Legacy of a Diaspora
By Andrea O’Reilly Herrera
University of Texas Press
The testimonies gathered in this book offer over one hundred perspectives on the Cuban diaspora and on what it means to be Cuban in exile. Through narratives, interviews, creative writings, letters, journal entries, recipes, photographs, and paintings, Cubans from various waves of the migration and their descendants piece together a complex mosaic of the exile experience and diasporic identity.
The ‘Consciousness of Exile’:
Memory & the Vicarious Imagination in the Artwork of Alberto Rey
The artwork of Alberto Rey functions for him as a way to investigate, interpret, and preserve his own personal cultural identity. What is distinct about his exploration is the fact that up until his recent trip to Cuba in July of 1998, his memories of Cuba were vicarious or, in his words, “appropriated.”
Born in Havana in 1960, Rey left the island at the age of three for Mexico, where he and his family received political asylum. The Reys immigrated to the United States in 1965; after living in Miami for two years, they relocated to Barnesboro, Pennsylvania, where Alberto spent the remainder of his childhood and young adulthood. Prompted, in part, by the death of his grandmother and several conversations with his parents, Rey’s exploration into his own cultural identity began while he was in graduate school. Rey recalls one particular evening when he listened to his parents talk for the first time about their experiences as exiles living in the United States. Following that conversation Rey experienced what he describes as an intense feeling of alienation. These combined events sparked a personal aesthetic exploration of an “inaccessible” past and culture, which he had previously rejected as a teenager, through images that are at once personal and universal.
Though he, like scores of Cuban-Americans, had no first-hand memories of Cuba, Rey gradually became aware of the fact that his identity was partly shaped not only by his cultural heritage but by the events of the revolution. Though he was acutely aware of his temporal and spatial “alienation” from Cuba, and his role as an inside/outside observer, his works are “autobiographical statements,” which function as vehicles through which he can research and define his ties to his family and his culture and, ultimately, establish some “perspective” on his life. In his attempt to negotiate his ambiguous cultural space and identity, this “nexus of displacement” (to borrow Homi K. Bhabha’s terminology), Rey resembles Eduoard Glissant’s vision of the artist creating within the vacuum of the diasporic condition. According to Glissant painting, rather than writing, is the more superior form of expression for producing both a more inclusive and unified vision and a more “authentic poetic.” Glissant goes on to suggest that the symbolic language of painting provides a “non-oral narrative [which] plunges with an enviable directness into physical reality,” for the painted symbol, which coexists with the oral, provides “refuge” from oral “transformation” and translation; ultimately, it explodes the myth that there exists some essentialist core of cultural identity and knowledge.
Rey’s exploration, which to date culminates in his return visit to Cuba, follows a trajectory that traces specific stages of the artist’s attempt to balance his current life with his cultural past. Providing a kind of bird’s eye view of his various and sometimes competing cultural perspectives, his early paintings possess a “map-like” quality that represents the “aerial view” or “vantage point” from which he attempted to assimilate his own and his family’s various responses to the experience of exile. For example, in an abstract painting entitled “Looking For Home” Rey collapses the distance between Cuba, Mexico, Miami and his home in Western Pennsylvania by depicting all of these places on a single canvas. Gradually, however, Rey sought to create compositions other than those which were flat and two dimensional in order to include more symbolism or “narrative” in his paintings; his Binary Forms series, therefore, began as a way to incorporate several themes together in a single composition through the representation of more abstract, or “less identifiable” and spatially ambiguous, objects. In essence, abstraction allowed him to combine multiple symbols, while still portraying a minimalist aesthetic.
Rey’s Binary Forms series originally featured four major symbols, which he endowed with personal meaning: gold, which references both religion and marriage; black lace, which connotes and simultaneously signifies the contradictory themes of religion and eroticism; binary forms, such as the mutated heart–a symbol of his impending marriage, which consists of two organs that are combined into a single form; and various diffused and overlapping images. The overlapping of everyday images or “overlaid veils of time” are created by layering wax or ink washes. According to Rey, this produces an effect that represents both the passage of time and a romanticized view of memory itself, as well as revealing a kind of Glissantian void in which memories and actions accumulate to form personal identity. In addition to functioning as a crucial step toward his later work, this series allowed Rey to image his “subconscious” and provided him an avenue through which he could examine the spirituality and vicarious quality of memory and emotion without the restrictions and limitations of representational images. For Rey, the movement from realistic layering to abstract images more directly represents the elusive nature of memory and, more fundamentally, the difficulty of translating into realistic objective form emotion and experience. As he himself has observed, the overlapping images, which appear in diffused layers, attempt to portray the layering of thoughts in our memories. Moreover, these abstract images function as metaphors which contain multiple and conflicting meanings that express his feelings toward Hispanic culture, specifically in relation to religion and spirituality. In more general terms, however, they represent the romance, innocence, and the sense of the unobtainable that is an aspect of vicarious and actual memory.
Gradually, Rey moved away from the aesthetic issues of formalism and movement that he treated in the Binary Forms series to a more representational form of painting, which incorporated or combined specific images that were derived from his cultural research. Implementing a technique that he refers to as realistic layering, a painting entitled “La Basilica, Mexico City, 1964” (see plate #???) combines images (such as la Virgén de la Caridad de Cobre—the patron of Cuba—and the Basilica) that are charged with personal meaning yet can simultaneously be connected to a larger historical and religious frame of reference.
From 1992 to 1995, Rey simultaneously worked on three series: the Icon Series, Madonnas of Western New York, and Madonnas in Time. The works in the Icon Series are painted on plaster to give a fresco-like appearance, which connotes the historical significance of the medium and elevates the mundane or the everyday—the low art of common objects—to the high art tradition. Simply put, this technique combines a traditional approach in painting, produced within a distinct religious frame of reference, with nontraditional, mundane subject matter; set in abstract contexts, these painting are charged with personal and cultural significance.
Countering his exploration of religious symbology, Rey concentrated his efforts on depicting everyday objects that would be familiar to most Cubans but unfamiliar or abstract in their connotations to an outside audience. In effect, these paintings create two very distinct sets of aesthetics, for they suggest the difficult task presented to the artist, who is at once an insider and an outsider, of portraying his personal exploration to an audience that is outside of his culture. Like writers such as Laura Esquivel, Rey began depicting familiar culinary dishes and typical Cuban foods, such as the bar of Ancil “Guava” (see plate #???), suggesting his recognition of the integral function of food in preserving and transmitting culture, memory, and tradition. Moreover, he suggests that cultures are best defined by everyday objects; paradoxically, however, these objects simultaneously highlight the differences and the common ground between the artist and his audience (all people have the experience of eating, for example, however, they do not all eat the same foods).
Reminiscent of the Icon Series, the Madonnas of Western New York paintings transform mundane non-Hispanic objects or places into quasi-religious icons. Inspired by the Sunday morning drives through nearby villages that the artist would take with his wife, Rey was struck by the “spirituality” of mundane places and objects, which he saw as being endowed with iconographic connotations. At the same time, he was working on his Madonnas in Time, a series which expressed what he believed at the time to be the apolitical nature of his artwork. Rather than attempting to position himself within any political arena or location, Rey insists that his work simply represents his attempt to reconnect with his cultural past in order to make sense of his present reality. Moreover, these paintings—such as the one featured on the cover of this collection—reflect his attempt to fill the inner void to which Glissant refers; in his own words, politics tend to “contaminate the purity of the quest.” In the Madonnas in Time series Rey juxtaposes images derived from archival photographs of Cuba taken in the 1910s and 1920s with scenes from Western New York, where he currently resides. He states,
The significance of the images being dated in the ‘10s and ‘20s is important to me because the images seem to lose a great deal of their political baggage . . . Due to my departure from Cuba at an early age, I haveexperienced Cuba almost entirely second-hand and only then in a very turbulent political atmosphere. It has always been difficult for me to discover the importance of this country, due to the political complexities that have always seemed to cloud any image or story that has occurred in my lifetime. I wanted to find a connection to this country in the purest manner, without people or politics. I wanted to get immersed in the country’s landscape. I needed to find images of Cuba that I could feel were politically neutral to me in order to feel more connected, more educated, more fulfilled.
The tropical landscapes that he renders in the Madonnas in Time series, such as the frontespiece “Niagara Falls/Isla de Pinos,” are set in abstract contexts and painted in black and white in order to suggest their separateness from his current life; whereas the scenes from his immediate environment, despite their quasi-iconographic connotations, are painted in color and set in religious-like inserts, which reference Mexican folk art, in order to bring into relation the unattainable or irretrievable past with his present-day experience. In addition to being endowed with personal meaning, “Niagara Falls/Isla de Pinos” is embedded with multiple meanings which link it to a long history of exile. On one hand, this painting represents the timeless landscape of the Island, replete with Royal Palms; this particular setting, however, is a painful reminder of the contemporary Cuban’s exilic condition, for the Isla de Pinos housed one of Castro’s most notorious prisons. In the same vein, the image of Niagara Falls not only functions as a kind of iconogaphic emblem of the pristine and sublime beauty of the United States, but it is linked to the classic ode written in exile by the Cuban Romantic poet José María Heredia “Al salto de Niagara” (1824), a poem which protests colonial rule.
The final series of works painted prior to Rey’s return to the Island are entitled Las Balsas and the Appropriated Memories series, respectively. Inspired by Rey’s 1996 trip to the Cuban Refugee Center in Key West, which currently serves as a temporary housing location for Cuban immigrants and contains a small collection of rafts and materials used by the balseros (rafters), the painting in the Las Balsas series (plate 5 and 5a) function as visual metaphors. Mounted in austere black, coffin-like boxes, which Rey describes as minimal altar pieces that are suggestive of “silence” and “isolation,” the paintings in this series are a moving testimony not only to the thousands of Cubans who have fled the Island, but to Rey’s own grandmother, who was also lost during one of these passages. Like the rafts housed in the Refugee Center, they are silent monuments to an ongoing human tragedy. The paintings in the Appropriated Memories series are, on the other hand, mimetic representations of familiar landscapes and scenes in Cuba. Rey realistically reproduces loosely parallel images, such as the Morro Castle, in order to “connect” with places which he recognizes but had not, until recently, seen.
In July, of 1998, Alberto Rey made the decision to return to Cuba after a thirty-six year absence. In his own words, the experience was completely different from what he envisioned—“it was like traveling to a place caught in time, a place that didn’t even seem to belong to the people living there.” More shockin, however, was the realization that there was little connection between the physical Island and the place he had vicariously envisioned through photographs and stories. In addition to feeling somewhat infantalized (a result, perhaps, of the fact that his family members only remembered him as a toddler), his sense of alienation and difference was increased by the fact that his grandmother was embarrassed by their poverty and the conditions in which they were living. Moreover, though Rey had previously claimed that his work was apolitical, he returned to the States convinced of the impossibilty of creating politically neutral work when it came to representing anything connected to the Island.
During the course of our conversation, it was visibly difficult for Rey to express what he had seen; the trauma of witnessing the suffering of his own family members who remained on the Island, coupled with the oppressive atmosphere and what he described as an almost irrational fear of being detained on the Island and permanently separated from his wife and newborn daughter, were almost overwhelming. Despite the fact that Rey’s initial response was one characterized by deep sorrow and sense of disgust which prompted him to wish to forget all that he had seen and promise himself that he would never return to the Island, his desire to go back to his native land has already been rekindled in the short time that has elapsed since his visit. Though the differences between himself and those who remained on the Island were put into relief during the course of his visit, ultimately, he admits, he felt at ease and comforted in the presence of his family. In his own words, he has already begun to “sink back into the state of nostalgia” that characterizes his earlier work—a nostalgia, he adds, which many Cubans living on the island continue to nurture and preserve. “At the very least,” he tells me, “this trip has opened my eyes and matured my vision. It has enabled me to better appreciate the choices my parents had to make and the consequent losses and separations that they endured.” Ultimately, Rey tells me, he feels more whole, though he was humbled by the realization of the intensity of others’ suffering.
Although the long-term effects of Rey’s trip to Cuba have yet to be seen in his artwork, his immediate response has already begun to manifest itself in the series of portraits he has begun to paint of people, including his own family members, whom he met in Cuba and of exiles living in the United States. In effect these portraits, which aim to represent actual people, visually bridges the gap between the imagined Cuba which he attempted to recuperate and reconstruct prior to his return journey and the actual place which he has finally seen with his own eyes. One can see at a glance that these human faces, like the pristine landscape of his earlier work, capture a kind of fundamental and timeless aspect of Cuban identity—of the Cuban spirit—which no regime can efface. Like many of his contemporaries, Rey’s work represents his ongoing effort to fuse together both the past and the present albeit in a precarious balance with the complexities of contemporary life. Although his work is largely autobiographical, ultimately it transcends the personal by portraying the experience of a generation of spiritual and emotional exiles, who are caught between cultures and, as a result, are struggling to reconcile their present lives in the United States with a haunting past and an untenable present that simultaneously contains both ephemeral and enduring aspects which continues to shape their cultural identities.