Raúl Martínez, Untitled (Three Friends)

Untitled (Three Friends)

Raúl Martínez, Untitled (Three Friends), c. 1969.

The Idealism and the Reality of the Cuban Revolution  

Raúl Martínez illustrates the tension between the idealized vision of life after the Cuban Revolution and the reality in his hand painted photograph Untitled (Three Friends) (1969). The artwork depicts three men who appear to be working on a farm, picking fruit. However, beyond that first layer, there are other elements— emphasized by the paint added to the photograph—present in the piece that depict different visions of Cuba during that time, and the conflict within Martínez himself.

The conflict Martínez personally struggled with was experiencing two Cubas at once. The Cuban government created institutions like the film institute, ICAIC, a literacy program, and a food ration program that ensured the Cuban people had sufficient food (Foran 21). However, not all Cuban citizens were completely free to celebrate their religious practices and express their sexual orientation. The personal struggle and “agnosticism” towards the situation was tied to the fact that Martínez was a gay man, in a lifelong relationship with writer Abelardo Estorino (Matamoros Tuma 228). There are certain details present in Untitled (Three Friends) that allude to this fact that further the tension in the piece. While all three men are painted similarly, the man on the left is painted to make him appear less rugged, with fewer lines on his face, and generally more feminine, with his chest accented in such a way as to appear like breasts and his chin narrow. There is also a phallic symbol formed from the fruit and a red shadow to the left of the fruit.

These images of gender ambiguity connect the artwork to Cuba’s anti-homosexual agenda. The government imprisoned those deemed “social misfits,” including homosexuals, in work camps (Ocasio 81). There were accounts of men arrested and convicted if their gait was deemed too effeminate (Ocasio 81). “Moral purges” were executed in 1965, forcing some students to reveal their sexuality, which resulted in some committing suicide (Ocasio 80-81). These violations of human rights were occurring around Martínez, while he saw improvements in Cuba brought about by the same government.

Martínez emphasizes the conversation between reality and idealism visually through the different mediums of the piece. Photography is often thought of as a medium that captures the truth by simply reproducing what is present (Keim 57). Martínez, an experienced photographer, would know that this is not the case. The photograph needs context and history to be fully understood, just like Cuba. It is a staged and deliberately set-up, such that the viewer must look beyond the image and interpret it.

The painted sections of the photograph bring a second dimension to its reflection of Cuba. The paint covers the background of the photograph and most of the skin of the three men, however they are painted abstractly. The background is painted blue and green, closer to reality, while the men’s skin was painted with bright yellow and red. The flat appearance of the painted figures recalls silkscreen, and thus creates icons within the photograph. While the paint creates a flatter version of the men, idealized versions, hints of the original photograph are still seen in the face. The men exist in two different ways at the same time, as iconic Cuban workers and as individuals.

Untitled (Three Friends) explores the complexity of defining an individual as a unique body and Cuba as a body politic. The Cuban government wanted all bodies to be productive and contribute to the state. Homosexuals, however, were cast as being inherently unproductive because they could not produce children. By portraying the worker in Untitled (Three Friends) ambiguously, Martínez questions how their productivity and their overall value as a person relate. Certain characteristics define an individual, but still allow them to be a part of a larger entity, as Martinez shows through his portrayal of the figure.

- Laura Arteaga


Works cited

Foran, John. “Theorizing the Cuban Revolution.” Latin American Perspectives, Mar. 2009. 36.2: 16-30.

Keim, Jean A. and Bougarel, Katherine. “Photography and Reality.” Diogenes, June 1965 12: 57-72, doi: 10.1177/039219216501305005

Matamoros Tuma, Corina. “Raúl Martínez: La Gran Familia.” Vanguardia Cubana, 2012.

Ocasio, Rafael. "Gays and the Cuban Revolution: The Case of Reinaldo Arenas." JSTOR. Latin American Perspectives, Mar. 2002, 29.2: 78-98.

Raúl Martínez, Untitled (Three Friends)