Identifying Cuban Identity through gender in art

Identifying Cuban Identity through gender in art

Having visited USSR previous to the Perestroika; and the People´s Republic of China in the mid-80th and a decade ago;  it was a challenge not to fall in  bias before and during my short research visit to Cuba; within the few countries still behind the, now invisible, iron curtain.

Race and ethnicity are manmade construction and boundaries; thus empowered by man to be modified and moved according  to  the  circumstances.    By  the  other  hand,  gender  is  established by  nature of genetics and defined by conception (such as the sea, sky and land);   Topics of race, ethnicity and gender are tools utilized to create our own structure in society.   As any tool;  it may be used or misused.

Cuba provides us with a very distinctive pattern for anthropological studies due to its geography, being an island country; as well as historically, as a result of its long colonial past, neo-colonialism and most recently, their politics on the past half century.

The country´s unique feature started to shape immediate after the arrival of the Spanish Colonial power. The autochthonous pre-Columbian population was decimated; its repopulation with African slaves; and later on with the influx of Asians; as well as its steady and multi-ethnical immigration created a unique pattern that differed from other nations shaped under the Spanish Imperial Power.

Córdova (2003) in Basic Sexological Premises, Cultural Perspective, gives us a clear framework on Cuban identity bordering race, ethnicity and gender:

The physical location, geography, and climate of the Cuban Archipelago have left their hallmark on our idiosyncrasy, “The hot climate of our land influences our character, makes our blood and mind boil, and often takes hold of our will in irrepressible hurricanes of passion.

“Cuba is an ‘ajiaco.’ A miscegenation of cooking styles, a miscegenation of races, a miscegenation of cultures. A thick broth of civilization that bubbles in the Caribbean stove”. The daring Spaniards of the conquest and of the successive colonizing immigrations imported their adventurous temperament, their warrior impulsiveness, their intolerance in the fight against infidels, Andalusian grace, and Castilian chivalry. With them also came a sustained impermanence: “that constant restlessness, that fickle impulsiveness, that temporary nature of attitudes were the primary inspirations of our collective character, fond of impulse and the adventure of excitability and of luck, of the achievement and hope of chance”.

As final note on Cuban identity, Guillen´s thoughts “Cuba’s soul is mestizo (half-breed), and it is from the soul, not the skin, that we derive our definite color. Someday it will be called ‘Cuban color’.” (1972)

All of the above points towards the ever flowing, ever changing concept of race, ethnicity and gender. Is it feasible to place boundaries is between these concepts in Cuba? On a global way, we may define race and ethnicity as a group concept; and gender as a more individual personal concept. Gender is the main tool for procreation of   a new multi-ethnical   and   thus   cultural identity.   With   the autochthonous population decimated, the only viable starting point is Cuba´s colonization by the Western civilization. The colonizers were obviously mostly male. After 20 years new denizens created new generation of creole population (still scarce); and the mix and mingle of “the white” with African and later Chinese slaves (after the ban of black trade). The archipelago went through a constant and significant flow of immigration until mid-50th, halted due to Castro´s Revolución and the socialist policy of isolation to the western world.

The combination of the key words gender and individualism pointed directly to its representation in art; Art itself is individualism; individual scrutiny or world view of the creator. So, where to find an extensive art representation? Did the Socialist System suppressed art and individualism? La Habana harbors the richest art museum in the region; The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (see Founded in 1873, the museum initially housed archeological, ethnographic and historical collections. At the present it is a Museum of Fine Arts, with art works from the XVII century up to the present. Amongst European paintings, it exhibit works from Rubens, Murillo, Zurbarán, Velázques, Goya, Memling, amongst others. As for Cuban and Caribbean art, center of our interest, there is a wide representation of the most outstanding painters as Miguel Melero, Estaban Chartrand, Armando Menocal, Victor Manuel, Portocarrero, Wilfredo Lam, Servando Cabrerra, Amelia Pelaez, amongs many others (Wikipedia 2011)

I was introduced to Guibert Rosales, a young Cuban Artist graduated in 2008 from the prestigious Academia de Arte San Alejandro in La Habana. He kindly offered me to be my cicerone at Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. He also introduced and accompanied me in several meetings at Universidad de La Habana, Instituto Juan Marinello, and Casa de las Américas. It was stimulating to learn that there is an absolute majority of female academics in this Latin country. It seems that instead of resistance to such reality as gender roles, people have come into terms and have made the best of the differences. The core value of the academic world is undeniably intellectual capability, and not physical power.  In other words, I did not feel as “the other” in gender point of view, somewhat as in Scandinavian countries, you are what you are, regardless who you are.

It is a challenge finding firsthand information and literature on Cuba without biases. Interesting enough, as for academic and art world; people are free to express themselves. This is an abyss of difference from other hard left wing countries.

Reinforcing my view, Fernandes, in Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures (2006) conceptualize New Cuban Art as follows:

Cuba something curious has happened over the past fifteen years. The government has allowed vocal criticism of its policies to be expressed within the arts. Filmmakers, rappers, and visual and performance artists have addressed sensitive issues including bureaucracy, racial and gender discrimination, emigration, and alienation.

In a broader sense; Cuban Art News (2010), in their article on Blackness and Racism in Cuba: International Exhibitions reflects stating that  one of the most outstanding social transformations at the dawn Cuban “Revolución” was the attempt to eliminate discrimination, mainly racial for Cubans of African descent; followed by gender equality quite marked by their Hispanic Colonial roots. The cradle of these grassroots movements were public places such as workplaces, social centers, educational institutions; amongst others.

Equality of rights is recognized in Cuba´s Constitution of the Republic after 1959 Revolución. Chapter 1, Article 9, states: “. . . all able-bodied men or women will have the opportunity to obtain employment, enabling them to contribute to the ends of society and to meet their own needs    (Córdova, 2003)

Modern art works are direct description of Cubanity. They are naked eye portraits plain peoples of Cuba by Cubans.  Sexuality and race is so embedded within their identity, it cannot be detached. Córdoba defines Cuban sexuality, deeply rooted in their identity; manifested by “eroticism in the image of both sexes, for its intentionality to seduce and win over the other, in his or her cult of sexuality”.  Furthermore, she states: “Eroticism is markedly manifested in the all the gestures of Cubans, in all art expressions, especially in dance and in the popular dances known the world over” (2003)

As we identify Cuba through its people´s art, it undeniable that it has assimilated Spivak ´s notion of “unlearning one´s privilege as one´s loss.”

Our privileges, whatever they may be in terms of race, class, nationality, gender and the like, may have prevented us from gaining a certain kind of Other knowledge not simply information that we have not yet received, but the knowledge that we are not equipped to understand by reasons of our social position.  (Spivak 1995, p.4)

Heller  in Landscape, Femininity and Caribbean Discourse illustrates the formation of Cuban national identity as follows:

“A signal characteristic of Caribbean discourse has been the tendency to figure the shaping environment as female, or with qualities such as fluidity and relationality that have often been associated with women, femininity and the female body in both patriarchal and feminist discourses—and both positive and negative effects have been ascribed to this feminized landscape.” (Sachs 2009)

As final lines, we refer to a self-descriptive  popular wisdom in Cuban peoples daily life:   “ Nothing can be done, but everything can be resolved” (no se puede hacer nada, pero se puede resolver todo) (Andaya, 2007) This phrase shows the flexible character of its people; and added to another of their favorite “it is not easy” (No es fácil) towards any task gives a sunshine is their present precarious economic and social situatio


Andaya, E. (2007) Reproducing the Revolution: Gender, Kinship, and the State in Contemporary Cuba. New York University, Department of Anthropology. UMI Numbe 3286472

Córdova, M. (2003) Basic Sexological Premises, Cultural Perspective. Communication for XVI Congreso Mundial de Sexología. Havana: National Centre for Sexual Education (CENESEX) Retrieved on November 25, 2011 from IES/cuba.html

Cuban Art News (2010) Blackness and Racism in Cuba: International Exhibitions Retrieved on November 18, 2011 from post/blackness_and_racism_  in_cuba_international_exhibitions

Cuban Art Source (2011) Wikipedia Creative Commons Retrieved on November 22, 2011from Crustacean, D. Recorder, David

Fernandes, S. (2006) Cuba Represent!: Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures. Retrieved on December, 2011 from Catalog/ViewProduct.php?productid=13678

Geyer, A. (2005) Notes on Teaching Art and Feminism. Lecture delivered at the conference “What  kind of Art Academy would women create?” at the Art Academy Iceland, Reykjavik, October 2005. Retrieved on November 18, 2011 from Notes_On_  Feminism.pdf

Guillen, N. (1972) Race in Cuba. Retrieved on November 15, 2011 from http://www.  historyofcuba com/history/race/index.htm

Sachs, D. (2009) Birthing A Nation: National Identity And The Female Body In The Work Of Marta María Perez And Antonio Benítez Rojo in Art and Culture Retrieved on November 25, 2011 from

Spivak, G. (1995) The Spivak Reader: Selected Works of Gayati Chakravorty Spivak. Landry, D & Maclean, G. London, UK: Routledge

Wikipedia (2011) Cuba.  Retrieved on 20 November, 2011 from


About michikomurai

Female, born in Tokyo 7 September, 1954, lived in Perú, USA, Spain, Thailand and last 14 years in Sweden. Profession: Interpreter, Communication & human resources, language teacher and fitness instructor. BA in Spanish at Gothenburg University, Master in Linguistics and Museology.
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