René Peña's work is much more complex and clever than his splendid photographs suggest at first sight. Although it is true that his images hold their own very well, his comments and texts sometimes help to reveal part of this complexity. Pena’s reluctance to be classified as an artist with a special interest in racial problems, for example, is illustrative. In his impressive Man Made Materials series, 1998-2001, Peña focuses on the physical attributes of black people; their skin, noses, lips and buttocks, which racist ideologies have used as “racial markers” and which continue to be used as "inoffensive" stereotypes that identify black people. (Can it be true that only blacks and mulattoes have those noses, buttocks and lips? I am not so sure.) But as Peña points out, this series and his work in general is incorrectly interpreted, or "racialized", due to the simple fact that he is a black artist who portrays himself. If a white artist had done the same thing, this would have a different meaning.[i] According to Peña, then there would not be any racial content and we would not need tolook for expressions of "negritude" or “black consciousness”. Apparently, René Peña blames our gaze (our “white gaze”?[ii]) for the alleged racial content. But when we speak of “white gaze” can we exclude the gaze of black people who see in his photographs not only a human being, a man, but a black man, a representative of their own race? This type of acknowledgment or identification doesn't occur with white people, who have always been considered (mainly by themselves) as the normal, standard representatives of the human race, and not as members of any particular race. As if through a rear-view mirror, Peña makes us not only interested in the beauty or the attractiveness of his photographs, but rather guides our gaze towards our conscience, towards the often uninvited presence of preconditioned reactions. “I am only a common person, a human being who has decided to photograph parts of his body, that is all”, Peña seems to be telling us with a hint of mischief, which leaves us feeling that perhaps this is not so. I believe that René Peña’s main focus of attention lies precisely in his ability to manipulate our insecurity, our fears and prejudices, even within the context of the racial problems from which he tries to disengage himself. "Imagine a guy like me, proud of being black in a country where that is not any virtue. It is not logical that these things occur."[iii] Can such a statement be true or is there irony in his voice when making this assertion on the illogicality of racial pride in a country where discrimination against blacks persists? With Peña one can never be very sure.
Peña's work pleases, excites and generates identification and racial pride among the black population, but at the same time refutes, problematizes and makes fun of the customary assumptions of racial pride and black consciousness. His work pleases black people because the image of a black person nearly always occupies a central place in a provocative, slightly insolent manner. But then he refutes this by making comments which introduce the annoying doubt that perhaps he is referring to something else. Faced with the aesthetic excellence of his works, such uncertainty could be of fleeting importance, but the fact of forcing us to revise, scrutinize and examine our opinions is of great artistic relevance.
In fact, René Peña feels somewhat terrorized when the critics or his spectators start to give meanings to his works that tie him to a narrow value system, which is often not what he intended, since his works are related to a wide range of social issues or problems, not just racial or gender-oriented. "The focus of my interest doesn't reside in the physical aspect of society, but in its soul, the one that doesn't have a face, laden with beliefs, fears, sex, hate, vices, imprecisions, gluttony, cunning, caresses, races, stereotypes, gold, institutions, representations, love and contradictions," he says [iv]. Hence, he has been extremely cautious in his titles, which are almost always titles of the series, and not of individual works. But in one of his best known series, Cosas Blancas (White Things), (2000-2002) to which many later works could be added, the contrast of the white objects used is marked in relation to the black skin of the model. Isn´t he forcing our gaze to become interested in the racial conflict generated by such black-white contrast, although the images can also be referring to many other issues? Despite my respect for his justified mistrust regarding the reductive nature of our interpretations, I believe that all readings are conditioned by contexts, and there is no way to disregard racial problems in such a context. This is a universal problem, in Cuba and in any other place where his works circulate. A white, fluffy pillow on the head of a black person makes us think that the white race (its culture, customs, education, and laws) continues to push, smother and exert pressure (even with something as light and inoffensive as a pillow) on black people. And when we see a necklace of white pearls (probably plastic, of course) tied to his ankle, we are led to consider possible allusions to homosexuality or trans-sexuality (since it is evidently a male foot), or to a juggling of the achabá or chain of Oggún that many Afro-Cuban religious people use on their ankles. But we also think that the artist has made a sarcastic reference to consumerism, the new deluxe model of the old slave fetter that still keeps blacks captive in our society. It is truly very difficult to avoid racial readings.
René Peña defends himself – and he is entitled to – from those interpretations that he considers reductive. He prefers viewers to make their own personal, intuitive assessments, not guided or imposed upon by the specialists, although within the art system this is increasingly difficult to achieve. He is conscious that each image generates many possible readings, some of which can take directions different from those that the artist intended. But how can one control the free flow of meanings? Nevertheless, Peña also criticizes the critics who try to discover his true intentions. Since he does not accept one thing or another, the situation becomes uncomfortable. His message is: look at my works, but don't think I will make things easy for you. I believe that this nonconformity, this conflictual, belligerent, rebellious posture has a function, an artistic objective.
Let us broach the issue of the body. In photography, to use your own body to communicate ideas is not something that should be taken lightly. We have already seen it in the work of other photographers, such as Marta María Pérez, or María Magdalena Campos, or in performances, such as those by Ana Mendieta or Tania Brugueras, and we see it repeatedly with dancers and actors. We all use our bodies to say things to others through our facial expressions, corporal movements, postures, clothes, adornments, tattoos, necklaces, haircuts or hairdos, all of which carry information about our social and cultural status, religious affiliation and sexual preference. But the color of our skin also says a great deal to others. Things that we are often not keen to say, but that are inevitably read by others. The color of our skin sends stronger messages than those we seek to transmit. To decide to use your own body as the medium, the language, the artistic discourse — especially when this body belongs to a black, male person — and in a photographic atmosphere where white and mostly female skin has prevailed (Ana Mendieta, Marta María Pérez, Cirenaica Moreira, Tania Bruguera, just to give local examples) must be an interesting challenge for René Peña, the artist. This challenge, like a big hot potato, he hands over to his spectators. It is up to us to peel, boil and mash the potato or to keep on holding it until we burn our hands. Personally, I prefer to burn my hands.
[i] René Peña, “Es más fácil buscar diferencias que similitudes”. Interview by Colombian critic Christian Padilla, Bogota, Colombia, 2008.
[ii] On “white gazes”, see Frantz Fanon, Piel Negra, Máscaras Blancas, Instituto del Libro, Havana, 1968, pp. 144-145 and passim. “Estoy sobre-determinado desde el exterior. No soy el esclavo de las “ideas” que los otros tienen de mí, sino de mi parecer(…) Las miradas blancas, las únicas verdaderas, me disecan. (…) Siento, veo en estas miradas blancas que no es un nuevo visitante quien entra, sino un nuevo tipo de hombre, un género nuevo. Un negro!
[iii] María Matienzo Puerto. “Breviario para etiquetar la obra de René Peña”. Interview. Esquife electronic magazine, no. 65, February-March, 2009.
[iv]René Peña, Dossier, CD, 2007.