Marta María Pérez Bravo

Marta María Pérez Bravo’s recent solo show was her largest ever in Spain: over fifty of her austere photographs, taken from the mid-’80s through 1997, were dispersed throughout the gallery’s four floors. The earliest works by this Cuban artist based in Mexico deal with maternity, as in a series of five photographs entitled Para concebir (In order to conceive, 1985-86). These unembellished images of various parts of the artist’s own body include closeups of her abdomen during and after pregnancy. The latter shot, in which her belly is withered and covered with wrinkles and folds, is given added resonance by two small toy effigies that refer to her twin daughters. These figurines appear in other images as well, such as Miedo a la muerte (Fear of death, 1988), Bultos paralelos (Parallel shapes, 199o), Tres lyawos (Three initiates, 1992), and No vi con mis propios ojos (I did not see with my own eyes, 1991)—underlining the important role procreation plays in this artist’s work.

Many of the images contain references to popular Afro-Cuban mythology. Symbols that are rooted in the sacred include a glass of water that appears above one of the artist’s crossed hands as she bares her back, an apparent allusion to the baptismal font. In other images the artist wears necklaces whose color combinations pay tribute to particular saints. One should be careful, however, not to assume that Perez Bravo is a religious artist in any orthodox sense. One possible indication that she does not adhere to a strict religious program is that she always uses black-and-white photography, choosing not to reproduce the vibrant, clashing colors typically found in the objects and rites of Santéria. In another work dominated by the artist’s presence, her image is surrounded by a whitish halo, which appears to devour her; this hazy, dreamlike atmosphere strongly contrasts with the literalness of the objects and utensils depicted. For the most part, the mise-en-scene in these photographs is sober and forceful, thanks to the clarity of the images and the inclusion of symbolically weighted objects, such as crosses, necklaces, knives, cowries, feathers, tops, and cords.

Despite the potency of Pérez Bravo’s iconography, her work is removed from a concrete, historical space. One antidote to its otherworldly quality can be found in the cries for help that echo through the photographs. We find these in the titles for her splendid Llamando (Calling, 1994) and No me dejen sola (Don’t leave me alone, 1995); in her preoccupation with safeguarding her health, her fortune, and her bodily integrity; and in her atavistic anxieties and fear of exposure. Many of these concerns translate into formulas for veiling, camouflaging, and hiding her face—typically with a cloth, or a shroud. For this show Pérez Bravo chose to use a larger format for certain pieces, but this was a mistake, in my view. Despite what the photographs gained in density, they lost some of the intensely intimate character—both modest and mysterious—from which they were generated.

Juan Vicente Aliaga

Translated from the Spanish by Vincent Martin.