Photography: These ladies are all for burning
Sunday 13 September 1998
Pilar Fernandez took up photographing her home country in the 1960s, and has covered subjects as diverse as illegal immigrants in the US, the legends of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, the mountain shamans, and Aids in a Mexican prison. She has made her own the principle of having the framed image as a lead to query what happens just outside of it. Literally so, where the papier mache and the pyrotechnics reach beyond the frame: here a reclining rooftop Judas, or the dangling feet of another point to the Linares's storage problems, but also to a hive of activity just out of sight. The metaphysical dimensions need not be laboured, but death and resurrection, like festivals, are an undeniable part of Mexican mythology.
Another of Pilar Fernandez's exhibits is a coffin, upholstered in purple satin and frilled with lace, originally constructed for exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997. Its centrepiece is a photo she took of Comandante Marcos, leader of the Chiapas insurrection, characteristically masked by his balaclava from which his pipe protrudes. In England, arguably only Andy Capp or Churchill come with such inseparable props. It's the only black-and-white portrait among those of his supporters, Maya and Lacondan Mexicans in brilliant-coloured clothes, bearing livid yellow xempazuchitl blooms to decorate cemeteries. Celebrations and sacrifices are the order of the day, for as the rings of images ripple out from the centre, the human and dynamic becomes abstract and ethereal. Pyrotechnics, which accompany all public feast days, here become the extension of the rebels' guns, while fairground shooting alleys point back at Marcos, the target. Further down, even the wealthy disporting themselves in the mud of a local spa are reminiscent of the lower depths, whilst the outer edges of the crucifix/ coffin are hemmed with the cherubs so beloved of the extravagant Mexican baroque known as churrigueresco.
On the opposite wall and into the Metro bar are the Bolivian portraits of a young Canadian photographer, Marj Clayton. Having got herself adopted into a mining family, she also adopted the time-tried technique pioneered by the German photographer, Hans Namuth, in Guatemala in the 1940s. This is to invite each member of the community to bring something dear to them to the image: a hat, a broom, many instruments, a sickle or a hairbrush, even a Bible with a blonde Christ on the cover are on proud display. The intimacy of her relationship with these Aymara-speaking mountain people, among whom she lived for a year in 1995, is evident in the directness of their eye- contact with the photographer. Shot in black-and-white and under-exposed in their processing, emphasising a heavy black surround blotting out a background, they are reminiscent of those earlier stark portraits taken by the Peruvian mine- worker Martin Chambi.
Latin America's awful human-rights record needs no rehearsing. John Sayles's Men with Guns, the film chosen to launch the ninth Latin American Film Festival at the Metro, tells of the horrors still perpetrated by armed forces in rural Guatemala. Inspired by a book by the Guatemalan/ US writer Francisco Goldman (the prizewinning Night of the White Chickens) it also uses the haunting iconographic photographs of Luis Gonzalez Palma alongside its credits and titles. Both are artists who have earned their laurels on an international circuit, Goldman living in New York and Gonzalez Palma based in Paris. The juncture of culture and politics is also sadly the divide between the home country and effective professional exile.
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