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About print

María Cienfuegos Leiseca
Photographic works [2007 - 2011]

Beyond memory

With photography, there is a tension to be achieved always again. It is on the side of the trace and at the same time that of the archive; it wants to make things eternal but also to understand the signs of a past in our personal imaginary. And it is just in this tiresome search that the material is finally redeemed: imaginary material, memory material, subconscious material, metamorphosed and transfigured material by the representative process. The infinite desire to “restore” the object is imposed, as if with it we were able to recover history.

Taking on the aforesaid, the Cuban artist María Cienfuegos Leiseca delves into possible frontier spaces. She questions presumed truths that force us to think ourselves or to act always from pre-established patterns. Her work brushes, flirts and plays with pretended limits and in its own ambiguity it draws close to the social, the ethnographic and the anthropological until it arrives at the purely aesthetic.

In this sense, her first series Taj Mahal (2007) and Best in Show (2008) already advocated an interest in getting deeper into what is inherent within the act of photography.

The first one proposed to debate on concepts such as tourism for the masses, the typical group photo, the photographed subject’s naturalness or pose before the camera, the figure-background relationship between the human groups and the monument in general. In a subtle manner, a bridge of contact was being established, a fine line that ideally was uniting the ancient commercial routes and the new tourist destinations of the contemporary world. These highly complicated relationships were deconstructed on their particular features and more specific elements along the series, to invite for making reflections on the functions traditionally associated to the media.

The space in Best in Show was transfigured from the conceptual point of view. When it was socially redefined in the photographs, it was redeeming determinate values resulting from the expression of a culture of resistance. These cenacles of social and family encounters seemed to have disappeared forever in Cuba after the year 1959. Nevertheless, dog shows are still held today in a Havana neighbourhood where the capital’s bourgeoisie preferred to settle. María, following the method of “stolen photos”, captured the singularity and extravagance of the owners twice frozen in time by their way of dressing, acting and dreaming. In every instance, the oddity of the event appeared finally in the very nature of the participants who were legitimizing their personality through the poses of their pets.

The sense of playfulness and the element of the absurd permeated the artworks from another series from the same year, entitled Postcard, as a strategy for estrangement. By registering different places that had been re-functionalized over time, she gave way to senselessness and paradox. The artist created a kind of travel guide that found its ideal expression in the postcard photo and established a connection with photographic essays, such as those done by Carl De Keyzer1 when he travelled through Congo on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the independence of the former Belgian colony.

In 2010, the artist did a photographic installation called Memoria instructiva para penetrar la piel (Instructive Memory to Penetrate the Flesh). This was the culmination of a long period of research, of great questioning on the subject of the essence of art and the role of the artist. The ensemble proposed to have us delve into a world where we would encounter more questions than answers, in that pleasure provoked by doubt when faced by the non-apprehensible. The reference became both a point of departure and arrival, which was deeply undermining for the first time the limits between false opposites or apparently unconnected disciplines. By appropriating scientific specimens that were recreating a sort of cabinet, she was calling on the sense of surprise which art invokes and the uneasiness produced by certain “evidence” in the face of pretended certainty. The spectator could only take up the return path from the classifying texts.

The fishes of Poey2 were endowed with a very particular beauty during the photographic process, and this was putting them at a distance from the grotesque image of reality: the varnish used for their preservation, the stitching and the joints in the dissection work –all elements that favoured a marked artificiality– were emphasized. The chromatic crescendo was defined in areas, while the fragments were reiterated ad infinitum. The intrinsic autonomy of each photo was fractured: they made up a whole that was much more complex and ambiguous by the antonomasia, surpassing each of its parts. A sort of balance was imposed that could no longer escape to the metaphoric relationship between the whole and the parts: a balance in which the part did not lose its uniqueness nor did surpass the collective.

From the formal point of view, José Manuel Fors3 had used reiteration as a methodical strategy earlier on, however María’s piece was conceptually distanced and its communicative intention was going in other directions. Memoria instructiva (…) was alluding to the space of memory that is not just what we remember but what we forget. And before the fear of loss, the artist again subconsciously restored the forms of the fragmented bodies, now not in their original appearance, but as an ominous reconstruction of other bodies, other silhouettes, of other “fishes”...

Naturaleza muerta (Still Life) (2010) kept the spirit of the aforementioned work, this time from the study of various bodies also coming from the natural world and which had gone through a dissection process. Close to the pose and gestures of Flemish seventeenth century painting, the artist constructs “still lifes” where the tendency to concentrate detail appears, dimensions are altered, colour areas in the image are saturated and the contrast in the composition gives way to perspectives that are often illusionistic.

In 2011, the artist resorted to a herbarium –a centre where categories are constructed, par excellence– in that infinite desire to restore “something” through the act of photography. Sistema de aproximaciones (Approximation System)4 lies in the use of an almost hundred-year-old technique, therefore references must be sought in the history of photography and in geniuses such as William Fox Talbot.5 By using 4 x 5” plates, María imposes a new sense of time which consequently challenges the contemporary man’s perception and understanding. She only selects areas on the original negative that are acted on by a condenser; gradually, painstakingly, she constructs an image through fields of density until she gets a final copy, which is stylistically inserted into the best of photographic tradition in the first half of the twentieth century.

The visual resources are diverse: presentation in a scale of greys confirming the coherent transit from the figurative to the abstract; fragments suggesting the synthesis of the part over the illusion of the whole; the polymorphism pronouncing the idea of inspiration and, as a consequence, diversity is imposed before the use of one exclusive type of plant. María Cienfuegos’s photos disconcert because of their beauty, although they are perforce frustrating in their nature as the audience is lost in the illusionistic game that at the same time has failed to attain the photographed object. They reveal a real immersion into the imaginary, where the reference is not denied but dialectically integrated into a new order that gives way to ambiguity, mystery and the undoable.

Sara Alonso Gómez
Curator and Art Critic
Havana, October 4th, 2011





1    Carl De Keyzer (Belgium, 1958).
2    This project originally came out of the dissected fishes studied by the Cuban nineteenth century scientist Felipe Poey y Aloy. These same fishes were drawn at the time by the wise man to be used in illustrations for his Ictiología cubana, recently inscribed in the collection called Orígenes del Pensamiento Cubano (hasta 1868) [Origins of Cuban Thinking (to 1868)], Vol. I. Biblioteca Digital de Clásicos Cubanos, Casa de Altos Estudios Fernando Ortiz, 2005.
3    José Manuel Fors (Havana, 1956): Cuban photographer, graduate of the San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts in 1976. His work is connected to the conceptual art developed in the 80s on the island even though he came into the limelight a decade later.
4    The artist wants to express her gratitude to the artists Felco Cal-derín, Ossaín Raggi and Reinaldo
    Echemendia Cid; the botanists Ramona Oviedo and Bertha L. Tos-
cano. Without them this project would have never been possible.
5    William Fox Talbot (United Kingdom, 1800 – 1877).

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