Ríos intermitentes: A Platform for Cuban Ancestral Spiritual Practices

Ríos intermitentes, an exhibition project started by María Magdalena Campos-Pons in 2019, embraces ancestral spiritual practices as bearers of forms of conviviality among Cubans of African descent. Now in its second edition, the project serves to rehabilitate vital intercultural and decolonizing capacities in Matanzas.

Matanzas, the Cuban city and province with the largest population of Arará and Conga origins. It is a home to the cultivated orality that is a sign of the interracial embrace that has taken place in the Caribbean, and because of which it has become a destination rather than a mere stopover. Throughout its two editions, Ríos intermitentes has placed local artistic production within the circuits of the Havana Biennial. Generating more than twenty-three projects by numerous national and international artists, it has employed cross-cutting, transdisciplinary, and multiform strategies to do this, gathering artistic and cultural actors as protagonists in the reconstruction of ordinary affective plots.

The project has combined rituals and creative works from the Yumurí Valley, but also incorporates poetics as a way to address other contexts where ways of feeling have been appropriated by those in power. Campos-Pons initially sought to bring together creators from the various worlds through which her life has passed: Matanzas, Nashville, and Boston. But the spectrum of places agreed upon for the project’s two iterations expanded these territories. Its dual communication between practices that are trans-territorially interconnected and between art and that which has been declassified as non-artistic has enabled Ríos intermitentes to rehabilitate vital intercultural and decolonizing capacities.

Sensual, bodily, and ritual expressions as channels of connection-immersion for subjects within their environment have been common in the works of both editions, as well as communication with supreme energies associated with social groups historically been perceived as other. In Adrián Gómez Sancho’s Virgen que llegas por aguas (2019), liturgical dancing bodies and drumming to the orishas of the Regla de Ocha, Oshun, and Yemanja accompany the artist’s reinterpretation of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre. The female idol is called upon to take care of the city and its people and to remind them of their duty to ancestral figures who have supported them even in times of sorrow and upheaval.

Within interventions in public space during the successive exhibitions of Ríos, positive images of communal ties have abounded, such as those of ecological and life-care work, but also images of the sensorial, affective gradation between nature and the human, unrelated to the antagonisms of Western dichotomous logic dividing body and soul, nature, and reason. Various pieces remain standing, confronting the viewer in unsuspected places around the city. They urge us to notice the connective tissue that unifies them as inhabitants protected in their physical environment, which is not a structure detached from the living body but an experience that involves them in a material, spiritual, and sacred way.

Ofrenda (2018), the paradigmatic work of the first edition made by sculptor Agustín Drake, who left a vital inheritance to his people when he passed away in 2022, is a votive element constructed in the middle of the water. There in the San Juan River, a warriors’ cooking pot made in extraordinary dimensions expresses the bond of a community with divine powers.

The communal experience as a bedrock of respect for the intertwined cosmic and natural forces around us is also articulated through the sensorial interventions of Emilio O’Farrill, who had already been working on healing the Afro-Cuban soul and interspersing his works with images from across the city. For the second edition of Ríos Intermitentes, together with the Afro art community project in the neighborhood, La Marina, O’Farrill honored important members of the community, such as the Muñequitos de Matanzas, with healing works and restorative actions. The collaborative work between artists and neighbors bore its fruit through empowering collective and neighborhood memory, reviving neighborhood architecture, and intensifying its co-created symbolic capital.

The ecological sensitivity nurtured by ancestral heritage and reappropriated by generations of Matanzas and Cubans through transcultural flows on the Antillean soil re-emerges in Ríos intermitentes. This is palpable in pieces such as Ramón Pacheco Salazar’s Paisaje postindustrial (2022), a photographic essay capturing the emptiness and deterioration of the area. Desolation and abandonment become the protagonists of a narrative about the extractive, reifying logic that is wearing away the original sources of life.

In the second edition of Ríos intermitentes, Jorge Yunior Gutiérrez transformed industrial consumer objects in the factory where Nigerian artist Olu Oguibe’s peculiar minimalist objects had been installed in 2019. Containers of liquified gas, usually used in Cuban homes for cooking, became hyperreal, their residual materials turning into disruptive signs. Redistributing found objects in their original state to form a new language gave them other meanings and provoked critical reflection on the logic of disposable objects and their possible re-uses.

With works focused on inclusive approaches, discussions about them converged like the intermittent rivers of the project’s name. In both editions, Ríos intermitentes has empowered the city and its creators, placing them on the map of positive experiences of cultural traditions and thus making it possible to reimagine living spaces.


Elizabeth Pozo Rubio holds a degree in Art History from the University of Havana. She writes and researches on Cuban art. She is currently completing a Masters in Latin American Cultural Studies at the University of Buenos Aires.

Translation: Sara Hanaburgh