Marta María Pérez Bravo is a pioneer of artistic photography in Cuba, a kind of photography done by artists rather than professional photographers, photo-reporters or photojournalists (although, of course, these can also make works of art). The purpose of this particular form of artistic creation, sometimes called metaphoric photography, is not to document external reality, people's faces, city or country landscapes, or to record scenes of daily or family life, politics or rituals. The objective is rather to explore (or to make spectators discover in the photographic images) the ideas, concepts, emotions, desires, fears, hopes and beliefs that the artist intended to convey.
Marta María Pérez Bravo is a pioneer of artistic photography in Cuba, a kind of photography done by artists rather than professional photographers, photo-reporters or photojournalists (although, of course, these can also make works of art). The purpose of this particular form of artistic creation, sometimes called metaphoric photography"[i], is not to document external reality, people's faces, city or country landscapes, or to record scenes of daily or family life, politics or rituals. The objective is rather to explore (or to make spectators discover in the photographic images) the ideas, concepts, emotions, desires, fears, hopes and beliefs that the artist intended to convey. When the camera is pointed towards the chaotic heterogeneity of the surrounding world in a conventional way, as an instrument recording the objective, it is difficult to achieve the same goals, intensity or emphasis. In artistic or metaphoric photography, on the contrary, the photographed object is subjected to some type of transformation. The true nature of the object is intentionally changed, with the purpose of having our gaze go beyond reality. In this case, the aesthetic effect is hardly ever left to chance, as often happens with the beauty or surprising impact generated by instant photographs (even studio photographs, where the poses, ambience, decoration and light are staged). The true object of artistic photography is conceptual and subjective from the beginning. Meanings are neither left to chance, nor to arbitrary readings or interpretations, although this may happen depending on the spectator’s knowledge or imagination. In Marta María’s case, the visual transcription of a defined message is generally of a verbal origin (a phrase, a proverb, the name of a deity, a ritual event) that she represents in a reduced scenario, by means of a mini-performance. Photography has the obligation of verifying such pseudo-theatrical representations in its isolation and immobility.
Marta María Pérez's metaphoric photography uses language in a strongly connotative rather than a denotative manner. Her true interest is not to show us the poetic side of an object or a scene, but rather the phantom of such an object, or a preview of what such a photographed scene could end up being in our minds.
The arrival of this new genre of photography in Cuban art in the 1980s overturned our relationship with the long history of photographic images. It placed our traditional photographers (many of them already celebrities) in a somewhat unfavourable position to compete in the field of art, especially so-called contemporary art. This created a conflict – at times hidden – that has lasted until now. The new artistic or metaphoric photography brought about a technical and aesthetical crisis of photography, of its established values and hierarchical structures. Issues considered to be sacred laws by the professionals (frames, focus, illumination, angle) were no longer indispensable. The quality of the photograph began to be evaluated by other parameters, from other perspectives. Marta María was one of those responsible for the first subversive approaches to the photographic fact as an artistic expression. Her photographs did not comply with many of the old requirements but, in exchange, they offered something new and unusual. Although we may feel inclined to consider it a higher level in the use of photographic techniques, it is not completely fair to interpret it as a fresh start vis-à-vis our previous magnificent photographic tradition.
Marta María was also a pioneer in the use of her own body within Cuban contemporary photography. Perhaps it was a chance discovery or self-discovery of her body during her pregnancy (1986), since many of her first works were related with the mysteries of motherhood, like the series To Conceive (1986.) At any rate, it should be noted the body that we see in Marta's photographs it is not actually hers. It is the body of a fictional character which she creates modelled on the image of her own body. And the atmosphere surrounding it does not exist in any place. It is an abstract, imaginary body, and the scenes are dateless, with a timeless character. Her body has never been used in her works as an autobiographical reference, or perhaps incidentally so, for those who know that she is the basis for her only model. Sometimes she turns her back, other times only one of her arms or legs are shown, or the head is out of the frame or covered by a cloth. It could be said that this body of a white female subject seeks to erase or ignore her personal identity, gender, sexual identity and race, in order to achieve other purposes. The body has always served her as neutral raw material, by means of which she can represent her ideas, like a painter would with oil or a sculptor with a piece of stone or wood, or a ceramist with clay. And although her ideas generally stem from Regla de Ocha, Palo Monte or spiritualism, her work has nothing to do with the documentation of a performance (as is the case with the Cuban artist Ana Mendieta). In Mendieta’s case, the artist's body was part of an action, a ritual event, even when it was a private and fictitious or artistic ritual. For Marta María, the idea has always come first, then the building of the object-scene-atmosphere that may best represent the idea, and finally the photographic image. This is always the order. The idea triggers the entire process, although is would be uncomfortable to consider her as a strictly conceptual artist. In a conversation that we had in 1995 for the writing of an article on her work, Marta explained:
"I sometimes find it difficult to find the image with which to represent my idea, but once I find it, it is that and no other: there are no alternatives.It is not like in the case of José Bedia who can break down a myth into many different images.When I find the image, I prepare the conditions to represent it and to shoot the photo. There is no ceremony in all of this.No ritual or anything of the sort.I believe that it is just the opposite.While we are taking the photos I even end up by developing a bad temper, I despair; I want everything to conclude as soon as possible." [ii]
Unlike other artists who work with their own bodies (such as René Peña, who has recognized her influence), Marta María seems to dedicate more time and care to the transformation and the formal arrangement of the scene. The set where her body is placed and the selection, assembly and exact position of the objects give her photographs a sculptural, immobile and synthetic character, almost minimalist.
The references that Marta María uses in her images almost always have a religious, or African-religious origin, taken fundamentally from Santería, Palo Monte and Spiritualism. She has made some breakaways to other traditions of popular Cuban culture (Chinese charade, for example) or Catholicism, also present in Mexico where she currently resides (such as votive offerings, penitents or Christian martyrology). Almost all her work has explored these issues, although the abundance of meanings allows the public to make wider, more generic or more universal readings. I believe that the metaphoric scope of Marta María's works can end up being more intense, or artistically more productive, in those cases where the public does not know to what symbolic ritual or religious aspect she is referring in her photographs. And there is nothing in Marta María Pérez's works that conforms to obvious readings. Just the opposite. Perhaps the truth is that some of us recognize her starting points better than others.
[i] Juan Antonio Molina. “La marca de su cicatriz: historia y metáfora en la fotografía cubana contemporánea”. 5th Latin American Colloquium on Photography, CONACULTA, Centro de la Imagen, Mexico City, 1996, pp. 95-100.
[ii] Orlando Hernández. “Marta María y el juego de las estatuas”. Ramis Barquet Gallery, Monterrey, Mexico, 1996 (in Spanish and English).