Images of Latin America

Mike Newton Jun 12, 2014

“Urbes Mutantes”
International Center of Photography
Through September 7

“Bearing Witness: Art and Resistance in Cold War Latin America”
Shiva Gallery, John Jay College
Through September 12 

A series of small, untitled, black-and-white photographs taken around 1980  shows a modern city: there are tall buildings, wide concrete sidewalks and very few people. The weather is grey and foggy; the city looks like a sad place. This feeling — of urban anomie, or a sort of post-industrial loneliness — will be familiar enough to pretty much anyone who’s spent a lot of time in a big, modern city, walked around its business district at night or waited too long for the bus home. But here’s the thing: the photos, by Mauricio Valenzuela, are specifically of Santiago, Chile’s capital. Shot during the regime of Augusto Pinochet, the photos aren’t just about modernity and alienation, but also the muffled conditions of life under a military dictatorship.

Valenzuela’s photos are part of “Urbes Mutantes,” currently on display at the International Center of Photography. Subtitled “Latin American Photography 1944-2013,” the show looks at Latin American cities in times of social, economic and political upheaval (or in other words, pretty much the entire second half of the 20th century). Many of the works on view involve conflict between culture and modernity, showing tradition and daily life under the ever-advancing pressures of capitalism. For example, Susanna Torres’s Neo-Inca Museum (1999-2013) presents straightforward, objective photos of supermarket products with “Inca”-style branding: an indigenous Peruvian culture turned consumerist cartoon (Inca Kola, anyone?). Miguel Rio Branco’s harsh photo diptych Man Dog (1979) shows the exhausted body of a beggar alongside the damaged body of a dog, each photographed on the streets of Maciel, Brazil. The symbolism — the idea that in the modern world, the urban poor are often treated as something less than human — is blunt, but it works. Gertjan Bartelsman’s 1994 Pogo (Moshing) shows a sweaty mosh pit at a Colombian punk show, a more recent sort of cultural tradition that is also threatened by grim economic realities. Of the young men in the photo, Bartelsman says that many of them are probably now dead because of the drug trade, a tragedy looming outside the frame.

For her haunting Area photos (1999), Luz María Bedoya shot the façades of Lima apartment buildings at night. Lit windows show isolated domestic scenes against a field of closed drapes and darkened rooms. In his playful yet melancholy photos, Victor Robledo turned construction materials scavenged on the streets of Bogotá into indoor abstractions, or meditations on the qualities of light and space in urban environments. Viewers may be a surprised at how much of the exhibit has this tone: personal, ruminative and a bit lonely. Even a section called “The People and Protest” feels unexpectedly tragic, as in Marcelo Montecino’s 1983 Military School (Escuela Militar). Taken in Santiago, it shows a sea of young initiates into Chile’s powerful military, extending beyond the frame with absolutely no end in sight.

Marcelo Montecino, Military School (Escuela Militar), Santiago, 1983. Collection Letitia and Stanislas Paniatowski. © The artist. Photo courtesy International Center of Photography.

Those looking for a more trenchant document of protest and defiance might want to check out “Bearing Witness: Art and Resistance in Cold War Latin America,” on view at the Shiva Gallery at John Jay College. The show is actually a lot smaller and more concise than that name implies — it focuses specifically on Chile and Brazil, with four memorable bodies of work made in response to the repression and abuse that were endemic to those countries’ military dictatorships. The 1980s photojournalism of Juan Carlos Caceres captures some of the emotional and (literally) inflammatory energy of anti-Pinochet protests and their attendant police violence, while Iván Navarro’s 2008 video installation The Missing Monument for Washington D.C. posits the torture and execution of legendary Chilean folk singer Victor Jara as part of a lineage of cruelty that continues in the post-9/11 United States.

And then, there’s Sala Oscura de Tortura (The Dark Room of Torture). Produced in 1972 by the collective La Denúncia, the work is a room-sized installation of paintings created in response to the clandestine torture practices of the Brazilian military. With their realistic renderings and spare, reduced compositions, each painting shows a life-sized body in crisis, a naked prisoner in the throes of state-sanctioned agony. It’s the kind of work that could end up feeling exploitative or nihilistic, but it was made with too much care and too much purpose for that, and with its combined use of scale, light and art-historical classicism, it makes the realities of torture feel terrifyingly present. Guanaes Netto, one of the artists in the collective, gave this recent statement: “Almost half a century after its creation, this work serves as a permanent form of denunciation.” It almost goes without saying that in 2014, denunciations of the practice of torture are no less relevant or necessary.

The works in “Urbes Mutantes” mostly lack that sort of ideological directness, but both exhibitions scale big cultural and political changes down to an immediately relatable, human level. In the face of enormous and potentially dehumanizing modern systems, it would serve us well to remember that cities are defined by their people — or in other words, by us. In the banks and skyscrapers, at the movie theaters and the punk rock shows, on the sidewalks and in the prison cells, at the parades and the protest rallies: we are the city, even when we’re, strangely, nowhere to be seen.

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