although it could only be achieved that way by working from the inside. Peña photographs blacks without condescension, but also without that sometimes irritating humor with which some documentary photographers looked at popular culture and minorities in Cuba. There is no ethnographic or picturesque perspective in his project, much less the intention of representing blacks as subjects “integrated” into the revolutionary landscape. In fact, if there is something that disappears in his photographs, it is the “revolutionary landscape”.
One of the subtexts of Hacia adentro is the religious component of the domestic environment, which replaces and contradicts the political component of the public environment in Havana in the late 1980s and early 1990s. And that religiosity is associated with the racial theme, not as something that illustrates an ethnic identity (it is not about representing the religious as “Afro-Cuban religion”), but about accepting the domestic environment in the homes of blacks, with all the symbolic elements that make it up. The symbolic in that stage of René Peña’s work was not something that was staged, but was part of the reality of the environments he photographed. However, although spontaneous and intuitive, in 1989 René Peña was already an author with a gaze full of intentions who worked his images with a particular expressive will and a consistent visual intelligence.