Articles by Vik

C Photo: A Local Triumph

By Vik Muniz
C Photo, Issue #4: New Latin Look – Nueva Mirada Latina
Ivory Press
January 2012

In my mind, the visual history of Latin America starts with a photo of a shirt. A strange advertisement; the soiled, blood splattered, garment worn by the emperor Maximilian at the moment of his execution, eternalized by the camera of his court photographer, Francois Aubert, in June 19th, 1867. Although taken by a European artist, this stunning image has epitomized the iconographic spirit of a vast cultural territory even to our days. The image is an essential Latin American photograph, an imperfect and ruptured membrane; a flag, a pamphlet, a cry striving to emblemize the cultural and economic divides of its fallaciously changing political context.

From Mexicali to Terra del Fuego history has never flown; it has always erupted intermittently forging a society that although extremely adaptive, has become chronically dependent on novel images to define its identity. Latin American images are not designed to document the passing of time; they seem to be made to keep it from happening. This frail sense of continuity has shaped an exceedingly history-conscious iconography; images that while overtly aware of their power and function always seem to be searching for an innocence they never had. The Latin American image is often a hot weapon seeking for redemption.

In times of peace, images serve the economy. They penetrate the innermost desires of the individual with the promise of personalized satisfaction, of distinction and exclusivity. In turbulent political circumstances, the cone seems to invert. Revolution does to information, what war does to science; it intensely promotes its development in a single direction. The past and the present become irrelevant; life becomes a balancing act over a bottomless reality through a dogmatic, but flimsy version of the future accompanied by a prevailing sentiment that the truth is never “out there”.

For most of my lifetime, the history of my continent was got to me in two conflicting versions, one sensed in the often incomprehensible clamor of society and the other clearly disseminated through the state controlled media. My formative years were spent dwelling in the vertigo of this chasm separating my reality, an ambiguous amalgam of reflective sensations of past and present from the opaque and synthetic adaptation presented by the “authorities”. A sensation that became more pronounced every time I became aware that no matter how thunderous the chaotic racket of popular culture announces its weight and substance, it is always taken as a triviality in face of the imminent requirement of an “official” story. I grew up immersed in this laborious semiotic black market, where information could be neither readily consumed nor easily dispersed. I think that the main reason why I decided to become an artist was to come up with a “grammar” that would explain and fill this divide.

The essence of our iconography always seems to emerge from this rift. It is precisely in the chards, the debris, the shrapnel left over in the concocting of these chiseled, monolithic information structures that true artists search for what is still preciously human. I see the true face of my continent reflected in the uncomfortable gaze of Martin Chambi’s studio subjects, In José Medeiros trendsetting beach scenes, I see it in the awkward posture of Alvarez Bravo’s longing adolescent girl leaning over a rail; a self, trapped in a body that doesn’t seem to be her own. I see the eternal plight of the individual trying to conform to something beyond its nature, a strange and continuous becoming. I see my continent in this search for the accidental, this illusion of innocence, and in this identity discrepancy.

Over the last two decades, globalist economic and cultural trends along with the advent of the Internet helped improve considerably the understanding of photography in isolated contexts such as Latin America, Africa and Asia. These movements have also enabled the local artist to speak to a much wider audience. This new exposure has deeply affected their production pushing it beyond local contexts and stimulating the creation of cultural artifacts with broader international ambitions. Contemporary visual production in Latin America has transcended its traditional vocabulary of tangible and objective themes but has not done away with its shrewdness, attentiveness and grit. Yet, the international market has still been reluctant in absorbing these artists into its high echelons.

American and European images have greatly helped to forge the cultural identity of the Latin America we know today. As our continent gradually ceases to be simply perceived as a subject, It will be extremely interesting to observe, in the years to come, if the favor may be returned and the fresh, vigorous and ambitious art of Latin America may be finally granted the authority to infuse some new life into the bloodstream of American and European culture.