A Conflicted Continent’s
”Untitled,” from the ”Latin Fire” series (1975-78), by Ever Astudillo. Courtesy Toluca Fine Art, Paris.
Whether by accident or design, the Fondation Cartier in Paris is devoting a major exhibition to five decades of contemporary Latin American photography just months after the election of an Argentinian bishop as the first non-European head of the Catholic Church, a seminal symbolic moment in the history of the region.
The show takes as its starting point the Cuban revolution and the ascent of Communism in the 1960s. It sees the following decades as a period “marked by political and economic instability, a succession of revolutionary movements and repressive military regimes, and the emergence of guerrillas and democratic transitions.”
In four thematic sections – “Territories,” “Cities,” “Informing-Resisting” and “Memory and Identity” – it questions the very idea of a Latin American identity.
Oddly, nowhere in the show is there any mention of the liberation theology that was perhaps the region’s most significant contribution to the political and ethical discourse of the wider Western world, until it was driven underground by Catholicism’s own version of repressive counter-revolution – only to be revived, perhaps, by the election of Pope Francis I.
This dense photographic survey, quite overwhelming in scope, is explained, though perhaps not clarified, by an equally dense catalog running to almost four hundred pages. More than 70 artists from 11 countries explore the moral dilemmas of a continental history marked by genocide, dirty civil wars and a seemingly endless chain of imprisonment,
“Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires” from the “Pop Latino” series (1996), by Marcos López. © Marcos López
tortures and crime, leavened by occasional flashes of black humor.
It’s a nearly relentlessly grim vision, but in the last analysis, its impact is reduced by its sheer weightiness, more academic monograph than art show.
In fact, to even begin to grasp the message in this supposedly visual exposition, you have to be ready to read, and read compendiously; not just the catalog but also the explanatory texts on the walls and the words – millions of them – in the photographs themselves. Whether it’s Leonora Vicuna’s “El Mundo, calle San Diego, Santiago de Chile 1981”; or Ever Astudillo’s “Latin Fire Series 1978”; or, supreme example, a photo from Leon Ferrari’s 1995 “Nunca Más” series – a square-rigged clipper with sails densely covered in calligraphy – words batter you with meaning.
As Roberto Fantozzi’s “Tarma, Lima”
“Tarma, Lima” (1979), by Robert Fantozzi. © Robert Fantozzi. Courtesy Toluca Fine Art, Paris.
crucifixion poster might be subtitled: “The word was made film and dwelt amongst us.”
That said, the show reveals the huge diversity of practice, from photojournalism to conceptual art, in the Latin American photographic lexicon. Much of it is little known, by photographers working outside the mainstream in countries like Paraguay, Venezuela, Colombia and Peru. It deserves to be known better.
The works in the show bear witness to vicious cruelties as well as the richness and vitality of Latin America’s conflicted existence. Through the eyes of these artists, you can begin to understand complex histories, but you will have to work for it. The show runs until April 6, 2014, which should be just enough time for a regular visitor to take it all in.
Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain: 261, boulevard Raspail, 75014 Paris. Métro: Raspail. Tel.: 01 42 18 56 50. Open Tuesday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Closed Monday. Admission: €10.50. Through April 6, 2014. fondation.cartier.com
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