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René Peña

b. 1957, resides in Cuba

In September of 1931, Social magazine, founded by the Cuban humorist and publicist Conrado Massaguer, published a photo of the boxer Kid Chocolate, who later won the world featherweight title. Considered one of the most elegant men of his day, a friend of Argentinean tango sensation Carlos Gardel, and a popular star throughout Cuba, the Kid appeared posing nude in an artistic studio portrait by “Rembrandt”— an anonymous Cuban photographer. Under the influence of 1920s flappers, the pages of Social had become a testament to the ever-shifting tides of beauty, eroticism, nudity, and the emancipation of women. But the presence of a stark naked black man, completely conscious of his dignity and his physical attributes, was an unusual cultural event, unparalleled even by the pictures that the American photographer Walker Evans shot in Cuba two years later. The image of the famous Cuban boxer ignited intense interest in the Afro-Cuban trend in arts, literature, and social ideas; at the same time, it imposed a descriptive, clinical gaze as a means of “capturing” the essence of his negritude or difference.

While the Cuban social and political movements of the 1930s—the struggle for national sovereignty, the end of dependence on the United States, the emancipation of women, and the creation of black improvement associations, all culminating in the progressive Cuban Constitution of 1940—modeled an image of black men and women that was proactive, modern, civilized, and industrious, tourist and commercial advertisements in both Cuba and the United States emphasized the concept of the bon sauvage: sensual and lazy, believing in voodoo, lacking self-esteem, and capable only of performing tasks of minimal intellectual complexity (such as sugarcane cutting, courting, dancing, and playing rumba). Even in subsequent decades, in the Afro-Cuban fantasies showcased at the famed Tropicana night club, as well as in photos of Marlon Brando playing the bongos in the bars of Marianao (a Havana suburb), popular notions of the Afro-Cuban experience were frozen in a fascination with the exotic and a sense of alienation from the “other.”

Trolling through literature, colonial paintings, and commercial advertisements, contemporary artists such as Alexis Esquivel, Pedro Álvarez, and Douglas Pérez have recycled historical events or characters related to the cultural and historical presence of black people—piecing together a jumbled, broken narrative that jumps through time. Like Kid Chocolate’s iconic image, Peña’s photographs use the solitude of the studio and the naked body as expressive boundaries. But they shun the Afro-Cuban urgency to define the condition of negritude. Instead, they attempt to formulate a critical response to the cultural concepts and sexual connotations that weigh on the human body. 

In several of Peña’s series—“Muñeca mía” (My Doll), “Dakota Blue,” “Rituales y Autorretratos” (Rituals and Self-Portraits), and “White Things”—the anonymous body of the artist offers up a performance to the inevitable voyeurism of the viewer, dramatizing or interacting with theatrical elements: white dolls, women’s clothing, knives, religious objects, sports equipment. It is a performance devoid of psychoanalytical twists; what is exposed is not Peña’s self, but a collective “us” that strives to defy and denigrate any socially imposed stereotypes. “Moreover, Peña’s manipulation of his own racial and gender identity takes a critical stance toward the paradigms of representation in Cuban society, achieving a carnivalesque effect as well” (Molina, 1998).

In “White Things,” Peña resorts to a more austere aesthetic than that of his previous works. Here, visual impact is based on the opposition between white elements (underwear, everyday objects) and black, in striking compositions that often parody police mug shots or newspaper images of black people in the early 1900s. There is no allusion, however, to a radical opposition between racial groups, nor to any sort of street chronicle. Peña’s references sink deep into a subconscious ambiguity of meaning, where the viewer will inevitably encounter his own prejudices.


References: Catalogue, From Man Made…, 2001, illust. . on cover and p. 7. First Place, Fourth Biennial of Caribbean Art, Dominican Republic, 2002. Cariforum magazine, February 2002, illust. p. 40.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

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