Apertura: Photography in Cuba Today - Page 19

like parts of speech in a sentence, or a commodity whose meaning is formed in the invisible production of aesthetic and economic surplus value. However, it is an object that still celebrates the idea of photography. In the Cuban case, the memorial aspect of photography is in direct dialogue with the constitutive role photography played in creating an image of the Revolution, and the slow demise of both documentary photography and, as has become increasingly clear, the Revolution itself. René Peña’s Permeable Skin René Peña (b. 1957) doesn’t do self-portraits. Rather, he uses his own body as a platform to discuss what it means to be human. Peña offers his face and other parts of his body to the camera lens in order to evoke or suggest the many ways in which the individual is overrun by internal passions and permeable to external classifications and cultural notions. His images remind us that even though we assume we have an identity, we are very much constructed by language that escapes our control, and by desires and fears that may never materialize but nevertheless shape our experience of reality. The human skin, an element that is very important in Peña’s work, appears as the limit of everything and of nothing. To the extent that Peña, an Afro-Cuban artist, uses his own body as a vehicle for these visual micro-essays, his images are inevitably a reflection on the question of race. In his earlier work, particularly in a series entitled ManMade Materials (1998–2001), Peña carefully composed black and white close-ups offering fragmented, decontextualized images of hair or mouth, for instance. The images reveal shapes and textures, exalting a formal beauty, and disconcerting the spectator. Because they represent specific parts of the body in such a fragmented manner, Peña’s photographs are referential and abstract at the same time. The decontextualized fragments of a body require that we complete the image in the frame by thinking of the full body to which it belongs and perhaps of its stories. In doing so, we project among other things a racial identity, making the spectator responsible for labeling and naming the subject. Beauty in Peña’s image always contains a surreptitious degree of violence. What his images make visible is that there is nothing natural about race and, by extension, that seeing is never an innocent act. We can never simply “see” a body without projecting our own social understanding of race, class, gender, and beauty onto it. By becoming self-conscious about the difference between what we see and what we believe we see, the spectator gets a better understanding of how identities come into being and how they are codified. The categories we use to see and interpret the human body are the real “man-made materials.” In this exhibition, the photographs included in Peña’s Untitled Album (1998–2001) depict his own body in an intimate, carefully balanced color composition. Against a dark background, a part of Peña’s naked body emerges from the shadows with just enough light to appreciate an isolated feature or curve in nuanced shades of golden brown. At the center of the formal, studious perfection of these large images is an interruption: the series follows a dark, monochromatic human that is juxtaposed with an inanimate object in a bright color. The contrast between living versus inanimate, dark versus bright, surprises the spectator’s gaze. In Peña, the color detail—what Roland Barthes would 13