The Farber Collection
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Rocío García

About Rocío García

 b. Las Villas, 1955. Resides in Havana.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the female form became one of the central themes in Cuban painting and photography. A study of the artistic work by Cuban women of that period, however, is yet to come: the degree of adherence to, or deviation from, the canons set by the mostly male establishment of artists, trends, and critics. Such study is becoming an increasingly pressing need in Cuban art history and cultural studies, owing to the emergence in recent decades of numerous female artists who explore areas that are apparently invisible to their male colleagues.

Among the bounty and diversity readily evident in contemporary Cuban art, Rocío García is an indispensable figure. Graduating from San Alejandro in 1975, she was sent to the Repin Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg, in the former Soviet Union, where she graduated in 1983. Her first solo exhibition opened in Havana in 1987, and since then she has also worked intensely as an art instructor and a book illustrator.

In 1984, she started working on several series with suggestive names: “Peluquerías” (Hair Salons), “Museos” (Museums), “Personajes” (Characters), “Caperucitas” (Little Red Riding Hoods), “Geishas,” and “Hombres, machos, marineros” (Men, Macho Men, Sailors—a Cuban expression that humorously plays on the similar-sounding marinero and maricón, slang for an effeminate gay man). “El domador y otros cuentos” (The Beast Tamer and Other Tales) and “El Thriller” (The Thriller) are other examples of her provocatively titled series. Social spaces in García’s pieces, both public and domestic, are generally closed, almost claustrophobic, serving as stages for dynamically painted characters surrounded by large, intensely colored areas. If in her early series women were the protagonists, men and their power relations are the ones now presiding over those shadowy stages. Her paintings are almost cinematographic, as if the artist captured on canvas a still image from an unfinished film noir, projecting it before our eyes.

In the opinion of Cuban art critic Rufo Caballero, “Geishas” is one of the strongest series García has done. Caballero, an authority on contemporary art, points out three significant elements in this group of works: “the enthroning, once and for all, of the world of violence in the space of her characters; the profusion of intertextual games; and a new subtlety in the facial expressions of these characters…” In his 2004 text, Caballero confessed his “predilection” for “one of the most beautiful and enduring pieces in García’s career: Geisha Samurai (Samurai Geisha).”

Geisha Samurai was exhibited for the first time in 1997, in two solo shows titled Pinturas de Rocío García: Geishas o Estampas de la vida que fluye (Rocío García’s Paintings: Geishas, or Scenes of the Floating Life). The first took place in Havana, in March 1997; the second at the University of Michigan in October. Both exhibitions showcased the “Geishas” series, which had been painted in 1995, and had catalogue texts by Cuban curator Dannys Montes de Oca and Cuban-American anthropologist Ruth Behar, who emphasized the connection between García’s female characters and those in Japanese ukiyo-e prints.

García’s extrapolation of these female characters from exotic cultures was probably inspired by the rise in Cuba of female (and male) prostitution as a survival tactic for many during the so-called Special Period. But while Cuban mainstream culture reacted with open misogyny to these circumstances—as reflected in the lyrics of the popular timba brava music of the period—García’s geishas show no explicit condemnation of women performing these functions. Unlike Japanese shunga prints, García’s paintings do not depict explicitly sexual scenes; only one shows an urban locale for carnal transactions, through the appropriation of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Garcia’s geishas always appear naked, hardly fragile, wrapped in androgyny, in sensual monochrome interiors where they glance coquettishly at other geishas, in an atmosphere reminiscent of Ingres’ Turkish harems.

Samurai Geisha shares elements with other pieces, such as Maja Geisha, an homage to Spanish painter Goya. The composition focuses on the bed—the place of pleasure and deception—and the katana sword, a defensive weapon. Cultivated, wise in the arts of pleasure, the geisha raises her sword without an instant’s hesitation; she must decapitate herself to flee a destiny that condemns her to be an instrument of others, and even of herself. In the title character, two opposed references, the geisha and the samurai, are fused into a single being, rupturing the saccharine, victimized portrayals of women in traditional iconographies. In the process, García advances an archetype of femininity that stands as an absolute novelty in Cuban culture and art since the 19th century.

                                                                               —Abelardo G. Mena Chicuri