René Peña

The duality of his work and the evanescence of an artist

/ 1 March, 2018

Why aren’t there black dolls for children? Why are dolls almost always white and so much alike? Why are the few black dolls out there, at least in Cuba, a reference to religion, marginalization, or witchcraft? These and other questions, meaningless for many, live in the mind of René Peña, a self–taught Cuban artist born in 1957, who delved into the world of photography at the end of the 80s and is today one of its most outstanding exponents.

Peña thinks of himself as a very common man. His life has been filed with diverse experiences (he practiced sports, studied classical music, taught English Language – which he studied at the University of Havana –, studied French, and he took pictures of anything he wanted to). He loves rock and roll, jazz, the work of filmmaker Santiago Álvarez, the Cuban poster design of the beginning of the Revolution, soviet propaganda, the multifaceted world of advertising, Rauschenberg and pop art, Salvador Dalí… fish, birds, and many more things, and let’s not forget life itself. He is an enemy of hypocrisy. A very common dude? Yes, but I would say more: a dude of his time, a man of many whys and an exceptional artist that creates because he feels like it and not to please other people’s commissions and expectations. He is a restless and unsatisfied soul that prefers to cook his ideas and pieces very well before putting them out in the open.

(…) Throughout the years, René, ‘Pupy’ or Peña, has decided to stay away from titles and series. He feels that labels ‘imprison’ his work within a preconceived idea, and that this is very far from his intentions. However, most of his early works belong to titled series. Such is the case of Hacia adentro (Inwards) (1989– 1993), his fist series, in which non–manipulated compositions prevail (…) and in which one notices a respect for the purity and spontaneity of the captured image.

(…) Peña’s pictures escape categorizations. We cannot see him as a photographer of just whites or just blacks, or as a “Cuban style” Mapplethorpe. The artist uses color in a symbolic sense, either to reaffirm the presence (or absence) of a specific object (Sad Blue Child, 2008; Icon series, 2006) or as a camouflage and contrast with his own body (Dakota Blue, 1993; Untitled, 2008), and goes beyond questions of gender and nationality, even though both are present in his work.

(…) Nietzsche said “Every profound spirit needs a mask”. And even though sometimes Peña wants to remain unnoticed, his masks are there, the multiple faces of darkness, light, seduction, grotesqueness, duality… in photographs that want to be (and manage to be) independent, whose beauty lies precisely in their authenticity, polysemy, insinuation; in their freedom to provoke feelings and not a cold analysis from narrow and dogmatic
viewpoints. (…)

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