A Postcolonial Analysis of Carmen Herrera’s Untitled (c. 2012)

Near the end of the twentieth century, revisions concerning postcolonial theories of Said and Nochlin occurred. Rather than focusing on strict binaries, theorists considered that issues of postcolonialism were more complicated because the colonial experience is not only complex but also ambiguous. The colonized and the colonizer were plays in various locations—psychological, philosophical, geographical, social, political, and economic—and these theorists desired to examine the space in between the colonized and colonizer. This paper will provide a postcolonial analysis of Carmen Herrera’s Untitled (c. 2012), using the theories of Homi Bhaba, Gaytri Chakravorty Spivak, and David Carven to reveal the hybridity that occurs in this piece of art.

Figure 1. Carmen Herrera, Untitled, c. 2012, acrylic and pencil on paper, 50 x 70 cm.

Homi Bhaba wrote “Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse” in 1984, which focused on mimicry, or how the colonized are compelled to imitate the colonizer through language, religion, and so forth in order to be considered civilized. Bhaba believes that there is a place of empowerment for the colonized—to talk back or to mimic—which becomes a form of mockery. For Bhaba, he wants us to consider what it means for both parties, the colonized and the colonizer, to exhibit mimicry. Carmen Herrera’s Untitled (c. 2012) shows this mimicry happening. The painting has strong diagonal lines, creating a dynamic, exciting work to look at. The bottom left is red, while the other half is crisp white. The strong diagonal line does not meet at opposite corners but slightly before, which creates a balancing type of effect. Then we see two rectangular shapes in the center of the painting, both interrupting the blocks of color; on the white area, there is a prominent red box, and on the red area, a white box appears. It looks like cut outs—a cookie cut out—and then the reversal of colors in their respective areas. However, the blocks still connect, making the line continue on, otherwise uninterrupted.

This painting has a Bhaban influence of mimicry. Here each colored area could represent the colonizer and the colonized. Each box mimics the other, just as the colonized mimics the colonizer and vice versa. Yet each can never fully become the other, which is why there is no pink in the painting or the boxes. The colonized can never truly be white because of their skin color; similarly, the colonizer can never be fully native because of their Western traditions, religion, birth, etc.

Gaytri Chakravorty Spivak, an Indian theorist, wrote “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in 1988, which is one of the most popular essays in postcolonial readings. The subaltern is inferior and the colonizer cannot even imagine the subaltern existing or acknowledge them as a discrete, autonomous entity. She uses a geographical metaphor here and has an Indian perspective because of the Indian social castes and the specific expectations of how to conduct life for each caste. Spivak wonders if there is any way for the subaltern to be heard or if they can make a difference if the subaltern are not acknowledged, are not cohesive, are scattered and fragmentary, and do not have a social, political, or economic presence. Therefore, if the subaltern has no history, then they cannot speak. The way of being in the West includes a history—something visible or written—which in turn creates identity. Because Westerners have a history, then they can be acknowledged and heard. Yet so many of these subaltern peoples do not become registered because they lack the forms and abilities of visibility that Westerners claim are necessary to be seen and heard.

In this painting, there is tension between the red and the white blocks. If the red area represented the subaltern, the red block could represent a section of that society who wished to be heard and acknowledged. However, as mentioned before, there is no pink in this painting; if there were any pink, then we could assume that the subaltern was heard and acknowledged. Instead, the red is isolated and alone, continuing in its in-acknowledgment. Additionally, the painting is outlines with a gray line; there continues to be white surrounding the painting and then the frame. This suggests that the subaltern (i.e., the red area) could be ignored because it is surrounded and overlooked by the colonizers (i.e., the white areas). Yet the red actually stands out in this painting, and even though the colonizers can attempt to ignore the subaltern, the colonized can still find a voice and demand to be heard.

David Carven, an art historian, wrote about Pollock and Abstract Expressionism, which was seen as the great, American movement. Yet Carven saw this as problematic because the First Nation People were not acknowledged and neither was their art. If Native American art is acknowledged, it is re-colonized or re-appropriated. Additionally, Carven found the focus on the very closed-knit circle of male, heteronormative, white men based in New York problematic, since it did not recognize the international element of this movement, which occurred in South American and other places. This movement was much more global than we acknowledge, yet we continue to only focus on those artists and the cannon that we have formed. The movements themselves and the way that we define these movements shows colonialism. Carmen Herrara was largely ignored during her life time and now, over 100 years old, she is finally receiving recognition.

Herrara’s obscurity as a painter has been the case for most of her life. She is a Cuban-American artist who also lived in Paris, which shows hybridity. She trained at New York’s Art Students League and would later have exhibitions at four different times at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris from 1949 to 1953. In 1954, she moved to New York, where she continues to live and work today. She has works in the following collections and museums: Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Tate Collection, London; the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC; The Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. In the article “Carmen Herrera on Her Centennial,” published 19 November 2015, it reads, “Herrera’s body of work has established, quietly but steadily, a cross-cultural dialogue within the international history of modernist abstraction.” Despite her successes, she is finally receiving recognition. Herrera, as an artist, could represent the subaltern, or even a hybrid of Cuban and American cultures, who is finally being heard.

The artist, Carmen Herrera, shown here.


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