No matter what comes to mind when you think of Latin America, “Resilience,” the photography exhibition at the Instituto Cervantes, will challenge long-held concepts, ideas and stereotypes of this vast and diverse region. “Resilience” brings different aesthetics, perspectives, approaches and subjects together to paint a picture of the complexity and nuance of Latin America today.
The exhibit, curated by Claudi Carreras surrounds the viewer with imagery from the region (mostly Mexcian), drawing them into the worlds of the places and people photographed: a 92 year-old man living a humble life in the Andes; a victim of or member of the notorious, transnational street gang Mara Salvatrucha, who doesn’t take his eyes off the floor; a woman sitting in what is left of her home after an earthquake in Peru killed hundreds of her countrymen.
Considered one of the best art shows in Spain last year, “Resilience” won the PhotoEspaña 2009 Viewers award and brought public attention to ten photographers who have concentrated on bringing various distinct social issues to light through their work. Instituto Cervantes chose ten photographers for their exhibition, a selection of about 70 images taken from the 147 that were part of the original exhibit in Madrid.
In Peru, Ana Cecilia Gonzales Vigil captures the process of reconstruction, of not merely the physical infrastructure following the 2007 7.9 earthquake, but also of reconstruction at a personal level. She captures the fear, vulnerability and strength of people who have lost everything from one moment to the next. Clearly she took the time to get to know these people, to talk to them, to try and understand what they went through. There is little color in her images—they are mostly grey, setting a melancholic mood with few glimpses of color or hope.
Not too far away, on the coast of the same country, Tomås Munita documents the lives of Quechua Indians who, in a pilgrimage dating to ancient times, have come from the mountains to collect guano to use as a natural fertilizer. Munita’s images illustrate the hard labor of these people, many of whom walk barefoot across sand and rocks carrying heavy sacks of guano that they will later sell for a meager profit. His photographs showcase the beautiful scenery, but he also zooms in on the laborers, getting down and dirty in the mud with the workers. His images beg unanswered questions about the lives of his subjects. I am left impressed and wanting to know more.
In the Peruvian Andes, Morfi Jiménez Mercado employs both his flash and available light to beautifully create images of the inhabitants of the rugged mountain range. Some might say his end product is almost too beautiful to be considered as an accurate representation, but beautiful they are. Mercado explains his work: “I tried to capture the life of the common village dweller as I see it with his moments of happiness and sadness and in his richness and poverty… I have no intention of saying there is something more behind my photographs.” By taking such an approach, Mercado’s stunning portraits are stories waiting to be created by the viewer; they are strong and filled with details that spark the imagination.
With her project “Two Million Homes for Mexico,” Livia Corona explores the consequences, both good and bad, of building massive housing projects under the rule of former Mexican president Vicente Fox. She acknowledges that the administration gave low-income families the opportunity to have a home, but emphasizes the consequences of building these structures in a nation where there is a desperate lack of public services, such as education, healthcare, and transportation. Corona found a surprisingly aesthetic way to document these constructions by finding patterns in lines and shapes; she is careful to emphasize geometry and repetition in a way that attracts the eye. As an essay these photographs are strong, but taken individually, few have real power and meaning.
Also in Mexico, Pavka Segura and Dante Busquets created a portrait of Mexico City by photographing its structures and characters as a landscape representing the immense and strange world that is this city of more than 20 million. While their work is representative of what one might call a disorganized concrete mess, I find their images to be mere snapshots of displeasing structures and unoriginal portraits that one could find framed in any Mexican home.
Mark Powell, on the other hand, has created intimate portraits of Mexico City’s very unique people. His final product presents the viewer with a story that is full of humor, but tinged with a touch of sadness. Every chilango* has encountered some, if not all, of these characters throughout his or her life.
Mexican Óscar Fernando Gómez, has just one photograph in the New York exhibit, a beautiful portrait, but one that hardly shows Gomez’s talent. All his photographs were included in the original exhibit in Spain, but New York’s Instituto Cervantes inexplicably failed to include his work. Whatever the reasons may be, it is worth looking him up online, as his photo essay, ”The Taxi Driver’s Look,” is extremely powerful in both content and technique.
By aiming his lens at real places and real scenarios, Argentinian Ramiro Chavez takes photographs that, as he describes, “transmit fabrication.” He juxtaposes objects and plays with light and reflections, creating a mind game for his audience. His work is a glimpse into his imagination and his memories of Miramar, a small coastal town in Argentina’s Cordoba Province. He describes the places photographed as “unique and sacred subjects, establishing a personal mythology based on historical facts and everyday experiences.” He transforms what could be dismissed as abandoned, ugly structures, into objects of fantasy. Chavez’s work is outstanding and worth the visit alone—he he will definitely keep your eyes on his work longer than most of the other exhibitioners’ work.
“The ‘Other’ side of the American Dream,” by Italian Nikola Okin Frioli, is an original pictorial series documenting the migration of Central Americans bound for the United States. His series consists of the portraits of migrants who have used the train to move along their way but, due to train accidents or encounters with the migra or with gangs,have been left behind. Nikola formed intimate relationships with some of the migrants who failed to make it to the U.S., managing to bring his subjects into a studio where he aims his lens at the individual, taking us a step closer to understanding what these people have gone through on their journeys in search of what they believe will be a better life.
The dictionary definition “resilience”—the “capacity of a solid to recuperate its original form and size, when the forces causing the system’s deformation ceases” —hits the mark in describing the collective work of the “Resilience” exhibition. These photographs are images of the strength and will of the people of Latin America who pull through and overcome whatever may come their way. They are powerful images of everyday life and survival.
June 22, 2010
frontispiece: detail of "Miramar" by Ramiro Chavez, 2008
*Mexican slang referring to the inhabitants of Mexico City.