Meet Cuban Artist Misleidys Francisca Castillo Pedroso

Originally Published on ArtNet onApril 15, 2015.

Every day artist Misleidys Francisca Castillo Pedroso paints “s/he” characters in the living room of the small apartment she shares with her mother and brother outside of Havana, Cuba.

Deaf and mute, Pedroso exists in an isolated environment. With construction paper, tempura paint, and cheap brushes, she creates a large cast of characters—an army, perhaps—of bodybuilders. Some are male, recently some female, and some both.

Her posse comes in three sizes: extra-large, large, and small. These intense figures confront, preen, and demonstrate a fierce confidence that conveys an attitude of “don’t mess with me.” Each drawing is meticulously attached to the wall with regular-size pieces of tape reminiscent of cut-out paper dolls. Installed in multiples, their rambunctious visual noise fills the quiet of her family home. They are everywhere: beyond the living room, in her mother’s and brother’s bedrooms—even overrunning Pedroso’s own sanctuary.

The artist’s paintings follow a precise template, and one of her few deviations invokes the proverb “The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness.” Some characters are bald, while others are bald and horned, Afroed, spiky-haired, flat-topped, or bobbed. Muscles are consistently delineated in strong black strokes and skin colors run the rainbow from the obvious dark browns, tans, and yellows to the greens and aquamarines of aliens. The characters strike more or less the same muscle pose: legs spread, toes turned out, and arms at hips, behind hips, or raised with flexing biceps.

Gender differentiation is clearest in the depiction of underwear. Pedroso’s “males” wear simple briefs often monogramed with the letter “T” in a diamond-shaped patch. Her “females” wear a similar bikini bottom, but they have lace trimming and heart shapes that enclose the letter “E.” Because Pedroso doesn’t read or write (she uses simple gestures to communicate with her family), the mysterious “T” and “E” remain indecipherable symbols.

There are slight shifts in her Francesco Clemente–like faces. The pencil-thin eyebrows frame saucer-shaped eyes, mostly brown but sometimes blue. Nostrils are always flared while mouths are half open and rarely smiling.

Her works form a portrait of repeated, impenetrable stoicism, and you take comfort that this artist has created a set of strange, half-naked bedfellows. Completing her community is her s/he pet—a horned cow with udders drawn in profile. In her universe—her unknown interior life—there is no judgment, no gender assignment. Her outsider art is au courant, relevant, poignant, and worthy of being counted.

She paints without an agenda, and yet one could locate Pedroso as a figure within the transgenderism movement on the rise in metropolitan areas across the United States.

Evidence of this abounds. Last year, Barneys New York commissioned Bruce Weber to produce the elegiac “Brothers, Sisters, Sons, & Daughters,” which featured 17 transgendered models, for its spring 2014 advertising campaign.

On our screens there is Jeffrey Tambor’s 2014 Golden Globe–winning portrayal of Maura Pfefferman on Amazon’s breakout series Transparent, and Laverne Cox’s 2013 Emmy-nominated role as Sophia Burset, a transgender female prisoner in the Netflix original series Orange Is the New Black.

In the world of masked superheroes, where identities (Clark Kent/Superman) and bodies (X-Men’s Mystique) shift seamlessly, the character of Alysia Yeoh, a trans woman of color who made her first appearance in 2011 in DC Comics’ Batgirl, is a standout. (It’s appropriate that the comic book community would be one of the first to introduce a transgendered character to mainstream pop culture.)

In the contemporary art scene, where LGBT concerns have always had an influential voice, the art duo and life partners Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst’s photography project Relationship (2008–13) chronicles Drucker’s transition from male to female and Ernst from female to male and was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. At the New Museum, the 2015 Triennial presents Frank Benson’s show-stopping 3-D-printed sculpture of fellow Triennial artist Juliana Huxtable, who was raised as a boy before transitioning.

Gender-bending is certainly fashionable, and in the case of Pedroso’s bodybuilders, perhaps its just simply natural.