This paper analyzes several works by Cuban photographer René Peña from the point of view of his depiction of the human skin. Peña, one of Cuba’s most renowned photographers, with an impressive list of exhibits in Cuba, the US, and Europe, became known as an artist of sharp and formalistic black and white photographs, mostly focusing on the human body. Through his idiosyncratic staging and estranging juxtapositions on the photographic paper, Peña’s work is never solely artistic: it challenges for instance the binary opposition between black and white, the concept of fixed sexualities, or the process of aging.
In many respects, his creative development and selection of themes mirror the socio-cultural and ideological changes that have taken place in Cuba in the last 20 years: in the early 1990s, during the euphemistically called “special period” of deep political disquiet after the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of the Soviet Union, with the national, economical crisis harshly affecting the educational system, and the opening of the island to massive tourism, Peña’s camera fathoms the social changes in the streets in La Habana and shows scenes of sudden, often uneasy encounters between human beings (“Crónica de la Ciudad” [Chronicle of a City]). He then moves on from the social to the intimate, to portray Cuban interieurs (“Doctrinas de lo impropio” [Doctrines of the Unbeseeming] and “Hacia adentro” [Inwards]), where he analyzes individual strategies of micro-resistance and survival in this vertiginously changing world of the mid-1990s. The new wave of dollarization and massive commodification is echoed in “White Things,” a series of works that represent the photographer’s body in close-ups or artificial staging, with changing white objects, such as shirts, bracelets, cans, umbrellas, headphones or dolls.
The two series that I will focus on in the following are “Memorias de la Carne” [Memories of the Skin] and “Man Made Materials” (1997-9); it is here, I argue, where Peña’s camera most decisively and creatively puts forward a meditation on changing identities, their cicatrices but also potentials for a future of the meandering wrinkles and expanding life lines. The skin is the outmost limit and border of the human body. This key organ of the body, a symbol both of self-protection and interaction with the environment, is also a living remembrance of things past, may they be cuttings, tattoos, traces of lipstick, or meandering life lines. I argue that Peña’s close-ups on the human skin are mini-meditations on the changing landscape of human interrelation.
Kressner, Ilka, "Identidades por negociar: La presentación de la piel humana en la fotografía de René Peña." (2010). Languages, Literatures and Cultures Faculty Scholarship. 17.