A book for Reminiscing

Damas, esfinges y mambisas: mujeres en la fotografía cubana (1840-1902), by Grethel Morell

/ 1 September, 2017

A transvestite young actress poses at the Studio J.A. Suárez and Co., in a setting decorated with a bucolic landscape which was painted around 1890.This is the image that illustrates the cover of a very significant and unusual book recently published by Ediciones Boloña, of the Oficina del Historiador de la Ciudad de La Habana.[1] The book is entitled Damas, esfinges y mambisas: mujeres en la fotografía cubana (1840-1902) (Ladies, sphinxes and mambisas: women in Cuban photography), a first approach to the feminine presence in the photography made in Cuba. Undoubtedly, a volume that is highly appreciated since it unveils zones that up to now were unknown in Cuban historiography, and it is made with a plausible research sharpness, thanks to the author’s labor, the curator, researcher, professor and art critic Grethel Morell.

Conceived as a photographic album, Damas… assembles more than a hundred images from the collections of some institutions (Fototeca de Cuba, Biblioteca Nacional José Martí, Fototeca de la Oficina del Historiador de la Ciudad, Archivo Nacional and Fondo de Libros Raros de la Universidad de la Habana) and from private collections, both in Cuba and in the USA. Preceding the album there is a brief and rigorous essay that offers a new look about the history of photography in Cuba, in this case that photography performed by women from the most diverse social and/or economic background.

There they are, women photographers who made and practiced themselves an expression which at that time was mainly performed by men. In this sense the names of Encarnación Irástegui and Francisca Maderno stand out as “the first daguerreotypists that since the 1850s set up a studio and a business.” Also, there are the ladies of noble lineage, almost always in images that turn out to be “copies of European imperial portraits that were in fashion and indebted to chamber painting”, as Morell asserts. Acknowledged intelligentsia personalities are not missing, like the poet and playwright Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda; actresses and opera singers, political activists or revolutionary fighters (Mariana Grajales, Ana Betancourt…); mambisas, standard bearers, nurses, cooks, teachers, servants or “maids”, cigar makers and in a lesser number, slaves. Females regardless race, in individual or group pictures, posing I sumptuous studios or totally absorbed in their daily work; bourgeois or living in the most oppressing and hopeless poverty.

The photographs are organized in six sections, in a chronological order, covering the years that elapsed from the advent of photography in Cuba (1840) to the end of the first North American intervention followed by the foundation of the Republic (1902). “First techniques of impression and studio portraits” is the first section and it is focused mainly on daguerreotypes, ferrotypes, albumin impressions and the small postcards or carte de gavinet, the latter typical of American studios and very popular in Cuba. It is followed by headings like “Group portraits and images for the press”, in which most of the photographic images have basically a social and propagandistic function (in publications like El Fígaro) or represent members of patriotic societies and revolutionary clubs; “The war. Mambisas in campaign or in exile” that assembles an interesting group of photos of rebel women, fighting in the woods together with the troops or bearing the flag, wearing uniforms or in individual portraits; “Subordinate women. Slaves, needy, wandering, refugees. Rural women” and “Women in urban spaces” assemble images that favor an approach more focused on local customs on images that were captured—most of them—by foreigners or reporters (José Gómez de la Carrera, Miles or the North American firm Underwood & Underwood); and lastly, “Woman-Flag. The intervention” which presents portraits with a high level of propaganda, in which the women exhibit attributes such as the flag or the Phrygian cap, deliberately intending to symbolically support the nationalistic campaign or to show acquiescence or docility. All these headings offer a panoramic vision, though not a hasty one, of women (and what they looked like, when seen as a relegated gender facing a lens generally manipulated by men) in different circumstances of the 19th century Cuban society. (…)

[1] Ediciones Boloña emerged in the 1990s and, since its creation, its principal interest has been in books that have a historical character, mainly those focused on the city of Havana.

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