A place where the soul can rest (visiting Aunt Louise), 2019
I have always loved the way bell hooks celebrated photography’s role within Black Southern homes. In Art on My Mind, a book that continues to linger with me, hooks acknowledges that within the domestic interiors, photography often takes on a ceremonial role, enshrining its Black subjects with a perpetual dignity. As I have learned, it is often the matriarch who uses a narrow mantle to proudly display that one photograph of the aunt captured wearing her favorite Malcolm X t-shirt, her grin wide as she points to the late Civil Rights Leader’s face while sitting in a white dining room chair. Sometimes we gaze at the photograph mounted on the hallway that leads to the bathroom that features your eldest cousin in his best Easter suit from three years ago because, as grandma had reminded you, he looked so sharp that day. Other times, grandma will leaf through an old photo album from her girlhood, stored in the attic, to find that photograph in which she and her girlfriends slyly pose for the someone off camera.
These vernacular images become embedded with meaning beyond what we immediately see. How do we reconcile ourselves to their subtexts and subplots, the invisible stories from which they emerge? How do we, as Tina Campt suggests in Listening to Images, listen to them in order to unfold these subtexts and subplots? This question becomes especially important as we consider how these images have traveled through time, passing through the hands of generations of kin. Each encounter introduces new moments of interpretation.
I am reminded of Emmanuel Iduma’s words in A Stranger’s Pose: Photography is a charismatic medium. Sometimes it takes five decades for a photograph to unravel itself.
So, what does it mean to come to these photographs and their (psychic) landscapes in new contexts and eras? These questions emerge in Zalika Azim’s exhibition, in case you should forget to sweep before sunset.
Azim, who grew up in Brooklyn, follows her paternal traces of these remnants back to South Carolina, as a careful, if not spiritual, pilgrimage to a place that is of her lineage but from which she is still removed. How to describe a relationship with a place that we have known, primarily, through the memories of others?
I have often thought the American South to be the soul of Black America. A site in which we can see the origins of a cultural lexicon that spread north and west, in large part, via The Great Migration, even as it remains a pivotal nexus within the African Diaspora. As Black folks dared to escape the violences of the region in great numbers as the twentieth century rolled on, they followed the train routes away: Mississippi to Chicago and Milwaukee; Louisiana and Texas to Los Angeles and San Francisco; South Carolina on up to Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City. If you look and listen closely, you can see, hear, feel the South as it pulsates far beyond its geographic boundaries.
Forging a new intimacy with an ancestral home, Azim approaches this task through a sacred communion that includes images made by her late grandmother Mary E. Lemons (It is always the matriarch, isn’t it?). Azim’s reconciliation contemplates the tools needed to close a proverbial loop that is defined by an unknowing and she undertakes the task of unraveling blood memory by collapsing, merging, and layering temporalities and materials—in which memory, text, and the photograph itself are all included.
Sunday Portrait (Habibi), 2019, is a 5”x7” image comprised of five smaller black-and-white archival images that have been layered on top of one another and covered with an archival photo sleeve to collectively become a familial homage to a Black cool. The photograph most clear is the image of a toddler in a swing. The last and largest image is of a sharply dressed young man wearing a suit whose likeness appears as a bust due to the manner in which the other photographs have been stacked. I have known these images in my own way, a particular kind of inherited visual code that denotes the occurrence of a significant occasion, play, or a rite of passage.
I know this too: this textual intervention, this minding of the gap, if you will. This nonlinear grappling with an intangible inheritance. To make sense of who we are as Black people in the U.S. and from whom we have been made, we might also have to conjure our haints. A gesture of significance that is taken up by Azim in To speak of a lush hot blooded land, to the dispossessed, too busy to visit, 2019—a striking image of a forest at sunset on Edisto Island, South Carolina that becomes a plot on the map that Azim is creating as she calls forth familial connections:
He use to bring those pretty yellow flowers home on weekends when
he’d work long hours uptown at the jazz club. They were the kind my
sister Carrie said reminded her of the first time she laid eyes on Lina,
and those evening trumpeters she placed in her hair on their last night.
I’d sit by the window for hours, long after I’d put Junior and them down,
watchin’ as the street lights flirted with the curtains
while thinkin’ those thoughts.
Every now and then I’d get a whiff of that perfume Mama wanted sprayed
On her resting dress, so she’d still feel warm—like sandalwood,
newspapers and vanilla. Or the saltwater Papa always joked about
sending up, lest we forget we had a place to come back to.
Finally he’d round the corner, stopping briefly at the ol’ fruit stand before
entering the building and climbing the three flights to our apartment.
In he’d enter, kicking his shoes off at the front door, before whispering his
evening greeting which nowadays sounded more like a dispossession than
the first few notes of a hymn.
Is this not what it means to embark on pilgrimage?
Like Azim, I am wrestling with my origin (story). I say this to her the day we meet for coffee and she greets my admission with that familiar Black women affirmation—a deep, guttural yes—an embodied spiritual code itself. And as a Black Southerner, I understand the desire to wade through memory and re-memory in the effort to untangle my relationship to a place that remains more complex than it is often considered to be.
Photography, for Black folks, carries our many knowledges even as it makes space for us to expand upon, revise, and reckon with these ways of knowing. With in case you should forget to sweep before sunset, Azim steps into this work, this infinite unraveling (can this task ever be really be finished?), creating, as an exhibition, her own shrine to the Black Southerners, in particular, of whom she is part.
The following text comes from a conversation between Sam Margevicius and Beau Torres about the exhibition Twenty-six. They spoke over coffee at Baxter St at the Camera Club of New York on February 4th, 2019.
Sam Margevicius: I call this an installation piece because it’s not reproducible. When I show someone one of these pictures or even an installation shot, it really has very little relation to the renascence of actually being here because your body becomes this vessel for engaging with the work, and you create the meaning through the sequencing, through your own subjective sequencing and which images you encounter before and after every other image. So, you kind of are given this active role as a body that can walk around this space and so you build the narrative through that traveling.
The sequence of these images has been for the most part fixed—It’s still the same every time that you’ve seen it. What’s changed is that I’ve shown the piece on one long wall, two intersecting walls, and the current installation is spread across three walls.
SM: In many ways I think of this piece as a kind of film. A moving images film where you can, as the viewer, become enabled to move forward and backward within the film. It’s almost like you’re looking at the timeline, let’s say on Netflix, it says the film is two hours and you can just zip your mouse and go wherever you want. That’s how I sometimes imagine being here with these images.
That is really at the heart of what I wanted to do with this work, to somehow provide a way for other people to get in, to contextualize that situation without it being from a distance. I wanted to give the viewer an opportunity to go through that.
I think that it’s the act of viewing and deciding to read pictures in a way where you’re really looking into and trying to pull meaning out of it. Reading is a creative act that requires a lot of filling in blanks.
SM: I tend to lean more towards a structural model of making work. To think more intuitively with this piece you can start at the first picture and say “okay, those vessels are about the chemicals in the air in a darkroom,” then take that sentence and run with it, go to the next picture, fill in a couple more sentences, and keep going. But then you can step back and look at what’s happening with the whole structure and ask, “what are the factors that establish relationships between pictures here—there is a middle line and a then fluctuation above and below that.” I think I had to remain, in ways, more aware of that structure throughout the making of this piece.
As a viewer I appreciate moments when I discover something new or recognize a new version of something I already know. I enjoy when someone sees this piece and it reminds them of a walk they might have taken yesterday. I think that those moments reveal a chance circumstance within a sequence of so many decisions they have made and so many they have not intentionally made. That’s a very fortunate event, when a viewer can really relate—it’s rare. We might not even have these experiences every day. There has to be a balance of having lows and having highs and having in-betweens. So, when you get those moments of resonance, it’s this beautiful appearance and can seem as though everything led up to that momentary understanding.
Beau Torres: I think sometimes that looseness, letting go of structure is really the most helpful thing. Sometimes I’ll have three or four stacks of reference materials, where there’s this stack of books for this project and that stack is for that other one. I also have this one program, Papers, it’s essentially iTunes for PDFs, where I have a selection of readings for this project, and a selection for that project. I’m also adding to source imagery folders in Adobe Bridge. Everything’s constantly being sorted and everything’s ready for me to look at. And then I realize I’m spending all this time sorting and the project’s not even started—The project is all jumbled in my head and stored in piles and files. Sometimes we have to throw all that away and do the project. Actually start the project and then see where the next step goes. Once you let everything commence, you start to find what you’re looking for, and then you begin to make meaning. I think that’s the most important thing about meaning, and about this project—nothing has meaning. It’s not about a fascination with nihilism, it’s more about meaning not being inherent, but that it’s, in fact, made.
SM: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more with that!
BT: I was curious to know if you were thinking about cinema as film or cinema as a space; a place for meeting. And then I started thinking about the coffeehouse, and a nostalgia for this place as a beatnik environment for intellectual conversation. The same goes for the idea of the cinema of the past as this place where one would throw on a suit to have an experience. Even tonight when you go to Anthology Film Archives to see the Merce Cunningham films.
SM: Nathaniel Dorsky, whose book is on that shelf right there—Devotional Cinema, he’s talking about the cinema as a place. Essentially you’re in a large cavernous space that’s dark and you see at the edge of the room, illuminations. He describes that as a very good analog for our brains and the process of seeing through our eyeballs. Sitting in there having this experience where you’re totally focused and honed in on the screen. The other day I watched Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, it’s about a person who gets in an accident and is stuck severely in their body—“locked-in syndrome” it’s called. The character can think, hear, and see; he can move his eyeballs and blink, but he can’t control any other part of his body. I thought, wow, this is the perfect content for a film. It’s almost like every film should be about a person who can only see and not physically interact with the world, because that is the condition one is put in when watching a film. You get audio and visuals, and you can think but you cannot engage anything.
What initiated my real appreciation for going to the cinema was actually the space of getting out of the movie theater and walking home or walking to the train. That five, ten minutes, one hour, whatever that time is that elapses once the film has concluded lets you think of the work and kind of place it into your memory in a way that makes sense. It’s an important time and space to develop your interpretation and build it into your day-to-day life.
BT: What’s your impression of reading photography in a wider context? Is reading photography something that anyone can easily do? A couple of photographs that I’m looking at here have visual clues we as photographers would recognize. This one has bits of grain where I can tell it was taken with a film camera. And then you’ve got this other one that maybe was taken with an iPhone and it’s not digital or film grain, it’s concrete and that surface texture could be a nod to film grain. So how do we as photographers who do have a kind of photographic language bring that to an audience who might not be photographically trained? How can we make pictures, in a way, words?
SM: It’s hard work to sit in front of a photograph, and try to describe, or create some system of meaning for oneself. So, how do we contextualize that? Well, I like to remember that everyone has their own ways of trying to put meaning onto things.
I feel like I speak with people a lot who are really eager and open, they are confused and curious and want to understand an artwork. They want to know, “What does it mean?” and “What’s going on here?” and “Why have you done this?” But then sometimes people are inclined to say, “Hey, I don’t get this!” and are really critical right from the onset. I think that it’s the act of viewing and deciding to read pictures in a way where you’re really looking into and trying to pull meaning out of it. That is a creative act that requires a lot of filling in a lot of blanks.
Filmmakers and Directors of Photography take wonderful images, but I think it would be strange for them to pull one image out and say, “Oh yes, this is the best image,” because it has to work within that narrative. I think that’s one reason I don’t work so much with film, even though I’m really interested in all these ideas around motion picture film. One of the original media theorists, Marshall McLuhan, identifies motion pictures with sound as a hot medium. When you watch a film, it’s giving you the sound, and it’s giving you a ton of moving images, and you can sit there and not move at all, there are a lot of stimuli dropped into your lap. Painting, photography, music, and other mediums are seen as cool mediums because you come to the picture and it’s not giving you very much—it’s mute or it’s invisible. So you have to do the work and become an active interpreter.
So, that is something that I find daily in life. I think it’s good to be talking to you about this, because of apophenia and, When Things Come Together (referring to BT’s exhibition of the same name). The idea that sometimes everything is right and easy and flowing and seems magical, and you’re walking around, and because of something that you saw on the last block, then you see something on this block and you experience this moment of total awe and joy. This possibility of something that loosely resembled magic to me.
BT: It’s all magic.
Author Ralph Ellison prefaces his 1952 novel “Invisible Man” with a matter-of-fact explanation for the narrator’s invisibility: “I am an invisible man,” the story begins. Not in a literal way, as the Invisible Man from H.G. Wells’s 1897 sci-fi novella, or not due to a “bio-chemical accident to my epidermis,” either. His invisibility occurs, he writes, “simply because people refuse to see me.” As a young black man coming of age in early-twentieth century America, Ellison’s narrator – whose name is never disclosed – struggles to find his true identity living in a society where his individuality goes unrecognized because of the color of his skin. “When [people] approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.”
Although this milestone of American literature was released over 60 years ago, the importance of a conversation about black representation today feels more urgent and pertinent than ever. As the duality of “how people perceive you vs. how you portray yourself” goes back to the cultural forefront, some artists use their personal stories to drive the narrative.
In a simple song, the photographer Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. builds upon Ellison’s invisibility concept, adding intimacy and the domestic space to ignite a conversation about contemporary black representation, queerness, and identity.
Brown drew inspiration for the show from Billy Preston’s 1971 album “I Wrote a Simple Song,” whose title song alludes to the perils of altering artistic expression to conform to an idea that’s expected from you. It describes a song that was originally conceived as a private conversation between songwriter and muse, but embellished for commercial use, and in the process, altering its true essence.
They took my simple song, yes, they did
They changed the words and the melody
Made it all sound wrong, yeah
Now it sounds like a symphony
Preston was a famed African-American musician who frequently collaborated with The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He allegedly struggled to reconcile his homosexuality with his relationship to the church, and never came out publicly as a gay man; he was posthumously outed by Keith Richards in his 2010 autobiography “Life,” where he writes: “[Preston] was gay at a time when nobody could be openly gay, which added difficulties to his life.” The lyrics to “I Wrote a Simple Song” are directed towards a woman:
That song was personal
Because I wrote it for you
It’s yours and mine, girl.
Like the unnamed narrator in Ralph Ellison’s novel, whose attempts to define himself through the expectations imposed on him by others are rendered inauthentic, Preston talks about the compromise of artistic integrity in lieu of outside expectations with “I Wrote a Simple Song”.
The nine pieces Brown brought to a simple song speak to this tension between the public and the private, the intimate and the distant, the personal and the collective, the visible and the invisible. They portray intimate slices of black life – himself, family, friends – that contain elements which are often obstructed from the viewer. The faces in his photographs are rarely ever the focal point. The subjects are often distanced from the viewer: turned away from the camera, seen through a mirror reflection, or with their eyes closed. Some have their faces blocked by a visual element – either as part of the composition, or as an external sculptural artifice. There’s a palpable distance between sitter and viewer, and the narrative thread is left ambiguous on purpose.
Brown has always been interested in “how intimate experiences are revealed as both personal artifacts and sociopolitical stimulus.” In one of his earlier works, “The Ramble (2012),” a series he completed during his freshman year at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, he references a well-known gay cruising area in New York’s Central Park. Exploring and exposing such an intimate detail of the gay experience allowed him to open up and feel more comfortable about sharing his sexuality with the world. “I became more interested in how we make our private lives public and how much of ourselves is influenced by public histories.” As a gay black man, the idea of identity and representation takes center-stage in his work, a concept that has permeated his images from the start, but flourished after he started using his own body to express the intersection of queerness and blackness.
A self-portrait from those earlier days, “Pendulum (2014)” speaks to that dynamic. In the image, his nude body is seen through a sliver in what appears to be a wardrobe or a closet. He has his back to the viewer, and he’s dangling from the ceiling, holding on to an object. The object can’t be seen in the picture, but the tightness of his muscles – from his shoulders all the way to the bottom of his thighs – gives away the tension. The work is emblematic of how he likes to tell a story, and it became a recurrent theme is his images: the sitter looks away, so that the viewer can look in. “That image blew me away in that I can still discuss whatever it is I want to discuss at that time and not necessarily have people preoccupied by my identity, or the identity of the sitter,” he said.
While it’s a known part of history that black representation in the arts has been overlooked in this country, addressing representation in black photography by African-American photographers has been especially abysmal. The first issue of Aperture dedicated exclusively to the “photography of the black experience,” for example, came out just a few months before President Barack Obama left the White House. Entitled “Vision & Justice,” the issue was inspired by an 1864 speech by Frederick Douglass, “Pictures and Progress,” where the abolitionist hero spoke about the transformative power of photography. Still in the dawn of the new medium, Douglass could already envision the tremendous role that photography would play in shifting people’s perception, as he underlined the importance of representation. He was “intent on the use of this visual image to erase the astonishingly large storehouse of racist stereotypes that had been accumulated in the American archive of anti-black imagery,” the historian Henry Louis Gates explains in the issue.
Brown takes this concept further. The biographical information in his photography is not usually what drives the image. “I’m interested in the residue of presence or activity, which encourages a slower, more ambiguous reading, versus an image that explicitly shows that action,” he says. In a way Brown plays up a paradox of sorts; he represents by not representing.
There is a poetry and lyricism at work in Keisha Scarville’s photographic and mixed media series Placelessness of Echoes (and kinship of shadows). It appeared in the narrative assembly of works across the Camera Club of New York’s white walls. The images lean on, extrapolate, and depart from the words of Wilson Harris, Jamaica Kinkaid, the artist herself, and other writers who have sought to explore the complex interplay of subjectivity, place, and power. Placelessness of Echoes… speaks of landscapes that are alive, possessed, and have stories to be told.
Journeys – both metaphorical and actual – are the foundation of Scarville’s artistic inquiries. Whether tracing her parents’ migration from Guyana to the United States (Passports); addressing her mother’s passing through material ciphers and their potential to conjure (Mama’s Clothes); or the excursions undertaken to produce Placelessness of Echoes… movements that transform bodies and individuals are explored by Scarville’s photographic gaze, in images that convey texture and shadow in seemingly impossible ways. Placelessness of Echoes… luxuriates in darkness, simulating the experience of an eye adjusting to the lowest levels of light. The series is performative and process-oriented; from scouting, to returning to traverse and negotiate the chosen terrain, to camping, observing, and engaging in the discrete and little-known rituals Scarville created to capture her photographs – this body of work meditates on time, place, and space and how each informs, overlaps with, and produces the other.
The “placelessness” of the work’s title, calls attention to the paradox of space, of how the wilderness confounds our attempts to command, locate, and describe it. The landscape in Scarville’s photographs refuses to be fixed in place. Further, the composite nature of the series, staged as it is in numerous, unnamed topographies, is quietly suggestive of the un-geographic facts of Blackness. (After all, where is Black?) To be dispersed, located, placeless, and out of place – all at once.
With her camera – a tool for fixing in place and measuring time – Scarville creates bifurcating narratives of a black female body in and of its rural surroundings. In these we see how the landscape lives in the imagination of the artist – and how perhaps, it stands as a signifier for other spaces. One of these is the fictive space of Harris’s Mariella, the territory in Guyana that is the setting for his novel Palace of the Peacock. Another is the idea of a landscape at night, that in the artist’s words, “becomes everywhere and nowhere, occupying multiple spaces at the same time.” This sense of multiplicity and hybridity is intimately tied to subjectivity’s constant process of formation, and how these transformations are prompted and determined by spatial paradigms. For Scarville, the series is a way of decentering the body in thinking about place – resisting the urge to describe it as a dichotomy of body and nature, instead to think, in Katherine McKittrick’s words about “how bodily geography can be.”
The scenes created by Scarville are the diametric opposite of the cityscape, that which is constantly illuminated, surveilled, and controlled; these qualities programmed into its very topography. As such it is largely vacated of mystery, intrigue, darkness, and the unknown. For Black Americans, experience has taught a suspicion and fear of rural landscapes for the stage they provided for acts of racial terrorism; from lynchings and slave blocks to centuries of uncompensated and cruelly-cultivated labor all carried out on stolen indigenous land. Adversely, the landscape (especially at night) evokes stories of refuge and sanctuary, it conjures the fugitives who traversed the land in the era of the underground railroad. Scarville’s series captures glimpses of the ghosts of those whose self-emancipatory journeys are etched into the land. Making space for the unknowable, mystical, perhaps even magical qualities of the landscape at night mirrors the very capaciousness of the land, and seeks to recuperate the Black female body in nature. Partly through the guise of the shapeshifter – a central figure in Palace of the Peacock, and across a selection of Kincaid’s short stories – she is at once a metaphor for the placelessness of the Black female, the diasporic figure, and a vessel through which the individual navigates, commands, and is enveloped by space.
In a number of images, we see a woman’s body, and the foreground and ground illuminated by red light; chosen in part as it is invisible to most nocturnal animals, and therefore undisruptive to their nightly pursuits. These strongly invoke traditional spiritual practices of the Black diaspora, themselves radical acts of resistance. They also call to mind the mystic or the witch – a maligned figure, whose roots are located in the first anti-capitalist struggles of feudal Europe and the newly-colonized Americas. Scarville’s photographs allow us to grasp and consider the complicated embodied history of the landscape: as a terrain of many terrors, as a fertile ground for growth, a place of imagination and becoming, and a setting for kinship and community.
– Daniella Rose King
Walking is rarely an end in itself. It is a way to get from one place to another. In a city like New York, it is a way to get from one meeting to another, or from one espresso to the next. To walk in New York City is, above all, to walk in a hurry. The Belgian-Mexican artist Francis Alÿs once said the following regarding his “artistic walks” throughout Mexico City’s downtown. “Walking, in particular drifting, or strolling, is already –with the speed culture of our time– a kind of resistance.”
Mexican artist and activist Amanda Gutiérrez left Mexico in 2002 to pursue an MFA program at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she began investigating the public space–mainly, specific neighborhoods–through walking. Over the past two years, she has continued her artistic practice in the streets of New York City, where she currently resides. Her exhibition, Walking in Lightness at Baxter St – a series of collages, photographic prints and a video– announces, even from its title, that walking is a central element, if not the central element, of the show. The works in the exhibition are all explorations of one of the most eclectic neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Sunset Park, where the predominant presence of Mexican immigrants makes her feel at home. The pumpkin flowers, fruit stands, mariachi clothes, huitlacoches and aguas frescas, which are sold along the barrio’s main street add to this sense of familiarity. In the video that has the same title as the exhibition, we see the hands of the artist manipulating a series of prints in the dark room while we listen to her narration:
I’m walking on a street that seems
familiar to me even when I have
never been here.
That is where other people with
cultural similarities concentrate,
Eat and share things that are mute,
invisible to others.
Amanda Gutiérrez could be understood as subversive, strolling through the city at her own pace and opposing the convulsive rhythm of capitalism that sustains a metropolis like New York. But to begin to analyze the work of Gutiérrez, one should not only think of the walk as a criticism of the vertiginous rhythm of modernity à la Alÿs, but also, and above all, as an exercise of a human right.
The history of walking should ideally be, as Rebecca Solnit points out in Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000), “a history of freedom and of the definition of pleasure.” However, the possibility of walking like this, freely and pleasantly, is determined by aspects of gender, race and class. It is the social and political conditions of the different regions around the world that determine who can enjoy the pleasure of walking and who cannot. Let’s think, for example, of Mrs. Dalloway-–the protagonist in Virginia Woolf’s famous book of the same title– who starts her day, one morning in June, by going out of her house to get some flowers. 1 While women (we must add, white upper-class women) could dare to wander and feel the bursting atmosphere of London in the twenties, today (almost a century later) a woman in Mexico, Honduras or El Salvador would put herself in position of vulnerability by doing so. Put in, say, Ciudad Juárez, Clarissa Dalloway would go get the flowers with fear. After sunset and in certain areas, she would perhaps not leave the house by herself at all.
Let’s pause to reflect on the following: in Mexico, more than seven women are killed each day. Moreover, in the last ten years more than 23,800 women have been killed: one of the highest femicide rates in the world2. In Mexico City, where Amanda Gutiérrez was born, walking alone through the city, like a flâneur 3 –or rather, a flâneuse– would not be free of risk. In her video piece, we hear Gutiérrez talk about the violence that women have suffered in Mexico during the past decades, violence which has moved her to live abroad and exercise certain rights more freely, such as that of walking alone:
“Why did I come here?
The safeness that I can’t find in
my own space.
The opportunities to keep walking
over my own shoulders.
I cannot describe the feeling of
seeing women with less luck
That’s why we are moving here
At least that is why I moved here.
Where there is some noise on the
It often happens that neighborhoods populated mostly by immigrants are constantly constructed by adapting original rituals and iconic symbols from the cultures left behind. Be it Sunset Park, Harlem, or Chinatown, they all become a representation of a “paradise lost.” In the diptych Paradise Memories 1,2, (2017), Gutiérrez explores this idea by photographing the oldest Latin-American grocery store in Harlem, which has a mural of a rural dream-like scenario: fertile corn fields and harvests of tropical fruits. In an interview, Gutiérrez mentions that what attracts her to this mural is how these romanticized depictions function as a “placemaking” of neighborhoods, capitalizing on the sense of identity for the community.
Within that same line is the colorful series of photographs Calibrando Exotificación (2018), composed by nineteen C-prints of one single image in which we see four pineapples and a bunch of bananas hanging. This image could well be a photograph of any fruit stand in any Mexican market and is reminiscent of those spontaneous sculptures that Gabriel Orozco photographed in the 1990s –- images with infinite metaphorical possibilities. Here the pineapples and the bananas are barely leaning one against the other, almost affectively and somewhat vulnerably, like relatives who suddenly looked up to pose for a family portrait.
The nineteen C-prints that integrate this series are Gutiérrez’s experiments in the color darkroom: different time exposures deliver prints that are so dark, or so luminous, that the image is barely perceived; different contrasts and color intensities produce prints that are so excessively cold or warm that the image gets lost behind the prominence of color. However, rather than reducing this series to a mere formal investigation of light, color and contrast, one ought to ask: what is the calibration of color and lighting needed to reach the “right” degree of exoticism? What is the proper combination of exoticism and universality that international artistic products require to be validated by American institutions? How “Mexican” does the art produced by Mexican artists needs to be? What does it mean to be a female Mexican artist today in the global art world?
If Sunset Park provides Gutiérrez a spectacle of pineapples, bananas and papayas — a choreography of aesthetic codes that every Latin-American immigrant understands and extols — she seeks to find some tension in it. Her work hopes to dismantle any sort of national cliché. Although her work in Sunset Park starts with an appetite similar to that of an ethnographic researcher, one who tries to shed light on the codifications of the color, fauna and flora of the neighborhood, it does not acquire that flat nature of purely documentary photography. In her work, Gutiérrez does not present Sunset Park through a lens of nostalgia, but rather highlights how porous and malleable the different cultural identities are when they exist in and adapt to new geographies. In her explorations along Sunset Park’s 5th Ave, the combination of more than one nationality unfolds and suggests a plural temporality. Gutiérrez says, “Where today live Mexicans, Syrians, Lebanese and Asians, before that were Puerto Ricans and Dominicans and, tomorrow, who knows.” It is part of Brooklyn’s essence that diverse cultural practices intersect and impact one another. One of Gutiérrez’s challenges is to document this coexistence (which is not always harmonious) with just one disposable camera and without portraying a single person. In her work she has decided to never portray people, much less immigrants, “because of the state of vulnerability in which these people live already.” The result of this restriction is that the images become a bit more difficult to codify, demanding that the viewer renounce a passive stance and become an active participant in the understanding of the work.
In her series of collages, contrasting cultural and aesthetic symbols overlap and cohabitate the same frame. In Paradise Memories 3 (2017), a photograph that depicts four glass barrels filled with tropical aguas frescas juxtaposes another photograph of plants growing wildly in, the artist tells me, a vacant lot located just in front. In Similacrum 1 (2017), Gutiérrez shows us the outside of a laundromat maily frequented by women from the Middle East (we do not see the women in the image, of course). A notice with the slogan “If you suspect terrorism, call the NYPD” is attached to the laundry’s glass window. Below this black and white image is a fragment of a color photograph showing a piece of the yellow roof of the building located directly in front of the laundry (the building is a McDonalds, but we don’t see that either). This single frame contains the harassment experienced by Middle Eastern immigrants along with its counterpart: the popular bright-yellow symbol of the “American dream”. In both of these collages as well as virtually all of the pieces that compose Walking in Lightness, what may at first glance seem to be mere aesthetic explorations of transcultural dynamics, at second glance are, ultimately, pieces loaded with political meaning.
I will conclude by going back to the very beginning of the show and talk about the series of black-and-white photographs the viewer sees when entering Baxter St. The titles of these series are key. The first of them, Asimilación cultural o de cómo aprendí a ser ligeramente blanca 1, translates to Cultural assimilation or how I learned to be slightly white, and consists of four monochromatic prints of the same image, each one of them printed with different gradations of light. The image shows a trio of girl-sized mannequins wearing first communion dresses behind a store’s glass window. In the first print, the image is totally “burned” or underexposed, that is, it is almost a black print, and the mannequins are not even visible. In the second print, the image appears, but with just enough light to barely see some girl-like figures. In the third image, these “girls” become a little clearer, and by the fourth print these “girls” are completely whitened.
For a Mexican viewer like myself, these series of images ranging from black to white immediately refer to the terrible racist structure experienced within Mexican society. Racism in Mexico is perpetrated daily and, for many, sometimes invisibly. The logic of white supremacy that arose with the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century and the consequent marginalization of indigenous people, has dragged through to the present in a very profound way. This is in part due to the overwhelming publicity of whiteness as the representation of success and power in the culture of global consumption. 4 As explained here by sociologist Mónica Moreno Figueroa, the idea that ultimately all Mexicans are children of both indigenous people and Spaniards, that is, the myth of mestizaje, is what serves to hide our deep racism. Our reality is that there is a hierarchy of skin color, and consequent practices of oppression against the dark skinned (morenos), the indigenous, and the Afro-Mexican are practiced every day in many ways. Racist practices are even perpetrated in intimate family dynamics.5 Federico Navarrete in his Alfabeto del racismo mexicano (Malpaso, 2017), sums it up in this way:
“In our social life we Mexicans place ourselves continuously, and are placed by others, on a chromatic scale that associates whiteness, natural or artificial, with beauty and privilege, power and wealth, and its “opposite”, that is, dark skin, with ugliness, marginality and poverty. This pyramid of phenotypes (…) allows us to determine, almost automatically, who deserves our admiration and envy and who our contempt and our pity.” (Navarrete).
The racial discrimination against the Mexican brown population only increases when crossing the United States border. In Asimilación cultural o de cómo aprendí a ser visible (2018), which translates to Cultural assimilation or how I learned to become visible, a triptych that follows the same formal exercise of applying different light gradations to one same image (the image of two boy-sized mannequins wearing the typical formal Mexican “charro” gowns), Gutiérrez reminds us how when brown Mexicans migrate to the United States, they are drained of any cultural heritage just to be rendered “illegals”. Their migratory status and the constant threat of getting deported relegate them to labors that accentuate their social invisibility, such as cleaning dishes behind kitchens. The discourse of white supremacy and xenophobia that has resurfaced so strongly in the United States during the last years has become an inescapable subject-matter for Gutiérrez. One of the many great achievements of these last series of photographs, and perhaps of Gutiérrez’ entire show, is that with the use of very simple imagery, she manages to bring light to an array of resistances. The imagery obtained from her repeated walks in just one neighborhood in Brooklyn highlights the many daily encounters which are invisible to most city-walkers, who rarely, if ever, notice the politics of their immediate surroundings.
1. The book opens with this phrase: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” A few paragraphs later, Woolf beautifully addresses the atmospheric experience of Mrs. Dalloway walking in London: “In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.”
3. Walter Benjamin described the flâneur as the essential (obviously male) figure of modernity, a sort of urban spectator/detective of the city in the XIX century.
4. Navarrete, Federico, Alfabeto del racismo mexicano (México: Malpaso, 2017), 19.
5. Moreno reminds us of the well-known dynamic that, when only a few minutes after the birth of a baby, family members ask if the baby came out dark or white (“güerito”).
Behold those who memorialize the aftermath of a camera. Photographs. For artistry and memory, or travels to lands and narratives unknown. The twenty-fifth issue of DEAR DAVE, magazine ennobles the embodiment of personal feelings. Is it nostalgia, or is it for newness? Photography is not of moments—rather, they allow us each to create one for ourselves in an exchange with the frames we look at. The plurality is crisp and quite profound. Possibly the only reality is the one we each perceive. That acknowledgement is expansive and elaborate. So too are the confessions of the twenty-five contributors in this issue of DEAR DAVE,. Each has been asked to reflect on an image that means something to them. The privacy of lives is a reflection of desire in the photographs they have selected. Their interpretations are solid, or poetic—poignant, and lovely.
This contemporary publication continues to push the boundaries of the medium and itself. I am happy to say that over the course of its history—ten years—DEAR DAVE, has never been the same. The mission that all great imagery strives for drives those involved. Breaking expectation and challenging notions make this publication a force to be reckoned with. Don’t miss it!
To find out more about DEAR DAVE, magazine and how to subscribe click here.
Cultures are identified by feats of strength and icons. Societies are made up of people, parts, places, and passions. Wrestling is wonderfully ancient. Its aesthetics are expansive in practices and homes. Grappling such combat is filled with focus and gesture. The sport is varied in rule and method. History meets modern styles. Incorporated mythology is encapsulated by the photography of Ben McNutt. He is a wonderer of specifics and the geopolitics of the community his sport embodies. The patronage of wrestling is not lost on these images. Exercise and show expound great reliefs of activity and fair. Tournaments bring people together; they are every creed. The celebration of camaraderie and friendships is exposed beyond languages, something deeper forms in passions and drive.
McNutt’s imagery is curious. “What am I photographing?” He endeavors a prying eye and exquisite light. Flesh and sweat, smell. His images are social and complex in mystery. Who are these men? What are their goals? Zeus became the ruler of Earth after wrestling his father Cronus. There is a magical prowess lurking in the depths of bodies. People are glorious. They create something more than themselves, it floats in the air and attracts. McNutt is after that desire. Answers are in images and in the moment of capture it may be impossible to know exactly what anything is. Knowing is after things happen; this is when pictures get made. Clarity begets the uppermost layer of things that are finished. The joy is delving back into them once they’re made.
Feelings come together with surprises and informed imagery in McNutt’s work. The information of the pictures cries out to great colors and forms. The body beguiles new possibilities in extracted reform. The allure of elements transforms, things become sculptural and details feel illustrated. The document of wrestling goes back fifteen thousand years, drawings on walls, French, Babylonian, Egyptian reliefs. McNutt’s work moves amongst rich histories and adds new breath and possibility. What’s said is as much about the body as it is about the ideals these men uphold. They are beautiful and unusual. Athleticism is incorporated, but isn’t completely necessary to appreciate. The layers are parts, conversations move, quiet and together.
Wrestling is a thing of local folklore and international organization. Great homes, institutions, and collections raise the platform of these icons for a multitude of reasons. Styles are free and amateur, bodies brawl on beaches and mattes with oils on flesh. Singlets and earguards cup and protect. Little eccentricities and personalities individualize the regalia and are unmistakable to wrestling itself. The form of a man is exciting, but all contacts between individuals kindle desires and impressions of the world around them. Ben McNutt is of the world and the photographs are too. Bonds of trust and citizenry populate. In scale and security the significance of sport becomes more than show.
Ben is currently preparing for a trip to photograph Turkey’s annual Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Tournament which began in 1346. Please take a minute to consider some of his original merchandise and art by clicking here. The proceeds help go towards supplies and materials to make this trip and new body of work possible. To see more of Ben McNutt’s work click here.
Natures are bound and not perfect. Identity is formed, but how? Immersion in discomforts and joys are ways of forming something like home. A room becomes confused by the canopy of plants and unfamiliar life. Forms become hot and weird. A windy city connects to the tropics and compositions can become all wrapped up in elements of installation and photography and colors and rocks and stuff upon stuff. Eileen Rae Walsh associates physicality with variations in tone and stresses how important humor is. Particles become parts; full resolutions concoct study and reflection. Her works are on walls and tables but they are connected back—to you. Looking becomes personal, not that it isn’t always, but in Walsh your self becomes inoculated and coherent. Senses vary in tone, terrible and beautiful. Wonderfully baffled in the circus of self-loathing and pride. They are not without each other, they are for one another, and you are for you.
Elasticity between big and small accesses things that are broad and specific, but specific shouldn’t remove possibility. The excursion of Walsh is a gas, a graze, a visceral balance of baring witness, and walking through doors. Not necessarily literal doors, but her work is not only on the surface. “We are not limitless, but we love running toward places.” Grasping and potential for relationships consume and absorb the swell of Walsh’s constructed visual conversations. The sky arches, and that kind of space is outside as much as it is inside. Those insides are in structures like architecture and skulls, vaulted and vexing. It becomes supernatural.
All events occur. Tensions are formed in critical observations and depths of field are flattened and found in images. Something about photography transforms—everything. Tools extract feelings and stars and dust and the everyday. Presented and playful we form ourselves in the environment; the Earth is in shapes and sizes, saturations and hues. Walsh is of the same meat, the works she produces are for pulp and flesh, carnal humanity, exude such illustrious things and shift what might be true. The ubiquitous and pedestrian are in everything. Anything can reign true in the cover of relationships. “I can make things that aren’t happening seem like they are happening.” Beyond perception Walsh is after such play and excursion.
Confusing and amazing is alchemy. Pleasure is turned on by the world. Channels of strength form buildings and rules. Being inside the body is shuddered by feelings and experiences. The work dissolves the maker when it comes into being. A universe is formed for people. The body is carnage. Walsh is in the service of others; viewers push through the framework of her art. Wanting and fearing are together and dissolution washes over all that anxiety in free form—like jazz.
To see more of Eileen Rae Walsh’s work click here.
Artifacts encompass catalogues. Photography encases lives lived and longing life from lands unknown. Blood is profoundly placed in imagery. Its intimacy and dire needs are together and received. In Logan Bellew a journey to shores and sands with cities and men is not wasted. Life billows in hair and heart. The heart is buried unsure. Eyes are cast on photos; stories and streets emerge from elsewhere. There are no ships or roads, an intimate experience feeds passion, and all will arrive, but maybe not with certainty.
What do pictures actually mean to you?
In the time it takes to make photography it lives its own life. Fragments can be glued back together. Disciples of ancient dystopias form new histories. Techniques find growing joys. Bellew’s works are a story of autonomy slipping away. Positivity comes in forms of brokenness. Hollers of trauma necessitate education. Perhaps the self can be put back together. Materials can speak to that self; they craft ideas and images. Movement looks towards things in new ways. Residue is captured in sustained responses. The genesis of our pasts beckons us back. And forward. Tension is light and can become a source for exploration. The imagery may be new, but it is no stranger.
Arrivals are visitors. Tools shake up process and capability after something illuminates. Haunting memories provoke involuntary births. Ghosts of the mind exist in brief flashes. Bellew’s photography is ennobled in various voice and visual representations. The imagery establishes its own community. Meetings are often forced in lands where beliefs and expressions are filled to the brim with judgments and uncertainties. Connections still call and figures move forward. The works are formed in certain carnal relations. Sensations and mourning escape, and apt fragments form knowledge and secrets. There are a million reasons not to do something, but that’s never stopped the bizarre calling of frenzy before.
Bitter and sweet form edges that can imbue all mediated distances. Subjects are always in twos. Hiding reveals. Never the same. As viewers we go to other lands in the grips of photography. That ocean of imagery is indicted by decay; it’s up to minds and life to not weaken in ruin. Roaming in fields, or maybe just in corners, colleagues and associations can follow hope. Housed in wherever, that wreckage will bloom. Life is not wasted it waits for the whole Earth. A city is better when it’s Bellew’s. The boundaries are freed because they need.
To see more of Logan Bellew’s work click here.