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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