With a stare fixed on your face

Manuel Piña’s Aguas Baldías

/ 1 December, 2017

Barren waters that embrace everything with their abundance, with their imperturbable power. Water Wastelands that involuntarily caress and devour a fragment of history. The sea, that great metaphor that seduces and condemns, that displays itself as pleasure and trap all at once, for human contemplation. The sea, our sea—if we could believe it is ours—surrounds us indomitable, in presence, in consciousness.

We are an island; the limit of our steps on earth is water (…). For some it is a blessing, for others, penance; although there is no shortage of those who look at and assume it with the impenetrable state of negligence. For many it is shelter, resource, a way, means to obtain food—spiritual or material—an answer to uncertainties or pleasures.

These waters populate and appropriate a way of being, a position before art and life. The sea and the Havana Malecón define an idiosyncrasy laid bare both in Cuban cinematography and contemporary photographic production. Expressed from multiple perspectives, most of them with a chronicle or documental attitude, this cosmopolitan seawall and its related waters bear dissimilar postulates in the most serious, coherent and established artistic creation of recent times.

This is what occurs in the photography series Aguas baldías (Water Wastelands) by Cuban artist Manuel Piña Baldoquín (Havana, 1958). Made between the years 1992 and 1994, with the traditional silver gelatin print technique, this sequence of large scale images (the original formats of the fifteen pieces exceed the square meter), makes the notion of the boundary, advocated in the sea and the capital’s seawall, the motive and subject of the works. The sea is presented as a living entity, as the center of a discourse that, rather than establishing coordinates for questioning, erases the stillness of the totalitarian gaze.

It is almost 25 years since the genesis of these images and they still preserve the essence of a visual discourse that ravages. It is that hallmark of the works of art that makes them flawlessly break through the passage of time, transformed into paradigms and obligatory references. Disparate reasons accompany them, something that has perhaps idly delayed their complete exhibition in the same city that provoked them.

These works go beyond the staunch ethos and revert to the precise individual, not the disconnected (under the garb of the people) that so abounds. They speak of a group of specific people who live and dream in front of the banks of a sea that is theirs through natural inheritance. They are pieces that allude to a history, to a point of geography, to a determined form of existence, although they manage to transcend beyond exclusive postulates and circular reflections.

The theme is combined with migration, the limit, the ideal journey, the utopia; with solitude, the symbolism of the low wall, silence, absence, alienation, the being in itself, redemption, tropes of escape. It does not determine the level at which we would want to locate it, because the relativity of a settlement depends on its assimilation. These photographs can deal with one or all of the arguments at once. (…)

Grethel Morell Otero

Historian of Cuban photography, curator and art critic. She is author of the books Otras Historias de la Fotografía Cubana (Other Histories of Cuban Photography) and Damas, Esfinges y Mambisas: La Mujer en la Fotografía cubana desde el siglo xix (Ladies, Sphinxes and Warriors: Women in Cuban Photography since the 19th century). Co-curator of the exhibitions The Lost Gaze, Cuba 1970-1984 and Small Maneuvers: Cuban Contemporary Photography.

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