by Sarah Block, Library Communications
Artist María Martínez-Cañas.
You may have viewed the Quince Sellos Cubanos exhibition at Richter Library without realizing, at least at first, that you’re actually looking at photography. This is not an uncommon response to the style of artist María Martínez-Cañas, nor an unwelcomed one. In visiting the 15 iconic scenes depicting Cuba’s past, reimagined from the artist’s childhood stamp collection, you’re encouraged to take them apart as a way of understanding how they connect and the complex narrative that they together form.
“Photographs can be more than a way of recording the world. They can also be a tool for understanding who you are,” Martínez-Cañas explained during a November 19 event at the Cuban Heritage Collection, where she provided a closer look at how her unique style has helped her explore history, memory, and identity, among many other themes, during a conversation with professor J. Tomás López.
Martínez-Cañas is well known for pushing the boundaries beyond a traditional photograph, experimenting with a variety of materials and formats—analog and digital, color and black-and-white, camera-less and camera-base—in order to capture the image she intends. “It’s ideas,” she explained, “that drive my use of the medium, rather than the other way around.”
J. Thomás López, University of Miami Professor of Art and Art History
López, a professor of art and art history who serves as head of Electronic Media and Photography at UM, navigated the discussion with topics spanning the course of Martínez-Cañas’ winding and prolific journey, from her early life and fascination with photography in Puerto Rico to the rise of her career and evolution of her work, which she carries out today in Miami.
“I had a curiosity of wanting to understand how the medium works from an early age, developing my first roll of film when I was eight years old. I asked my parents not to park the car in the garage because I wanted to use it as a dark room—and they didn’t!”
Her experimentation with photography in nontraditional forms began while studying at the prestigious Philadelphia College of Art, continuing at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she earned her MFA. She explained that when a Fulbright-Hays grant then brought her to Seville, Spain, she became interested in using the craft as a way to explore her Cuban identity.
“At the time I was trying to figure out what makes me Cuban. I was born in Cuba, but I never had the opportunity to grow up in the country in which I was born…I developed a project working with the maps that Christopher Columbus used to discover Cuba as a foundation for my photographic project. I thought if I used these maps, I will find my background and where I come from and I will connect more with what makes me Cuban. It changed my life.”
After moving to Miami, Martínez-Cañas embarked on the two-year project resulting in Quince Sellos Cubanos (1992). The first series of 15, comprising the 15 gelatin silver prints currently on display at the library, was donated to the Cuban Heritage Collection by Alan Gordich in 2015 along with the limited-edition portfolio Páginas de Viaje (1996).
Quinces Sellos Cubanos will remain on view through spring 2016.
Photos by Andrew Innerarity.