Elliott Linwood

(Originally published in the San Francisco Sentinel, 1990)

Lola Alvarez Bravo, Frieda Kahlo, c. 1940

Lola Alvarez Bravo, Frieda Kahlo, c. 1940

Festival 200 is celebrated at the Friends of Photography Center with two Mexican photography exhibitions – Campaneras de Mexico: Women Photograph Women; and Revelaciones: The Art of Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Major chapters in the development of the medium in Mexico since the turn of the century are encompassed here.

This is not a definitive cultural overview, however, since several important Mexican photographers are absent. Instead, a powerful juxtaposition occurs between the two shows. The pinnacle influence of Manuel Bravo, combined with the very different contemporary work by women, reflects the many levels of multiculturalism within Mexico itself.

This sets up a cross current of introspection, and it avoids many thorny problems. For instance, projected notions of culture, lately, often gets translated as something consumable – an appropriated thing, romanticized.

The eighty page bilingual essay accompanying the women’s show by Amy Conger acknowledges this trend, stating: The fact is that many Mexicans don’t look like what Mexicans are supposed to look like. One of those few who does – a peasant sleeping under an enormous sombrero – seems only to be found nowadays on a label of a bottle of salsa picante made in New Orleans.

Maintaining an awareness of context is the biggest challenge for the entire Festival. In this regard, Friends has done well by bringing these two traveling exhibitions together. An internal cultural dialog is established with its own set of values. As a result, viewers are allowed that much more freedom to participate with the material on the walls, no matter what their cultural background.

The six women artists include Lola Alvarez Bravo (once Married to photographer, Manuel), Graciela Iturbide (once married to photographer, Pedro Meyer), Mariana Yampolsky, Lourdes Grobet, Laura Cohen and Eugenia Vargas. Their images, concerns and styles are astounding in their variety.

Laura Cohen, Untitled, c. 1980

Laura Cohen, Untitled, c. 1980

These women, represented by eight photographs each, seem tightly crammed into two small rooms. The effect of shared space becomes an immediate issue as a result. The catalog indicates that Mexican women often exhibit in group shows because they feel that there is an obvious link in their work, such as their love life, women’s issues, and, therefore, each other.

How they depict their worlds ranges widely: from the most personal, surreal, strong if not monstrous and spiritual identifications of women in some of Graciella Iturbide’s documentary vision, to the ambiguous and instantaneous urban Cubist configurations in Laura Choen’s photojournalism.

This short survey reveals both the scope of these artists’ perceptions as well as their particular approach to timing. Most of the work was done within the bonds of ongoing personal relationship with their subjects. Even Cohen indicates she is shifting from street photography toward smaller personal portrait work.

Lola Bravos’s 1940s work give the show firm historical anchorage, with quiet stills of Frida Kahlo, as she staged herself – her own favorite art subject and object. Eugenia Vargas’s self portraits extend the show’s timeline into the realm of conceptual body art, affirming feminist links to art as cultural production, and photography as a document of performance.

Essentialism, and similar treatises on female substances, comes to the surface here in theme and focus. But any biological posturing is given over to what is stated as an intimate Mexican identification with the earth as a sense of place. This lush bodily regionalism seems to generate its own deep sense of time. Either that, or I find myself exporting it onto images of less industrialized sites, or both. It is difficult, as a result to locate precisely where the larger sense of time in the show is coming from, but it is strongest in the work of Mariana Yampolsky.

Lordes Grobet’s images show the flip side of gender politics in Mexico, in her “Lady Wrestler” series, double titled, “La Doble Lucha” (The Double Fight). Except for the obvious carnival show exploits of pitted cruelty and gentleness (the cold Arbus style of hunt fascination), these are about a different torture and sacrifice. For instance, when these women are through with their work after fighting all day, they still must support their families at night. A professionalism of public and private (homelife and worklife) is shuttled back and forth in the lives of these women in a complex cultural matrix of feminism and traditionalism.

For all its aspects, these exhibitions are positively shocking honoring of another country’s struggles around pluralism. America’s mythical melting pot ends up looking like a stereotype by comparison, in its emphasis on acculturation and homogenization – versus, say, the revised metaphor for our collectivity – a huge multicultural mosaic, such as San Francisco’s diverse constituency. However, since we are only recently attempting to divide the pie more evenly, Friends of Photography offers a view towards plotting our future.