RENÉ PEÑA

BLACK PHONE

NEGRO TELÉFONO / BLACK PHONE

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.

Speaking off the top of my head, knowing him as I have done for three decades[1], Peña felt at ease with that neo-pop tendency of his work because the time he spent in Europe changed his perspective. British interracial advertising, the gigantism of photographic shots, the glossiness, the hyper-illumination, the cleansing of shots, and the affectation of gestures, that whole avalanche, that downpouring of light soaked him through to the bone, and it got under his skin, just as Afro-American music of the seventies, jazz or rock had, rather than conga, son, or salsa music. That “Americanophile” choice, as some might sneer contemptuously at a certain leaning towards pro-consumer, pro-capitalist “ideological diversionism” found in Pupi (as his friends call him), has always been a life choice, a choice of resistance. The same resistance he put up in his neighbourhood of Alta Habana in the outskirts of the city, resistance to Afro-Caribbean folklore, which he considered clichéd, a cop-out, a faux refuge rather than genuine escape. René has always felt that a return to his Afro-descendant legacy, his Afro-transatlantic ancestry, is somewhat of an imposition, because he is not exactly an “Aleyo” (a “believer or person of faith” in the Yoruba language), even if he is not an atheist.

And these are the questions that have always been asked.

It is possible not to be an atheist without also strictly being religious? Should a Cuban artist talk about Cuba, or about himself? If your job is about what defines you, what you like, what surrounds you, what signifies you… are those the hallmarks of your identity or can you subvert and fictionalise everything? Is discourse necessary in the age of the image? What kind of image or imaginary is expected of a black man, born on a Spanish-speaking Caribbean island? What is stronger, racism or classism? Can you have style without going to style classes? How is masculinity constructed in the age of promiscuity? How do I represent my legacy without selling myself as a victim? Is the artist a victim or victimiser? Are we not all “man-made material”?[2]

Questions that brought him closer to Robert Mapplethorpe than to Alberto Korda, closer to the anti-hero from the slums, bordering on the marginal, than to the dogmatic stoicism of the “new man,” as he also found himself closer to African American artists such as Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, or Jamaica’s Reneé Cox than Latin American photographers of the time[3] such as Sutter or González Palma. The one exception was the Brazilian Cravo Neto, with whom he did find many points in common. With Mario he discovered ritual, not from its narrative representation but from its props, from its gestural, residual, almost abstract, areferential proximity. That is why I was not surprised when speaking to him that the pieces were extremely contrasted because he does not associate the “white man” when presented with a mestizo complexion, like his own, with blackness directly because he finds his traits there. That is why he preferred to fictionalise himself as if he were “a black phone”[4]. Furthermore, this exaggeration of his blackness imposed mystery on the image, in turn stripping it of any attribute of verisimilitude.

Self-portrait took on a central role in the production of meaning by post-performance artists in the mid-nineties, especially in the art produced by women, so the “strangeness of René” also contrasted with what was expected of a “Black Cuban macho man”. Not that macho, not that black, not that Cuban as entities themselves, but rather in their staging, their entry into the game of re-presentations, where racial is not a theme, it is the raw material with which the artist could best work. “It is what it is”. He always said. So… no subterfuge. In an almost premonitory way, René Peña pre-empted today’s fashionable trend towards Afro-transatlantic production (a product of the Post-Obama era, where “racialised subjects” began to take part or raise their voice in the choir of imperial subjects), which encompasses figures such as Zanele Muholi, the multi-faceted Faisal Abdu´Allah, the painting of Kerry James Marshall, Kehinde Wiley, Delita Pinchback Martin, Toyin Ojih Odutola or the multidisciplinary artists Yinka Shonibares, Hew Locke, Rashib Johnson, and Hans Willis Thomas.

As we have moved through this new millennium, colour was imposed as a distinctive mark of our visuality, recruiting black and white to designate the image of the archive or the resource of the conceptual record, forcing René to rethink his way of constructing images[5]. But, since colour had already soaked him through with its force and might three decades ago, Peña attached importance to its accessories, to its accompanying materiality, that is, to objects.[6] While, in his work, the domestic context turned artist’s studio, whether his own and/or usurped (René sometimes stole the stage, portraying himself in place of friends, or public spaces if he had seen fit because he found an unusual chair, or a disruptive object – such a trending word), took on a specific meaning, in his last production after the series Plastic / Plástico and White Things / Cosas Blancas, self-portrait is a support, a landscape, an element that triggers what happens. The figurative, as Bataille would say, has become a verb, not a statue; it is no longer a pose frozen in time, where colour inscribes the object as an anchor of the photographed thing, beyond the activating hand.[7]

 

In his characteristic manner, once again, René Peña repeatedly splits in two, pretends, deceives the eye, lies to the camera, all the time knowing that the narcissism of the 21st century and its media invasion is the new tonic of our time. It may be because he knows that we are not the things we have, even though these things have us trapped in their material universe, we have not trapped them, because what surrounds us is our support, our scaffolding, but not our essence. Our essence will always be the same even if reality re-educates us, mutates us into monsters or tyrants, turns us into monks or warriors, effeminates us or strengthens us with theatricality, Peña knows that nowadays everything is a pose, a performance, a reprocessing of the ego – and I said this a decade ago, but it still applies. Perhaps because behind all that narcissism, in René there is a consciousness that there is something greater than everything, and it is the passage of time, the relentless god who uses us all, just as we used that “black phone” to communicate. And perhaps these works, which now captivate our attention, might just be telling us:

  • Can we talk? I’m René, what’s your name?”

And that with all his characteristic disbelief, he concludes:

  • “You know this is all a trick, right?”

And let this endemic sincerity be his incalculable value. His only trick.

 

 

Omar-Pascual Castillo

[1] I have even had the pleasure of being his student , the only one he felt he has established a “master-student” relationship with, he confessed to me recently. From him I learned just what you could do from black and white analogue photography techniques in a couple of years spent with the artist, between 1992-1995, when Peña had just returned from Britain, after a stay in Bristol and London. And I was a poet with curatorial pretensions, with both fields (poet and curator) falling short for me in Cuban society during the “Special Period” with its great shortcomings, and artistic creation began to look like a more possible option to escape abroad. And in fact that was what happened. I left Cuba as an “artist,” thanks to René’s teachings.

[2] Three decades before the famous “Anthropocene” concept came to the fore, Peña was already talking about the fact that everything around us as city-dwellers is a “man-made material”, and that the incense of the 20th century was asphalt, not concrete.

[3] Gerardo Mosquera had curated Cambio de Foco (Change of Focus), dedicated to Latin American photography, an exhibition that toured for several years in the early 1990s. FotoFest (Houston) had dedicated an edition of the festival to Latin America with Cuba as the guest country, and Alejandro Castellote had focused together with J.A.Molina on Photography made in the Americas, whose work was exhibited in Spain and on the other side of the Atlantic. So there was undeniably a minor boom for image on our continent, parallel to the global one, until the early years of the new millennium.

 

[4] That denigrating, racist nickname that in 20th century Cuba was used to refer to people with very dark skin, whose genetics had not mixed with whites or Asians (the latter being the perfect mix to my mind).

[5] Something he already did in his early, successful, sold-out series: El cocinero, el ladrón, su mujer y su amante (The cook, the thief, his wife and her lover), in tribute to Greenaway, newcomer from Britain in the nineties, in which he coloured his black and white photographs in sepia and blue tones, his first approach to Neo-Pop.

[6] Brave like few others, when he had the opportunity to put on his first individual exhibition in the prestigious Wifredo Lam Centre, the home of the Havana Biennial, Peña preferred to exhibit a set of photographs in which he explored our fetishisation of objects. Under the title Fetiches, René performed a “surrounding archaeology of his life experience,” eliminating himself from the equation as the centre of the story. Retreating to the task of mere observer, thief of icons, even though they were inanimate icons.

[7] As if he were telling us, “We are not these objects that we have and surround us, we are what we do with them.”

WORKS

Hacia adentro Series (1989-1994)

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. In his project there is no ethnographic or picturesque perspective, 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.

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