Interview with Sheyi Bankale By Ana Folguera

  1. First of all, I would like to ask you about your background in photography. What led you to curatorial and editorial world? 

My background is one that only a small cohort of individuals know nostalgically in a linear or sequential form. It is based on extraordinary relationships forged with people who trusted me to participant in various significant creative and cultural events all within the medium of photography. My early beginnings as a music photographer for major record companies lead to a period working with music artists in Los Angeles. At the height of working within the music industry, I received a major commission to produce an editorial shoot that triggered a return to London to open a studio predominately towards the fashion industry and fashion magazines. In 2000, again witnessed another shift, this time from fashion into contemporary art through launching Next Level magazine. Along with Jimo Salako, we used the magazine to examine the extent to which the 2000’s could be a turning point for black identity to produce one of Europe’s if not the world’s leading art photography publication. Let’s trust the history books will recognise our impact.

Soon after Next Level’s rise in popularity, I was invited to Sweden where my curatorial work found a footing. During the research trip I aimed to trace Afro-European’s “Blue-Men”. However, during a segue moment, I came across Pontus Hultén and Willem Sandberg who showed great examples of how the museum curator can actually determine the role of the museum, in my case, allowing spaces to be an incubator or laboratory. This led me to new ideas and discourses within the medium of photography I work within today.

  1. What changes and challenges has photography faced in the past years? 

What is defining is the merger of the carriers of knowledge and guardians of culture where artists become curators and curators become artists. This hybrid of roles illustrates the multifaceted structure adopted that is being shaped by our beliefs into what drives our cultural voices. The near future will be an interesting paradigm shift. 

  1. Regarding changes in visual culture, in what sense do you think social movements have changed the “iconosphere” in the last years?

Social movements over the past year has woke people’s consciousness and presented an influential cast on everything we do. From the perspective of visual culture, social movements have become the beacon of theory and critical rationale. It is intriguing that sub-culture has become popular culture in the cycle once again. My fear is that it is simply fashioned as many of the topics which have surfaced have been topics lobbied for generations and to only offer a year or two of exposure in exchange for a lifetime of work would be a travesty.

  1. It is unavoidable to speak about the pandemic and its strong impact on every aspect of our lives. How do you think it has affected the art world? What are the challenges now?

We are now in a phase of a worldwide phenomenon, this is inevitable. How do we return to a potential for the art institutions as a social arbiter? With prosperity and air travel, we have the potential as people to spend time together more freely, which is positive. As a result of the pandemic we rely upon, and in some cases, are dependent on the internet to feed our digital avatar. We have the potential negative of a lot of ill-informed people who have self-serving opinions, often not based on fact. On the other hand, there is the possibility of widespread independent voices and involvement, which is positive.

  1. In which ways do you think digital and print can live together? Is that an old question already?

This question addresses the materiality usage which occurs. If we refer to the past 10 years then this is the full circle shift back to analogue from digital within the arts which, is not a new observation however, what is the fascinating angle appears to be the re-examining of material differences that exist. The ideas that shape our realisation of technical methods within the working procedures and how we as the audience expect to receive them is the coupling of a systematic interplay between digital and analogue.

  1. What do you think about NFT system? Do you think it will change the art market (gallery systems, fairs…)? 

Change has taken place, this is a cycle of advancement and adaptability, no question. A cause and effect or the elephant in the room is the art market, without air travel the art market will relinquish control while new systems such as NFT become direct mechanisms for artists to circumvent the middle-man, the art market.

  1. How has the role of curator changed in the past years?

The curator role especially played a pervasive and pivotal role in the dramatic transformations in artistic production, reception, and distribution. This has shifted to acts of protest and disruption. ArtReview pointed to this in their edition “Why Curators Should Learn From Protests. The role of the curator is an acutely active position creating a narrative through the artwork. Protesting Storytelling pushes the boundaries because so much of what is going on is not to be seen in the galleries.

  1. Can give us some names of photographers you have discovered recently? Or some artists whose work you think it is interesting for some reason.

There are many artists whom I have come across. However, what is key is what I have to voice artistically. There are usual art market formulas in which everyone follows, such as finding or launching the career of artists. As I stated it is about what I invariably voice and which artists in whichever stage of their careers able to further my storytelling. 

  1. What are your next projects for the upcoming months? 

I am utilising the publication to explore it as a medium in its own right. I will investigate the distinct materiality of the publication as well as its unique properties in an art context. Embracing publications sculpturally which up to now have been only marginally important.

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Curatorial Dialogue

Photential was created as a meeting point. A space to build relationships between different worlds, disciplines and people. For this, we have resorted to an infallible tool: photography. Photography is capable of dissolving borders, artistic categories and pre-established norms. In our desire to create a heterogeneous and multidisciplinary space, we have collaborated with curator who is very famous in Moscow and Chernobyl Kristina Romanova ( follow her on instagram) to select eleven emerging Russian photographers. Kristina closely followed the methodology established by the Spanish curator Ana Folguera in her choice of Spanish photographers. Exploring the themes essential to contemporary thought, the selected artists speak to the following ideas: identity, architecture and space, visual culture, ecosystems and movement. 

The chosen Spanish artists employ various techniques in production. In the case of Jorge Fuembuena, whose photography is sincere and full of poetic nuance, he begins with portraiture and observation in order to represent different worlds. Similarly, in Bego Antón’s work, reality and the world of magic coexist, blurring any borders or prejudice. With curiosity as her starting point, Gloria Oyarzabal reflects on Western knowledge, aesthetic and political systems and proposes a space for reflection within different cultural contexts. Julio Galeote also plays with different visual and conceptual formats and Laura C. Vela’s “proximity photography” allows for autobiographical intimacy in her portrayal of the spaces she inhabits, be it the home or a shared, communal space. 

This very carefully selected group of super star Russian photographers that also sell their prints on instagram,  are self taught or recent graduates from The Rodchenko school in Russia,. They identify with the same themes and practices as their famous ” mid career” Spanish counterparts. This is seen in Alena Shilonosova’s “documentary gaze”, Anastasia Pozhidaeva’s reflection on distance and proximity, Anastasia Tsayde’s exploration of the concept of the ecosystem, and in Arnold Veber’s representation of intimacy. Daniil Kolchanov’s striking and figurative images contrast with the aesthetic purity of Dmitry Lookianov or Max Sher, while the still lifes of Lena Tsibizova offer a carefree and playful style; and the floral images of Ekaterina Anokhina stand out for their sobriety and simplicity. Oksana Yushkipoo, for her part, turns documentary photography into images with autonomous plastic value and Teo Khonukov’s urban scenes go beyond the merely testimonial by making the landscape an art form in itself. All of our famous artists, from their diverse positions and visual strategy, beautifully reflect the spirit of our exclusive platform, Potential, so dont forget to subscribe now for more news!

6 November 2020

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Bego Antón Interview by Ana Folguera

Bego Anton wanted to be a writer before she became a photographer. Perhaps that’s why her work is enveloped in a fine narrative that plays with fantasy and reality. Begito Antón (Bilbao, Spain, 1983) takes photos like someone who writes children stories. Interestingly, she also wanted to be a war correspondent. While little remains of those first vocations, her work still reflects a certain desire to “map out her territory” and take risks in terms of the themes she deals with, presenting the spectator with a dilemma about what is real and what is not. In 2014 she received the PHotoEspaña Discoveries Award; in 2016 the Second Prize Istanbul Photo Awards Singles and in 2017 the PHotoEspaña Revelation Award. 

Q.(A.F)- You studied journalism. What led you to photography?

A.(B.A)- Yes. I actually wanted to write fiction, but during my degree I unlearned how to write, because from the very first instance everything was rigidly based on the “what”, “how”, “when” and why”. So all my potential for creativity was ruined. There was a time when I wanted to be a war correspondent. But in Barcelona I decided to do a photography course, and that was when I took the plunge. I started with a style and methodology which is very different to the one I have now, it was really photojournalistic. 

Q- It’s interesting because your photos haven’t lost that tension with documentary photography, but you allow yourself a kind of artistic license that moves you away from that. 

A- The important thing when you take photos is to not limit yourself and create based on the needs of each project. I came from a world full of limitations, it was clear that there was no place for me there. 

Q- When did you first professionalise your practice? 

A- While I was in Barcelona I combined various courses and gave extracurricular English classes to children. My family really supported me to help me take the risk and change my career. I started to focus on taking photos more seriously. It cost me a lot. I spent a long time pursuing photography, doing projects, figuring out how to subsidise them. 

Q- What was the first project that really established you as a photographer? 

A- I think it was Butterfly days. When I took them to get developed I thought, “I like this”. I felt like I really understood myself more. 

Q- How would you define what you do? 

A- My work revolves around a love triangle between nature, human beings and animals. Those three elements don’t always have to be present in my work, but there are always at least two. I like to tell stories that talk about this love, both in a positive light and in moments of crisis. I also like to work with communities that have strange tastes, and I mean strange in the best sense of the word. For me they are an example of strength. I’m interested in these groups of people who come together to practise their beliefs and traditions. My work addresses the fragile line that separates the real and the imaginary. Magic realism has always fascinated me. I like to depict stories that encompass all of these elements. 

Q- There is something specific in your work that interests me a lot, which is the relationship you portray between humans and animals. Recently, animals have played a far greater role in our lives (everyone has a pet, people are increasingly becoming vegan or vegetarian, animalism is booming, etc…) What do you understand our relationship with animals to be like? 

A- I think our relationship with animals is full of contradictions. We eat animals but at the same time we believe that they have the right to exist. What I do is explore this duplicity and these kinds of issues from a new perspective. For example, in Everybody loves to Chachachá what interested me was the desire and determination people have to humanise animals, which is a need the animals don’t share. I realised that we adopt animal attitudes in order to relate to these creatures, we basically animalise ourselves. I also realised that despite all the contradictions, human beings don’t always act with bad intention. But in any case, I’m interested in loving relationships, not relationships full of hate. Another key characteristic of my work is the cheerfulness and positivity the photos exude. I like to make people smile, but not from a place of paternal or maternal authority, but from a place of empathy towards something which might be considered “strange” by society. 

Q- I think this search for empathy is seen across all your projects. There is no freakishness, no exotic construction of the “other”. How did you create Everybody loves to Chachacha? What was your process? 

A- I always try to portray subjects that are not typically photographed. I was given an artistic residence in ICPS in New York and I saw a video of Carolyn Scott dancing to Greece with her dog and that was when I started to dig deeper into this animal world. On the internet I discovered that there was a collective of women who all danced with their dogs. I got in contact with different associations and the truth is it was extremely easy. The women were really used to doing performances because they even compete. They’re really comfortable with people approaching them during the performances and being filmed, etc. 

Q- The relationship between choreography and image is really interesting. How did you deal with it in your work? 

A- Before I went I thought, how can I show that a dog and a human are dancing in a still image? How do I suggest this visually? I searched for references in musicals from the 50s and 60s. In the end I decided to photograph in three different parts: taking photos of the dance steps, the still lifes (the objects that surround the women) and also capturing the love between the owners and their dogs. I made these three types of images. But I also needed to show the movement, so I made a video documentary and created gifs. Without them, the photos felt quite cold. 

Q- Yes and that sense of empathy and joy is clearly seen in the series. The spectator doesn’t judge what he or she is looking at. 

A- As a photographer I felt a lot of responsibility when shooting this series. If I wasn’t careful, I would run the risk of portraying the women in a way I really didn’t want to. After they had kindly opened their houses and shared their private spaces with me, the last thing I could do was depict their world in a pessimistic or unpleasant way. As photographers we have an enormous responsibility when it comes to taking photos, because taking photos in itself is already a selfish act. In my opinion these women are heroes. There are people who ask, “are they crazy?”, “are they lonely?”, “what’s wrong with them?”, “don’t they have any kids?”. Well, nothing’s wrong with them: they’re simply having fun. 

Q- Yes, because of their gender, the project could provoke rather unfair judgement on the part of the spectator. They are doing something out of desire and for pure self-enjoyment, which is supposedly “unproductive” or “unuseful”. It could definitely spark some questions from the patriarchy. 

A- Yes, also, it’s always men who ask those questions. 

Q- Before we spoke about the cheerfulness of your work. However, in Lady Winter, I notice a certain touch of sadness. 

A- I believe that was intentional. That’s how I saw winter in Iceland. I wanted to live a “typical winter”. The streets were deserted. The title of the series itself (Lady Winter) alludes to that nostalgia, I couldn’t add fun to what I was seeing. I think all of that is reflected in the series. But then I also found out that there were elves, and that’s when I started the series The earth is only a Little dust under our feet.

Q- That series brings me to another characteristic aspect of your work: how magic and reality coexist. And it doesn’t involve making fantastical scenes, but instead portraying how some of the unreal or imaginary elements exist within the very world that we know. 

A- Yes. When I talked to people in Iceland and they spoke to me about the elves, I realised that it wasn’t only a “belief”. They really do see these beings! That’s what brought me to the real idea behind the series. If it’s true or not that these people can see elves, I don’t care. What I believe is that they are telling me the truth. If it’s just part of their imagination, I don’t care. Why is it weird to believe in elves but normal to believe in God? 

Q- And how did you portray that in your photos? 

A- Above all using colour. Many of these people who have the ability to see elves, or these beings that we call “mythological”, can see their aura. I decided to appropriate this ability myself and do experiments with my camera. That’s why there’s so much colour. To me it suggests there is an invisible force that we cannot see. 

Q- Do you think your interest in nature has something to do with the fact you grew up in the Basque Country? 

A- Yes, I believe so. All of my childhood was spent going to the mountain or fishing with my dad by the cliffs. For me, nature plays a fundamental part in my life and work. In fact, I don’t think I know how to take photos in the city. I need nature. 

Q-. This interest in the natural world reappears in your most recent project, Haiek Danak Sorginak-All Of Them Witches.

A- Yeah, after travelling so much I needed to come home. I wanted to take photos of my own country. The subject of witches had haunted me for a long time. We have a really mythologised, inaccurate idea about them. I wanted to remember and honour these women who had been reviled. Witches form part of Basque mythology, and they’re even sold as little figurines, which is another way of objectifying them. And also a way of forgetting that they were in fact women who died at the stake. It seems atrocious to me. I’m interested in depicting what really happened. It’s difficult because the texts that remain are written by inquisitors, taken during the testimonies of tortured women, so there’s already an enormous difficulty there. We don’t know the reality of what those women lived through. But despite that, I decided to stick with it. Using those confessions what I do is recreate their image and specific stories. I also think it’s important to provide the real names and surnames of these women because what is strange about witchcraft is that we have this seriously ambiguous and depersonalised idea of who they were. But if you humanise witches, you can empathise more with them. Take Margarita Jáure ugito, tacito, for example, who was forgiven for being a witch, but she ended up killing herself because she couldn’t stand the harassment she received in her village. 
I also focus on the more fanciful aspect of witchcraft – like the flying. And also the cruder parts: dying at the stake, or the torturing that was carried out by the women’s own neighbours. 

Q- It’s funny how the Church replaced all these other forms of spirituality with a single, male god.

A- Yes. The Basque Country was a really pagan place and the people had a close relationship with nature, but the witch hunt was so strong that it erased that link. All of the recipes that were made by the healers, for example, have been lost. The healers were considered a threat by the doctors back then because they were worried they wouldn’t be able to practice medicine and that people would turn to the women before coming to them. The way to eliminate those healer’s practices, therefore, was to accuse the women of witchcraft and take full control over childbirth and medicine in general. It was a very clear persecution of women, of paganism, and of the relationship the Basque Country had with its surroundings and nature. So my intention with this project is to return to the forest: that’s why the images are so green, so rainy, and full of such abundant vegetation. 

6 November 2020

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Gloria Oyarzabal interview by Ana Folguera

“I don’t believe in the moral exclusivity of photojournalism. It’s everyone’s responsibility.”   

When you see Gloria’s work, it’s almost as if you’re looking at a detailed collage, or discovering a palimpsest. There is always something more to be found, another underlying layer. Perhaps that’s why her amazing and powerful fotografi is so , more than just a visual body of work, is a vast archive of images and references. Gloria Oyarzabal (London, 1971) is one of the Spanish photographers who has aroused the most interest in recent years. In a not-so-strange phenomenon, her work has enjoyed greater success outside of Spain, however, the visual power of her images is becoming increasingly recognised and appreciated on the Spanish scene which is very important of course. 

Q.(A.F)- Let’s start more generally. How would you define your work?

A.(G.O)- My work comes from a place of self-questioning. I always begin with a kind of activism. My reflections arise from “inputs” that alert me to something that I believe isn’t working, and from there, I reflect on the history that has led us to that point. I put together a narration. And the photography allows me to work with different layers and formats. 

Q- You told me earlier that your family history has influenced your work. In what way?

A- My great aunt was called Gloria and she was a photographer. My grandmother, Francesca Braggiotti, was a contemporary dancer. She was Italian, from a family of 7 children, and all of them were artists (one was a pianist, another a writer…) She has always instilled a free spirit in me. Her mother was vegan, for example, which was very modern at the time. My great aunt Gloria and my grandmother used to get together and they were really outlandish. Additionally, there’s the figure of my father: a very cultured man, a polyglot, who always ingrained a love of museums in me. For example, on Sundays he would sit in his armchair and recite Antonio Machado. Also, he has a gift for telling really good stories about the world’s history. Creating from these personal references I’ve had in life has been very important. 

Q- What brought you to photography? 

A- I studied restoration. And I worked in that field for 15 years. I had a great time up there on the scaffolding, mainly restoring church bells. When I became a mum I started a studio together with some associates. Then I studied Fine Arts and that’s where I specialised in photography. It was a hobby that had always been part of my life but until then it hadn’t provided me with a source of income. My partner is a filmmaker and I would sometimes help him with the sound and still photos. We opened a cinema in Madrid. 

Q- Yes, La Enana Marrón, a place I recall clearly from my adolescence. 

A- Yes! The scene was really different in Madrid back then. We had Filmoteca where you could watch the old, classic movies. But the city lacked a space for experimental cinema. We created a really fun medley: Finnish experimental cinema, Korean, Argentine, Iranian cinema… We did everything ourselves. The seats were from old cinemas, we used to host dinners… Doing the programming was a lot of fun. We would go to different festivals in Europe and choose based on what we saw. Those years were really interesting. I learned a lot. And that whole era has influenced me a lot in the way that I approach the visual, all of those references had an impact on me. Really, we are continuously surrounded by multiple influences. There are always ghosts from our past lurking in the shadows of our mind, hugging us. And after that, we went to live in Mali. 


Q- How did you make that decision? 

A- We were making a film there and we spent a year coming back and forth. We had already got to know all of that part of the world and moving to Mali seemed like a wonderful idea. We had young kids and organised ourselves well, but whenever I came back to Madrid I always felt a little out of place. So we decided to relocate definitively to Mali. But after two and a half years there was a coup d’etat. The United Nations arrived. Meanwhile in Spain the crisis was brutal. We tried to maintain the house for one more year. Then from there we went to France, and that’s when I realised I had some great artwork. I’m not much of a travel photographer, but I realised that I had a responsibility. I wasn’t sightseeing. I wanted to understand how the West had developed this image of Africa. I discovered the concept of blackness, I learned about Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, etc. Writers who have been subsequently criticised by Africans themselves, because they make some glaring contradictions. I decided to pick up my camera again to reflect on how stereotypes of the continent had been created. Those are the images you see in Burqacars, La Geometría del Elefante, Mosquîles… The construction of the “black stereotype” is a story that goes back four hundred years and it was reinforced in the years of the slave trade to justify everything that was happening, and even more so after the Berlin Conference (1885). I want to believe that today there is far greater awareness. But the stereotype is still there: NGO ads continue to use the image of a black child, covered in flies. 

Q- What drove you to develop all of those projects? 

A- They happened as a result of returning to Madrid in 2014. I came up with the idea of investigating the figure of Tshombé, a character from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who ended up exiled in Franco’s Spain. I had discovered his story years before in an edition of Documenta, the exhibition in Kassel, Germany, and it had a profound impact on me. When I did my Master’s in Creative Projects at the Blank Paper School in Madrid I was taught that there was a much more fun and exciting way to approach projects. I focussed on looking for my narrative, on resorting to text, archives, sound, my own photos… After that we continued travelling in Africa. We went to Ghana. That’s where my work Susana y los viejos came from. In general, I don’t take photos with a specific purpose in mind. I take photos, which will later fit into a certain project. The photographer Cristina de Middel told me, “I can talk about a specific place without having ever been there. That is docufiction”. I can allow myself an artistic license that goes beyond photojournalism. 

Q- Yes, it’s quite clear that photojournalism involves a lot of intervention in what is being photographed. 

A- Yes, but it’s still assumed that you have to have “the business card” of truth. 
I don’t think photojournalism is any more moral: it is everyone’s responsibility. 

Q- How does your practice fit into all of this?

A- I get a lot from the archives. I need that historical element. More and more I tend to ask the audience to make an effort and play an active role. Sometimes I’m accused of being opaque. But I believe the spectator knows more than they think. There are so many ways of editing a photograph. Yes, I believe a photo should say a lot of things by itself. But maybe I’m not Gregory Crewdson, and I can’t fit everything in the same scene. And I like to use the archives. But maybe my photographic language will evolve in the future. 

Q-  I think that way of working fits your discourse really well. You yourself play around by juxtaposing different material. And that feels very contemporary. 

A- Yes, and also my projects are like that. It’s very difficult for me to summarise them. In my projects I speak about so many things. I begin in a specific time period and I finish in another, with different characters. Woman Go no’gree began while I was living in Mali as a reflection on the female experience in that context. It came from a place of anger: with everything that had been achieved in the West in regard to the feminist movement, I thought, “how are these women not following in our footsteps?” And after a few years, I had to hang my head in shame. How arrogant, how supremacist and imperialist for me to think that. 

Q- What made you realise that you were applying eurocentric thought patterns to your work?

A- When I come into contact with the Afro-descendant discourse. There’s a book that influenced me hugely. The invention of women by Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí, which talks about how imperialism colonised the concept of woman. She didn’t like my project. I sent her a PDF when I won the prize after publishing the book (Images Vevey Book Award 2019/2020). Months later she responded and criticised my work a lot. Perhaps she thinks that my photos reinforce female stereotypes. She doesn’t understand why I talk about not universalising the discourses of hegemonic feminism and why I show photos of African women. I explained to her that I needed to see the consequences of this colonisation. I couldn’t talk of this predicament using photos I’d taken in Spain. She thought I was yet another white woman taking photos of Africa. 

Q- What is the situation like in Africa in regard to feminism? 

A- There are lots of different types of feminism. I talk about them in the bibliography of my book. My intention isn’t to analyse these movements, but to name them: African feminism, Womanism, Africana womanism, No ego feminism, Motherism… I’m referring to sub-Saharan Africa, but of course there is also the whole world of Arab feminism, which is huge and extremely complex. In The invention of women, the theory laid out by Oyěwùmí is that before colonisation, in the Yoruba period, there was no gender-based privilege; it was based on lineage and age (age is still what gives you privilege in Africa). There’s another book that also left an impression on me: Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society, by Ifi Amadiume. It talks about how amongst the Igno (the other great Nigerian ethnic group), marriage between two women exists, but at the level of care. And there is no stigmatisation for choosing to live like that. What Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí argues is that the superficial, biological categorisation of our relationships is what creates these binary tensions: white/black, homosexual/heterosexual, man/woman… And that just isn’t exportable to all societies. That is why we cannot universalise all discourses. For example, to us, the domestication of women is a scourge. But there are lots of societies in which that same domestic structure implies empowerment because it involves managing the food, taking control of the fire, being in charge of the children’s education. And that generates recognition in society, and not only in rural areas. That contrasts with the Western ideal of an empowered woman who clambers into her heels and heads off to the office. They are based on different values. I don’t judge, I invite people to question. When I was awarded the prize for publishing the book, Dayanita Singh said that the interesting thing about my book is that it raised questions.

Q- Sometimes it’s difficult to talk about feminism and not fall into contradictions. How do you deal with that? 
A- I speak fully aware of my ignorance. I’m sure I talk about things that seem basic to a lot of people. 

Q- It’s interesting that it is often women who are the ones who are self-critical, who show empathy and flexibility. And it’s strange how male photographers who continue reproducing many of these codes are not self-critical, and do not question anything. Sometimes it makes me angry that women always have to anticipate apologising. 

A- A friend once told me, “you have to stop saying sorry”. But I understand that I touch upon sensitive topics. In Braga, when I won the Discovery Award, an Afro-descendant artist came up to me and said: “something else you could do is not talk about this subject.” I don’t want to speak in anyone’s place. But I do believe there are certain topics we need to deal with. 

Q- Talk to us about the textiles of Woman Go no’gree. 

A- I developed those pieces during my residency in the Ranchito programme (Matadero, Madrid). The other half of the scholarship could be spent in a chosen location. I asked to go to Lagos (Nigeria). I went to the National Museum. I was reading about the history of the country and the period prior to colonisation. I realised that I had lived in Mali, a country with a long history of studio photography, with figures like Malick Sidibé, but I had never worked in a studio. Nigeria is the world’s second largest film producer. So I began looking for studios there and I managed to find an old one. I hired a model, bought fabrics, and set up a very intuitive, very quick production. I wanted to hyperbolise certain stereotypes: the victimised woman, the sexualised woman, the primitive woman. In short, that typical image of the African woman: a machine in bed, poor, illiterate. It was an exercise in using a humorous tone to speak about something very serious. Sometimes the interpretation can cause conflict, but my intention comes from the fact that I could not express the issue in a subtle way. I had to really exaggerate it. I liked the idea of ​​printing it on a curtain because it meant placing a landscape within a landscape. The exotic within the exotic. 

Q- The very code of studio photography is also very westernised.

A- Yes. The role of photography in the colonial project was key to establishing a certain system, along with the Bible and the gun. The camera was another colonising tool. When African citizens interacted with the colonists, they themselves made use of this tool to talk about their territory. Samuel Fosso, Malick Sidibé and Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou are big names in studio photography who also helped to establish a particular identity. And to reflect on masculinity, or on certain articulated spaces. 

Q- What is your most recent project? 

A- In my last project Apuntes sobre la ignominia de exponer al ser humano, I talk about different museums and monuments. And about paternalism when collecting (and acquiring) collections. Why are so many museum pieces not returned? There is a kind of paternalistic standpoint that says, “you wouldn’t be able to take care of this.” Neo-colonialism can be applied to raw materials, to morals, to religion. They are very complex issues. Here too people are beginning to rethink the discourses used throughout museums. For example, The Abduction of Europe is not an abduction. It’s a violation. A few of the museums that interest me are the Tervuren (Brussels), the Pitt Rivers in Oxford (UK) or the Quai Bronly in Paris (France). The Tervuren has rewritten its narrative with the help of a number of experts from the Congo, but they’ve made a report and they disagree with the result, they don’t like what’s been changed. It’s logical, the Tervuren must be home to a lot of ghosts. It was the last human zoo in 1958. I am interested in reflecting this entire network of complex relationships that surrounds the objects that are exhibited in museums. I am going to present it using video and photography, in something of an installation format. In the series I don’t just talk about museums, I also deal with other cases of raciality in visual culture, such as Félix Vallotton’s painting La Blanche et la Noire (1913) or even the use of the image of blackness in figures of mass consumption like Shakira. 

Interview by Ana Folguera 

6 November 2020

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Yining He’s contribution to The 90s Project

1. MO Yi

Born in Tibet in 1958, Mo YiYi is a professional football player turned artist. Widely recognised as one of the most important artists of Chinese Contemporary Photography that emerged from the 1980s, Mo captures the alienation and oppression of urban life in China, often with the artist intervening and appearing in the image. Mo has exhibited in many institutions and art festivals, including Museum für Fotografie (Berlin, Germany, 2017), Three Shadow Photography Art Centre (Beijing, China, 2010), and the seminal travelling exhibition Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China (International Centre of Photography, New York, USA, 2004-2006). Mo’ Yi yi work is included in the collections of the Chinese Image and Video Archive (Canada), Guangdong Museum of Art (China), Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (U.S.A), and the Walther Collection (USA).

As Léo de Boisgisson states:

“In China, the repression of the democratic movement was followed by a big silence. Some people left the country, some shut their mouth forever as for Mo Yi, he went back to his birth land, Tibet, for some years. When he came back to Tianjin in 1995, he realized that society had kept on following its capitalist path as if nothing had happened in 1989. He was shocked by the way people adapted to this void and felt like a lonely “specimen” in the middle of a heartless species. As a response, he produced a large number of self-portraits which mark his turn into performance art. Series such as “A prisoner”, “Ten thousand prisoners”, “Me in my scenery” “Diary: landscape with me in it” “Front and back”, “Landscapes mixed with red” are records or simulations of performances and produce strong visual and theatrical effect. We’re lightyears away from the narcissist spectacle which we call selfie today”.



Zhang Hai’er began his artistic career in 1978 as a student of stage design at the Shanghai Drama Institute. He then worked as an art director and set designer for the Guangdong Television Network before deciding to continue his education in photography at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. He has worked on assignment for Agence Vu in Paris, as photographer for News Weekly in Guangzhou 1995-2016, and was one of the first groups of photographers from China to be presented at les Rencontres d’Arles festival in 1988. Zhang has photographed numerous subjects throughout his career, most often in his native Guangzhou. His series Bad Girls (ca. 1980s–90s) features sexualized portraits of young women from his hometown and in Shanghai, staged in a glamorized or theatrical manner. Zhang currently splits his time between Guangzhou and Paris, where he works as a magazine photographer. 

3. Liu Zheng.

Liu Zheng’s influence on the contemporary Chinese art scene can be measured in his unbridled ambition for seeking the truth. Distrusting the apparatus of information in China; Liu in his photography attempts to challenge the tired revolutionary imagery of men and women at the precipice of a mountain, holding aloft copies of Mao’s red book whilst reaching for the stars. The reality that Liu reveals through his photographs is closer to the gutter. Images of beleaguered figures on street corners; devotees, deviants and the destitute are all from the underbelly of the state.

Liu Zheng, born in Wuqiang County, Hebei Province, China, in 1969, grew up in Datong, a mining town in Shanxi Province and currently lives and works in Beijing. For much of the 1990s Liu Zheng worked as a committed photojournalist for the Chinese Workers’ Daily. Exposed to every element of the Chinese social strata, such circumstances impressed upon Liu the resolve of the Chinese, who in spite of their candour for the camera remained anonymous to the outside world.

Historically Liu’s photographs can be likened to the visual integrity of American photographer Diane Arbus, who also employed black-and-white square format photographs in the late 1960s. Raw and unruly this was Arbus’ way of scrutinising the truth at a time when influences such as the ‘Beat Generation’ were introducing new narratives to American culture. There is a sense that Liu was seeking something of the absurdity and fatalism of Arbus’ works.

For Liu another leading light was the work of German documentary photographer August Sander, who was responsible for the defining series of portraits People of the 20th Century, for which he photographed people from the German Weimar Republic. Significantly when considering international influences, The Chinese series can be described more as photographs of an international reputation, made by a Chinese photographer, and less Chinese photography by a Chinese artist.

from : RONG RONG.

RongRong (Lu Zhirong, b. 1968, Zhang Zhou, Fujian Province) is one of the artists and documenters of the artistic movement of Dashanzhuang Village, later known as the Beijing East Village (1993-1994). He began to work with other artists of the Chinese avant-garde. He documented many performances and happenings by other artists such as Zhang Huan. His work as a documentary maker of the art movement of the 90s in China is fundamental. He has worked with his wife inri (b. 1973, Kanagaua District, Japan) since 2000. Together they founded the Three Shadows Photography Art Center, a space dedicated to photography in China. He lives and works in Beijing. He is related to Hong Lei, Zhang Huan, Qiu Zhijie, Liu Zheng, and Hong Hao. 


HONG Lei (b. 1960, Jiangsu) is China’s original and most eminent conceptual photographer, and one of the leading artists in the era of China’s New Photography movement in the 1990s. Hong Lei was born in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, and graduated from Nanjing University of the Arts in 1987. In 1992, he went to the China Central Academy of Fine Arts to pursue advanced studies in printmaking, following which he returned to Changzhou and soon started to use photography as a way of art representation. Some of his renowned works include Autumn in the Forbidden City (1997), Chinese Landscape (1998), After Liang Kai’s (Song Dynasty) Masterpiece Sakyamuni Coming Out of Retirement (1998), I Dreamt that I was Hung Upside Down to Listen to Huizong Play the Zither with Chairman Mao (2004) and Nothing to Hide (2008), among others. In recent years, he has also explored the various boundaries and possibilities of photography by painting his own photos on silk, as well as video & installation works. His selected solo and group exhibitions include Recontres d’ Arles: Arles Photography Festival (Arles, France, 2003), Alors, La Chine?, Chinese Contemporary Art Exhibition (Pompidou Centre, Paris, 2003), Seasons (solo exhibition, Beijing, New York, 2008), 2011 Chengdu Biennale, and Perfume This is Not (solo exhibition, Shanghai Museum of Art, 2012). He currently lives and works in Changzhou and Shanghai.

11 February 2021

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The 90’s by Alejandro Castellote

I have heard more than one wine expert say “the finest wine is the one that you like best”, which requires us to acknowledge the inherent subjectivity of human evaluation. By implication, it also implies that it is impossible for one to think entirely objectively, based solely on rational parameters. That is to say, it is impossible that one is not contaminated by their own emotional experience.

When we talk about art, or about listing the most important artists of a particular period, the arguments of the wine experts are equally applicable. Making lists is a popular Anglo-Saxon custom, and it’s great fun too. One only needs to remember the film High Fidelity or take a look on the internet to check this out; we have all, undoubtedly, made our own lists on occasion. However, it is a very different thing to hope that such lists will be paragons of objectivity, no matter who wrote them. This is my list of the most significant photographers of the 90s. But within a few years, or months, or perhaps even by next week, the members of my list could change. 

Genius is a term that is rarely used within the field of contemporary art criticism. Since the emergence of conceptual art back in the 1960s, other criteria have dominated. Since then, we curators have increasingly chosen works of art and not artists, allowing us to illustrate and endorse a certain theme or, as we say nowadays, a certain story. I have often defined Chema Madoz’s work as one of an island photographer, difficult to contextualise in a concrete time, tricky to classify within an artistic trend… (perhaps Yamamoto Masao shares a similar insularity). In my opinion, the question should not be, “where do we include him?” but, “is it necessary to do so?” Chema Madoz possesses a kind of magic; taking us on a journey into another realm, he encourages us to see certain objects in an entirely different way. He introduces a kind of perceptual duality that is inherent to the objects, something which is not dissimilar from the concept of duality taught within Zen Buddhism. His objects are like a glove that can be turned inside out; the interior and exterior coexist in the same, single form. 

I’ve rarely seen artwork that is able to cross so many frontiers in the way that it speaks to its audiences. Whether in Sidney, in Seoul, in Houston, in Tokyo or in Madrid, his photos are read in the same way. A few years ago I visited a photography workshop for children in one of the most precarious areas of Lima, the so-called pueblos jóvenes (shanty towns); there, a good friend of mine had spent more than a decade teaching kids how to create images without cameras. They made stills, using only light and photographic paper. The streets of this population settlement are unpaved and often get covered in mud. When I arrived, the kids had prepared a small path with stones for me, so that I wouldn’t ruin my shoes. The attention they paid me was somewhat overwhelming. “It’s because I told them you were a friend of Chema Madoz”, my friend confessed to me, giggling. For them Chema is a genius; someone who can collect but a few stones and transform them into a thousand other things. Thanks to him, those kids know that all the power of creation is in one’s head, not in the media available to them. This extraordinary connection with people is felt throughout his exhibitions across the world. And that is something that only a very few artists can hope to achieve. In 2015, the editor of the History of European Photography (1900 to 2000), from Bratislava, suggested I write about the last stretch of Spanish photography in the 20th century (from 1970 to 2000). He wanted the cover of the final volume from that period to be Chema Madoz’s staircase, and he asked for my opinion. Chema and I, without knowing it, grew up in neighbouring boroughs and we are almost contemporaries, a complete coincidence that I sometimes think colours my admiration for him and makes me lose sight of any objectivity about his work. However, those concerns disappear when I step into Chema’s “universality”, I see that I am not blind. 

There are photographers that carry out their work liberated from the ambition to one day hang it on museum walls. Seydou Keïta (Bamako, Mali 1921-2001) is one of those; from 1948 he ran a modest portrait studio in Bamako, the capital of Mali, which ended up being one of the most important studios in the city. It was during the 1990s that André Magnin introduced Europe to Keïta’s photography. Everyone talked of his “discovery”, although Keïta was already famous in his own country. The truth is that this new-found artistic appreciation of his professional photographs, something that had, at the time, already occurred for Karl Blossfeldt, Martín Chambi and Eugène Atget, opened the door to an unstoppable flow of international artists with the same profile, whose photographs were now being seen through different eyes. When a photograph (or any other work of art) is separated from the cultural context in which it originated, the work is opened up to the possibility of new meaning, something that Walter Benjamin already advanced on in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, in 1936. After him, we were also introduced to J.D. Okhai Ojeikere and, in particular, Malick Sidibé, the latter of whom had been trained in Keïta’s studio. We exhibited both artists in PHotoEspaña 1999 and invited them to come to Madrid. The magnificent elegance of their traditional Malian boubou (dress) caught the attention of passersby wherever they went, but what surprised me the most was the respect that Malick Sidibé unfailingly showed for his teacher at all times; he never interrupted him when he spoke and would always sit himself discreetly in the background, redirecting any questions to Keïta. One of the photographs that was shown in the Telefónica Foundation, the portrait that is pictured here, is one of my favourite photographs. I’ve kept the press copy ever since and it has accompanied me almost as if it belonged to my family album. When I look at it I feel a sudden burst of optimism, it irradiates happiness. It’s just a little piece of plastic paper, without any real value, but it changes my mood every time I see it. 

Seydou Keïta has rapidly become a symbol of African photography. One of the most recognised artists on the continent, Samuel Fosso, paid tribute to him in his self-portrait series African Spirits in which he adopts the guises of some of the most renowned icons of his race (among them Mandela, Haïlé Sélassié, Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali and Malcom X). It is thrilling to see the stature that his portraits have given him, perhaps because they capture the dignity of a people enjoying emancipation from the French colonial period. Perhaps because dignity is achieved through self-representation.

Okwui Enwezor said that his work was comparable to the portraits of Rembrandt. Strangely enough, Martín Chambi, the great master of Peruvian photography, who managed the most important photography studio in Cuzco throughout the first half of the 20th century, publicised his portraits in magazines with the following slogan: “Photographed in the style of Rembrandt”. The quality of artists from the periphery of the West tends to be enhanced by their aesthetic proximity to a European or North American master. When many people first studied the work of Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura, they said, “it looks like Cindy Sherman!” The truth is that his work is contemporary to that of the North American artist, but far from developing any kind of competitive animosity, the two artists admire one another mutually. In fact, Sherman’s piece Untitled # 96 was lovingly honoured by Morimura in To my Little Sister: for Cindy Sherman, 1998. Across all his work, Morimura is dedicated to tackling the subject of identity from different perspectives, calling upon masters of Western painting and icons of popular music, cinema and politics. He even adopts female roles himself, following the tradition of Japanese Kabuki theatre, where female characters are played by men. In his most important and extensive series The History of Art, he employs irony to question the omnipresence of Western works in the “official” art histories, and he does so by giving the historical icons of painting asian features. He then reinforces his point with his own presence —by way of performance— in all of his reinterpretations. Morimura is himself a revered icon in Asia. In 2010 I had the opportunity to meet him when he was participating in an art fair in Seoul: the queue to greet him or to have him sign a book, postcard, brochure or anything of the sort stretched for tens of metres. Korea venerating a Japanese artist. That’s how wonderful the empathetic effect of art is.

One of the most obvious characteristics of the 90s is staging, a practice which has extended into the first decade of the 2000s. Some examples are Marcos López (Argentina), Gregory Crewdson (U.S.A.), Erwin Olaf (Netherlands), Wang Qingsong (China), Nelson Garrido (Venezuela), Gilbert&George (UK), Pierre et Gilles (France), Azadeh Akhlaghi (Iran), Greg Semu (New Zealand), Kudzanai Chiurai (Zimbabwe), Michael Cook (Australia)… and, of course, Cindy Sherman, from the 80s, and the Canadian Jeff Wall. Hundreds of photographers and artists from all over the world have created their images using references from painting, advertising and cinema, as well as employing resources from theatre, collage and digital photomontage. My choice of Jeff Wall has to do with the additional theoretical contribution that he has developed in parallel to his work. Wall literally constructs his images with fragments which he then groups together on the computer: a technique which conceals the joins and evens out the levels. This newly created image allows him to activate the “second shutter”. This term, which has clear photographic resonance, illustrates the desire to repeat the capture in other ways. Putting it more simply, one could say that there are photographers who go out onto the streets with the hope that their reality will provide them with situations in keeping with the particular subject that they wish to reflect on, and, if luck is on their side, that those situations will occur right in front of their camera. Others have opted for assembling their content using digital photomontage, activating that other shutter when the internal organisation of the image responds to what they want to communicate. José Luis Brea also reflected on this topic in 1996 in his essay The optical unconscious and the second shutter. Photography in the era of its computerisation.

Jeff Wall works with an icon of classical painting as his starting point. Conceptually we could say that that first step acts as the canvas on which he elaborates a contemporary story: using the content of the painting to comment on the present. He uses large formats that recall those used by painters, but he adds a formal characteristic that provides a temporal key: he displays his work in large light boxes, an imitation of cinema screens. In a way, he demands the same involvement that spectators achieve with cinematographic fiction in which plausibility replaces truthfulness (what Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief” in relation to novels in 1817). Seen in perspective, Jeff Wall was anticipating the omnipresence of screens as the hegemonic medium of communication.

Andreas Gursky is one of the best-known representatives of the so-called Dusseldorf School, a collective that was consolidated in the context of the reunification of Germany. A historical turning point in which the country was not only putting itself forward as leader of the European economy, but also aspiring to become both an artistic and cultural reference point. Gurksy focuses on the visual representation of global society. He portrays the multitudinous nature of that society in all its forms, prioritising the symbolism that arises from the images; an iconographic spectrum in which the sophisticated elegance of big brand stores coexists with the proliferation of supermarkets. His representations range from the beehive buildings of the working-class neighbourhoods and the factories, to the headquarters of capitalism —the Stock Exchanges— or the stadiums, the skyscrapers, the libraries… The monumental is presented as the zeitgeist of our time. The format and size of his works are also monumental, they subtly parody the paintings of great battles of centuries past. They are a kind of hyper-realistic diorama that relies on the objectivity historically associated with photography. Compared with the visual purity of Cándida Höffer, who limits herself to recreating spaces of power without any formal Mannerism —what you see is what you get —, Gurksy is less iconoclastic and he even allows himself to use digital manipulations that give his representations greater impact. In a way, he shares Jeff Wall’s desire to create images that are in tune with the aesthetic of his time, that which is being shaped and spectacularised by technology.

I believe it was Walter Binder, the founder of the Swiss Foundation for Photography in Zurich and good friend of Robert Frank, who took me to meet Walter Keller in 1997 in his bookshop, SCALO, in Zurich. The headquarters of Keller’s publishing house had a small showroom that at the time was literally covered with colour photocopies of Nobuyoshi Araki. I later met the two Walters again when Robert Frank was presented with the Hasselblad award in Gothenburg. The rigid protocol of the ceremony —the prize was given by the Swedish princess— provoked a comment from Binder, which was, in my opinion, classic; distancing himself from the coldness of the Swedes, he spoke of “we the southern Europeans”, which in the mouth of a Swiss greatly astonished me. The truth is that Walter Binder’s human warmth honourably placed him within our territory. Keller, who prematurely died in 2014, was the editor of SCALO, the publishing reference of the 90s. He published Keïta and Malick Sidibé’s first books (1997) and he edited the works of Robert Frank, Nan Goldin, Paul Graham, Jurgen Teller and many more, among which was the histrionic Araki and the unclassifiable Boris Mikhailov. In 1998 he published Mikhailov’s Unfinished Dissertation or discussions with oneself; by then, Mikhailov had already been living in Berlin for a year and had received the Albert Renger-Patzsch Prize. But Mikhailov’s true “discovery” in Europe was brought about by Case History (1999), a series of heartbreaking portraits of the characters that the recently disappeared Soviet Union had left in cruel marginalisation, belonging to an unrecognised social group, or one that was at least invisible in the territory of the USSR (lest we forget the famine —the Holodomor— which Stalin subjected Ukraine to during the process of collectivisation of the land, between 1932 and 1934, leaving millions dead in the country and in the rest of the Soviet Union). All those disinherited by the new capitalist oligarchy who sat for Mikhailov between 1997 and 1998 lived, if you can really call it living, in their hometown: Kharkiv, Ukraine. Walter Keller had spoken to me about Mikhailov but I was not aware of the scope of his work until I saw Case History. The book does not make Mannerist concessions in the page layout; his 400 photographs, almost always displayed across joined diptychs, hit you one by one, ensuring that the absorption of the whole ensemble of photos is prolonged over time. I don’t believe that I have ever felt so overwhelmed by photographs as I did then. The enormous impact of Case History paved the way for the discovery of Mikhailov’s previous series, cementing his reputation as a passionate photographer and life radical. 

The Finnish Elina Brotherus came to Chalon-sur-Saône in 1999 for an artistic residency at the Nicéphore-Niépce Museum. She didn’t know a single word in French, and so busied herself by sticking post-its all over the studio where she lived in order to associate the objects which surrounded her with French words. Quickly those small yellow squares became an additional layer for her self-portraits, an escape route for the expression of her feelings. The photograph titled The nose of Monsieur Cheval is ironically dedicated to the director of the museum at that time: François Cheval who, as well as renovating the space which had been dedicated to the memory of Niépce, spent his time developing and making copies of all the rolls of film that Antoine D’Agata sent him from different parts of the world. It was a period in which Antoine decided to leave his house in Paris to live, for several years, on permanent holiday. But that’s another story. 

By the beginning of the 21st century, Elina Brotherus was the most visible face (obviously) of what was known as the School of Helsinki. A collective of students from the University of Fine Arts, led by Timothy Persons, which became a benchmark for young European photography due to the risky and spectacular, formal and chromatic experimentations of its members, and because of the deeply self-referential nature of many of their works. Elina succeeded in making her naked body timeless, stripping it of the sexualised male gaze in order to take us by the hand and lead us into her particular universe, full of introspections, fragilities and assertions. She used and often uses two recurring scenes: private interiors and the natural landscape, sometimes paying tribute to the romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, and his piece, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, and others whom she considers her teachers. Arno Rafael Minkinen, for example, another of the great photographers of the 70s and 80s who many of us believed to have disappeared but who’s work, fortunately, has been once again recovered, so that we may enjoy his intense and prolific relationship with nature. This rich relationship with nature, shared by almost all Finns, is developed in Minkinen’s work as he subjects his body to endless, fascinating, performance-art mimicry. It could be said that Elina Brotherus also drew inspiration from Francesca Woodman, who was a powerful reference for so many photographers, but in Elina’s case, she abandons the mythical-tragic component that is so associated with the work of the Italian-American.

Throughout the 90s, photography continued to be a male-dominated field, but people could already sense that what would be the favourable emergence of women was just on the horizon. Sophie Calle, Nan Goldin, Annete Messager, Ana Mendieta, Sara Moon, Candida Höffer, Rineke Dijkstra, Sally Mann, Susan Meiselas, Cristina García Rodero, Graciela Iturbide, Adriana Lestido, Paz Errázuriz, Claudia Andujar and Rosângela Rennó, to name but a few, were already on the rise, just like the tip of an iceberg that would fully reveal itself in the 21st century. 

The emergence of the use of archives as one of the most important trends of contemporary art in recent decades has, in my opinion, been spearheaded by Rosângela Rennó and Christian Boltanski. The Brazilian Rennó revisits private and public archives, reassigning meanings to photographs that stem from her inherent relationship with memory in order to, as she likes to say, “work more with forgetfulness and amnesia”. She tackles two fragilities: that of photography and that of memory which she analyses and questions from the perspective of post-colonialism, politics, identity and history, resolving her hypotheses with a specific formalisation for each series. Her works acquire an eloquence which is intimately linked to her chosen medium and the devices that powerfully support the concept of her works. The meticulous symbiosis that she builds between the visual materials and devices brings to light the narrative potential of images when they abandon the artistic status that modernity has granted them. Rosângela Rennó uses sculpture, the immateriality of projections and optic devices, ensuring that the viewer engages in active dialogue with her works. They’re not easy to reproduce in a catalogue; it is necessary, despite the hackneyed expression, to experiment them for yourselves. 

In general terms, the character of this decade is defined by a broadening of the field in which photography had traditionally developed throughout the 20th century. Not only does it incorporate the crucial use that conceptual artists assign it, it also begins to break down its two-dimensionality, and instead opens itself up to physical and conceptual artistic interventions that enrich its reading. Photography ceases to be simply a discipline and instead becomes a complex structure where memory, creation, history, cultural and artistic heritage, individual introspection and the analysis of the collective can coexist and interconnect. 

The work of Guatemalan Luis González Palma is a good example of this formal and conceptual broadening of the medium of photography, especially in Latin America, where photography had been closely tied to social commitment, that is to say, that photography was used as a tool to shine a light on political and economic inequalities and injustices. Many Latin American artists addressed these issues while also adding other more introspective matters to their thematic catalogue, questioning, for example, the semantic hegemony of photographs and their autonomy as an artistic medium, and incorporating mestizo language through a hybrid of different techniques. 

For Luis González Palma, our way of seeing is determined by our social and cultural experience: “every gaze is political and all artistic production must be subject to that opinion. The power of the gaze.” To that end, with his eclecticism, he has produced images which have been progressively nourished by an extensive repertoire of visual materials and archives belonging to the collective memory of his country. In them, mentions of history and the mechanisms of exclusion that we initiate with every gaze are shown in the way in which the nineteenth-century, Positivist anthropometry stereotyped the indigenous people. Other themes that Palma touches on in his work are introspection, intimacy, power and the representation of the unseen: “what is not seen when one looks, what is not said when one speaks”. His works feed off elements borrowed from Catholic imagery and the theatre, with echoes of Baroque, Pre-Raphaelite and religious painting, to which he adds cinematographic codes and resources that come from architecture, dance, music and the ancient techniques of photography.

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s series Seascapes is based on two essential elements: air and water. In his photographs, he arranges the horizon exactly in the middle of the frame, ensuring a maximum degree of minimalism. The setting is the sea. A subject which has been dealt with ad nauseum across all artistic expressions throughout history. When I first saw Sugimoto’s seas, I thought, “that’s it, this can’t be topped”. In those landscapes, the entire spirituality of the sea is contained, its permanent changeability, its hypnotic immensity. It’s impossible not to remind you of Rothko. 
The exquisite black and white of his photographs dismiss, like never before, any suggestion of the trivial. Only Sugimoto himself could add a final twist to such emphatic work. And he did so in an installation which took place inside a chapel during the 2013 Arles Encounters. Moving through that space in darkness and silence invited nothing short of meditation. It was undeniably reminiscent of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. And yes, Sugimoto had spun the skyline round, destabilising that immaculate balance that the photographs, taken in the 80s and 90s, had once offered, and interrupting the horizon line with the foothills of the coastal landscape. You have to be very brave to undertake the challenge of revisiting your very first seas. And you have to be very audacious to use some of Talbot’s original calotype paper negatives and contact print them to see what Talbot himself never got to see. Sugimoto dares to do so because he is pushed forward by his own fascination for photography, for the essence of the procedure, for its mystique, for the intangible presence of time and for his own need to change. His photographs are not spectacular, it is the sheer depth of his work that forces us to properly open our eyes to the spectacle and really see. Sugimoto says, “every time I view the sea, I feel a calming sense of security, as if visiting my ancestral home; I embark on a voyage of seeing.”

Alejandro Castellote

24 March 2021

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