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Arturo Cuenca

b. 1955, resides in the United States

From its origins in the photographic image taken by Korda (Alberto Díaz) in 1960, to its mass reproduction by Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli in 1967, its recycling by such contemporary artists as Erró and Vik Muñiz, and its use in popular protests, the iconography of Che Guevara has taken shape in different media: paintings, posters, serigraphs, stickers, graffiti, pins, lighters, and bandanas. All of these intertwine the hagiography of the guerrilla leader with the commercialization of his image. A significant portion of this visual stockpile has been created Cuba, the stage and launching pad for the Argentinean rebel’s international profile. Either voluntarily or through commissions from the government, many Cuban painters, designers, and photographers have undertaken the portrayal of man and myth.

Arturo Cuenca’s Che brings a personal accent to this thematic lineage in Cuban art. Considered one of the main leaders of the “new Cuban art” of the 1980s, Cuenca moved from conceptually based hyperrealism to manipulated photography—converting it into the object/subject of intense investigations of perception, the role of the viewer, and the nature of intellectual knowledge. Immersed in the application of philosophical theories to artistic creation, Cuenca has been a public polemicist, and the creator of a “sensuous” post-Conceptualism. He has proposed the re-establishing of the aesthetic as a governing ideology, which, shedding its usual character, would inspire a new socio-cultural environment.

In Ciencia e ideologia: Che, Cuenca implicates the heroic image in a critique of the photographic medium and the manipulative nature of propaganda. His anti-eulogistic attitude is not based on personal attitudes alone: in 1987, the year the piece was begun, Cuba commemorated the twentieth anniversary of Che’s death in Bolivia, incorporating it into the “error rectification” process of the 1980s. Intended to correct technocratic “deviations” in the economy, the new measures emphasized the importance of conscience, austerity, and voluntary work. Texts written by Che and essays about his theories were published. His image was reproduced in orthodox fashion in the mass media, billboards, and other street propaganda. But the habitual slogan Seremos como el Che (We will be like Che) was taken up by intellectuals and artists as a call to critical irreverence towards the Revolution.

An immense steel structure, erected as a billboard on the roof of a building on Havana’s 23rd Street near the Almendares River Bridge, displayed Che’s stern face next to a phrase: El revolucionario debe ser un trabajador infatigable (A revolutionary must be an indefatigable worker). Cuenca chose to photograph the reverse of the billboard, so that the face of the hero becomes anonymous, identifiable only through the contours of its silhouette. In selecting the “reverse” as his point of view, Cuenca intended not only to disrupt the act of communication, but to move beyond the stereotyped icon. The work takes the viewer “behind the façade,” placing him in a critical attitude toward the stage machinery that supports the myth, literally as well as metaphorically—at the same time demanding a dismantling of the para-religious rituals that nourish ideological and social propaganda.

On the inverted image of this intricate backstage grid, Cuenca adds his own handwritten phrase: El revolucionario no es retrato, es paisaje (A revolutionary is not a portrait, but a landscape). The insertion of his own text as an imagined incursion into the space of the urban sign magnifies one of his most frequent techniques: the fusion of text and image in such a way that the viewer perceives them simultaneously. The text alludes to the blurring of the limits between the hero and the people, and to the transformation of the cult of the individual into an explosion of collective creation. This was the moment in Cuban history when a group of artists painted the word Meditar (Meditate) under the monument to José Martí in Revolution Square. Over the skies of Havana, Cuenca inscribed his own contribution.

References: Camnitzer, Luis, New Art from Cuba, 1994; reprint, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003, p. 207, illust. p. 206.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

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