Martha Jimenez: the urban sculpture in the center colonial of Camaguey

With her urban sculpture, the creative Martha Jimenez, goes to a contemporary tradition of redefining the desire of sculpture from colonial codes. That is, to group sets of sculptural figures to occupy the urban spaces of the main squares of Latin American cities. In the introduction to her book "City / Art: The Urban Scene in Latin America" (2009) [City / Art: The urban scene in Latin America]. Rebeca E. Biron defines Latin American cities as centers that boil with the urgency of a perpetual present, but that at the same time are conceived as historical monuments and museums (2).

Founded by the Spanish and Portuguese colonizers, Latin American cities had to reproduce the Iberian urban model; with a central square surrounded by administrative buildings, a church or cathedral, and residences of the great society. This urban model had to centralize colonial power (13). Biron emphasizes that the current Latin American urban arts configure imaginable spaces, representing improvised scenes that dramatize the survival strategies of a people that has to adjust to a constant urban re-planning (23).

To respond to the economic crisis of the Special Period in Time of Peace, the historians of the Cuban cities focused on the restoration of their colonial squares and buildings, reorienting their original functions towards more lucrative ones such as; Historical museums, hostels and hotels, thematic restaurants, etc. to be exhibited and used by an international audience that pays with foreign currency (Hard Currency).

Although the city of Havana received the most attention under the leadership of Eusebio Leal, from the 1990s other provincial cities, such as the city of Camaguey, began to rebuild their historic centers in order to attract the lucrative business of the city tourist industry. Many people and tourists travel to the province of Camaguey to visit its extensive archipelagos: the Jardines del Rey, to the north, and the Jardines de la Reina to the south, but then stop to stroll through the colonial streets of the provincial capital.

Founded in 1514 under the name of Santa Maria del Puerto Príncipe, the city of Camaguey was declared a Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2005 (Gomez Consuegra). The Office of the Historian of the City responded with the plan "City 500" to restore, in three stages, its infrastructure. The first stage began in 2007 and should end in 2014, the third stage should conclude in the year 2030.

Examples of urban projects carried out until the end of 2012 include the construction of pedestrian spaces in the plazas del Carmen, San Juan de Dios and Calle Maceo. They also exhibit sculptural ensembles such as the Plaza del Carmen, the Maceo Street shopping center with shops, cafes, restaurants and bookstores, and the urban resuscitation of the plazas del Gallo and San Juan de Dios, with hotels in colonial buildings. For the end of the first stage in 2014, there is the sculpture by Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda and a sewing machine in the square of Marti and the Thematic Walk of Cinema among other projects (Guzman, "City 500").

In his essay "Models of urban cultural development: Centrification or social urbanism", George Yudice asks if the projects of urban revitalization, in order to attract the cultural tourism, do not superpose the economic and lucrative interests on the interests of the populations that the inhabitants of these centers are often displaced or marginalized, because they are classified as undesired elements in a cultural environment restored for tourist consumption. In many Latin American countries these "creative" cities are the product of an alliance between interests local and an international capital that disdains local populations.

To counter this trend, Yudice cites the example of the city of Bogota, which under the government of Antanas Mockus, 1995-1997, created the Program for Civic Culture, concentrating resources and efforts in a series of public and private managements, in order to generate civic participation and, therefore, to favor the interests of the residents of the city (6).

In the city of Havana, the agreement 2951 of the Council of Ministers, in 1995, declared Old Havana "High Significance Zone for Tourism". Eusebio Leal, historian of the city, created Habaguanex with the purpose of raising funds for the restoration of the historic center of the city. The project took into account the opinion of specialists, but also included the participation of the community in order to avoid the displacement of the inhabitants of Old Havana.

To that purpose, schools, pharmacies, community centers for seniors, etc. were incorporated into some of the restored buildings. An effort was also made to train and employ the inhabitants of the city in handicraft workshops and other services for tourism. Even so, given the existence in the old colonial buildings of lots and quarters with multiple inhabitants, the Habaguanex company has had to face reality, not all the inhabitants of the old lots have been able to benefit from the transformation of Old Havana into "Area of High Significance for Tourism "(Scarpaci, Segre and Coyula 331-345).

In the case of the city of Camaguey, the plan "City 500" has benefited its inhabitants directly through the modernization of underground technical networks of water, electricity, telephony and sewerage, starting with the renovation of Maceo Street, which culminated in 2011 and later continued through the main streets of the city (Hurtado Cardoso 30-32, Tamames Henderson 9-14).

The new pedestrian spaces built in several squares of the city, for example the Plaza de la Solidaridad, offer spaces for the celebration of cultural and other events, as in the Plaza de San Juan de Dios that allows the installation of kiosks or stalls, where local artisans can sell their products to tourism. The new coffee shops and cafes located in several shopping centers offer new employment opportunities to the population of Camaguey.

"City 500" has also been commissioned to plan sculptural projects and murals to enrich the cultural and historical environment of the city. In this essay I would like to concentrate on the sculptural work of Martha Jimenez, with emphasis on the "Sculptural Ensemble of the Plaza del Carmen" (2002) and the mural of the "Ascension Series", in the Longitudinal Park (2004). Both works make up urban spaces, representing improvised scenes that simultaneously dramatize the survival strategies of the people of Camaguey during the colonial period and the Special Period.

Jiménez's sculptural work is located within the tradition, which Pavel Alejandro Barrios calls New Camagueyan Ceramics, "merit that corresponded to a team of art instructors, led by the one who unconsciously served as the first curator of the demonstration in the province: Martha Jimenez "(26) According to Barrios, the concepts "are summarized in the conquest of artistic quality ... and the definitive establishment of the sculptural variant "(26), with,"frequent associations to architectural referents of the colonial city"(28).

At first glance, the Sculptural Ensemble of the Plaza del Carmen seems to freeze an indigenous historical moment, representing the integration of the Hispanic and African cultures that we all know as miscegenation. At one end of the set is the Spaniard, sitting on a bench reading the newspaper, as if marking his privilege in the colonial hierarchy, which gave him the option of being instructed and enjoying leisure to read the newspaper. At the other end of the complex we see the carretero, a descendant of Africans, who distributes the water to the inhabitants of the square in tinajones that announce that; "If you drink tinajon water you stay in Camaguey".

Symbol of the city, the tinajon also represents the artisanal sector of the province, with members of the population dedicated to supplying its inhabitants with ceramic vessels to collect water, oil, wine, etc. Particularly, during well-known periods of drought in the province of Camaguey, the large tinajones that were in the patios of the colonial houses, stopped being mere symbols of the city to put themselves at the service of the population, accumulating the water that was periodically distributed during the Special Period.

The couple sitting on the bench near the Spanish lights the night with a lamp, distracted in their idyllic encounter. The lamp, a source of light in a remote past, became useful again during the nineties, when the frequent blackouts forced the inhabitants of the city to go out into the open to converse with the neighbors, waiting for the restoration of the "light".

In the center of the set, sitting on stools, three gossipers take coffee and share the news of the day in a moment of recess of their domestic activities. The stools place them in a historical moment already past, when the livestock industry represented the main income of the province, but like all the figures represented in the set, their clothes are current, the clothes identifies them as members of the labor sector, with aprons superimposed on short skirts and blouses revealing their feminine sensuality.

In conversation with Martha Jimenez, the artist said she wanted to represent the free expression of female sensuality precisely with figures located in front of an old convent, where women had to deny their sexuality and dedicate themselves exclusively to the mandates of their Catholic religion.

The gossipers share a moment of feminine solidarity. One of them is so focused on revealing her novelties to her two friends, that with the gesture of putting her hand close to her mouth so that only they can hear her, she almost falls the little cup of coffee that she holds with her hand, that her friends lean towards her to hear better. These exaggerated gestures also dramatize the act of sharing the secrets of the "masters of the moment" that the "domestic slaves" kept or keep. Past and present merge into the figures of three women.

In the nineteenth-century novel "Cecilia Valdes" by Cirilo Villaverde, the character of Maria de Regla, the slave who suckled her children as well as those of her masters, is the character that communicates to the reader that the protagonists; Leonardo Gamboa, son of the slaver and Cecilia Valdes, bastard daughter of the same, are half brothers. In the novel, this guarded secret does not prevent the consummation of incest among the protagonists.

In the sculptural set of Martha Jimenez, the shared gossip among women in the plaza, speaks of the miscegenation implicit in an artistic work that can not decisively silence the public. In a commentary on the Ensemble, published by Enrique Milanes Leon in the newspaper Granma (August 14, 2008), the journalist declares that the topic of conversation between gossips is the "cultural heritage of humanity." That conversation, Milanes Leon adds, that it resembles a poem by our illustrious neighbor, Nicolas Guillen, great exponent of Cuban miscegenation.

With the Sculptural Ensemble of the Plaza del Carmen, Martha Jimenez has managed to define very well what she herself calls "ours," in national and regional terms, always linking the past with the present, valuing both and underlining the spirit of survival of the Camaguey town in times of adversity. In her book on contemporary public sculpture (1992), Harriet F. Senie says that sculpture in the second half of the twentieth century moves from the figuration of individuals to the representation of a human complex that dramatizes and defines a cultural setting (39).

With her sculptural set, Jimenez has recreated the colonial square of Carmen, with its church, its convent and the old residences of the privileged class. The Spanish, the lovers, the carter and the gossipers, representatives of the European and African cultures that defined the Cuban color according to Jose Marti, are also emblematic of the various social sectors of the city: the intellectual (the Spanish), the working class (the carter and the gossips) and the new generations (the lovers).

The gossipers also introduce a carnivalesque aspect to the place, with their exaggerated gestures and their joke activity. This humorous aspect of the gossipers makes counterpoint with the official seriousness of the colonial buildings, which once harbored the power of the church and the crown.

The set includes empty stools and benches, as if inviting pedestrians to sit down and share their leisure time with bronze figures. The historian of the city, whose headquarters are located in the plaza, has created posters that identify the figures of Spanish and the road with current inhabitants of the city. From these posters of the sculptural group, the work of Martha Jimenez begins to be identified as a symbol of the city itself, for tourists and for the citizens themselves.

In 2005, the magazine "Senderos", publication of the historian's office, dedicated an entire page to Plaza del Carmen and the sculptural group, describing it as follows: "The architecture and the simple and affable character of its inhabitants make it to the place in a gift for the senses, in a typical evocation of Camaguey"(30).

The mural of the "Ascension" series located in the Longitudinal Park, 2004, portrays two cyclists who seem to float, beyond their daily reality of having to move from one side to another in Chinese bicycles, evoking a real scene that daily it could be seen throughout the national territory, when the public transport system collapsed in the nineties due to the scarcity of oil on the island.

In 1995, it is estimated that there were one million bicycles in Cuba (Scarpaci, Segre, Coyula, 242). Going from home to work or doing any other management that could previously be done using buses, had to be done by driving bicycles, under the heat of the tropics and physical and mental exhaustion by the vicissitudes brought by the Special Period.

As in the case of gossipers, Martha Jimenez uses carnival humor to reflect a daily reality. The mural has been constructed with pieces of enameled pottery of different sizes and shapes, to represent a couple, dressed as harlequins, floating on the handlebar and the wheels of a bicycle in a heavenly background. He wears pants with diamonds, his hair is braided and topped with colorful beads in the African way. She wears a dress with multicolored flowers, with the skirt elevated, which allows to reveal the bras of her black stockings.

Ascending by bicycle to a backdrop of stars and suns, the couple tries to approach to kiss. The ceramic mural recalls the works of the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi and his Park Guell, in Barcelona, where enameled ceramics have been used to create a recreational site for the city's population. The gesture of a couple floating between reality and imagination to enjoy the kiss, recalls the work "Birthday" by Marc Chagall (1915), where two lovers float on the floor, the lover raised by the desire to kiss his loved. With this mural, Jimenez resorts to the aesthetic strategies of the great artists of European modernity, to represent a Cuban daily reality in the midst of an economic crisis.

The mural also interprets the nineteenth-century miscegenation in a novel way. Contrary to the foundational reality, when the white man subjugated or forced the black woman in sexual terms, the mural shows current Cuba through a scene in which the white woman accepts the kiss of the dark-skinned man. The encounter between the races has to transcend the social prejudices of the Spanish colony. With this mural Martha Jimenez goes to the carnival imagination to celebrate the playful spirit of an entire people, which thanks to that way of being was able to transcend the deficiencies and vicissitudes of a difficult time.

According to the Cuban critic Luis Alvarez Alvarez, the female figure in Martha Jimenez ... "dares to play difficult to make poetry and narration without words" (43). With these words Alvarez locates Jimenez within the conceptual art movement in Cuba, which had its greatest expression between the 80s and 90s of the last century.

Gerardo Mosquera, describing the generation of the 80s, talks about the conceptual load of artists such as Sandra Ramos, Roberto Fabelo and others, who explored their definition of the Cuban in works like "The damn circumstance of water everywhere", by Ramos (1993), and "On the wall of the Malecon", by Fabelo (1999). From the end of the millennium, Cuban conceptual art is dedicated to the task of representing the problems of daily life of the Cuban, in combination with a deep critique of a society in transformation.

In the works analyzed here, Martha Jimenez presents a historical theater, concentrating on the daily activities of the citizen. These activities of riding a bicycle, sitting in the square to read the newspaper, talking while having a cup of coffee and distributing water in tinajones, locate the apparently everyday in a cultural context that illuminates the most important concepts of Cuban history: the foundation of the country on the basis of a slave economy, and the miscegenation of Europeans with Africans as a strategy of ethical and aesthetic valorization, generating a counterpoint with the transcendence of colonial prejudices, which, having been lost in time, developed new definitions of race, gender and idiosyncrasy and define the Cuban of today.

Cited works:

Alvarez Alvarez, Luis. “Martha Jimenez: Luz propia densamente carnal.” Antenas 10 (May-August 2003): 43-46. 
Biron, Rebecca E. City/Art: The Urban Scene in Latin America. Durham y London: Duke UP, 2009. 
Gomez Consuegra, C. Lourdes. “Camaguey, Urbanismo y Arquitectura: Santa Maria del Puerto Principe, una excepcion de la regla”. La luz perenne: La cultura en Puerto Principe (1514-1898). Eds. Alvarez Alvarez, Luis, Olga García Yero and Elda Cento Gomez. Santiago de Cuba: Editorial Oriente, 2013.
Guzman, Ernesto. “Ciudad 500.” La V Conferencia Internacional, Genero, Familia y Sociedad en el contexto de un desarrollo sostenible”, 3 to 5 June, 2013, Universidad de Camaguey Ignacio Agramonte. 
Hurtado Cardoso, Martha. “La imagen renovada de la calle Maceo”. Senderos 11 (July-December 2011): 30-32.
Jimenez, Martha Petrona. < http://www:martha-jimenez.es > Red. 25 May 2013.
Jimenez, Martha. Personal interview. 23 Feb. 2012.
Milanes Leon, Enrique. Granma 44.194. [Havana, Cuba] 14 August 2008:8.
Mosquera, Gerardo. “The Infinite Island: Introduction to New Cuban Art”. Contemporary Art from Cuba: Irony and Survival on the Utopian Island. New York: Arizona State University Art Museum and Delano Greenidge Editions, 1999. 23-29.
Scarpaci, Joseph L., Roberto Segre & Mario Coyula. Havana: Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis. Revised Edition. Chapel Hill: The U of North Carolina P, 2002.
Senderos 5 (July-December 2006): 30.
Senie, Harriet F. Contemporary Public Sculpture: Tradition, Transformation, and Controversy. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.
Tamames Henderson, Marcos. “El paseo mas auténtico del Camaguey.” Senderos 11 (July-December. 2011): 9-14.
Yudice, George. “Modelos de desarrollo cultural urbano: ¿gentrificacion o urbanismo social?” Alteridades 18.36 (July-December. 2008). Red. 29 August, 2012.

Author: Flora Gonzalez. Writing, Literature and Publishing
Emerson College. 120 Boylston Street, Boston, MA 02116