Urban Impulses: Latin American Photography From 1959 to 2016
Gray reality with a streak of pink exuberance, themes of protest and popular culture, monochrome photography and full color: Urban Impulses sets up these structural dichotomies and largely manages to reconcile them. Curators María Wills and Alexis Fabry concisely illustrate the transformations of Latin American society over nearly 60 years, presenting 200 images of civil unrest, political oppression, and urban transformation in countries like Argentina, Chile, Mexico, and Peru.
On ViewThe Photographer's Gallery
June 14 – October 6, 2019
The show is divided into two general themes, the first of which, ‘Shouts’, occupies the gallery’s second floor. Fernando Bedoya’s Pinochet (1987) sets a general tone of dictatorship, oppression, and death, with the Chilean dictator’s stern silkscreen image looking out over the room, his eyes overlaid with skulls. The military coup of 1973 that enabled Pinochet’s reign, and led to the abduction and execution of some 3,000 people, casts its shadow on much of the work here. Helen Hughes’s 18,000 Soldiers Patrol the Streets of Santiago (1983) and Claudio Pérez’s image of a demonstration in Plaza Balmes (1986) convey the era’s oppressive totalitarianism, while Álvaro Hoppe’s Calle Alameda (1983) strikingly evokes the latent threat of daily violence. Taken from behind a shattered window, Hoppe captures a scattered group wandering down Santiago’s main avenue as a military individual strides past; framed through the glass’s hollow epicentre, his brutal intention is implied by his out of focus momentum.
As the curators note, the 1973 coup “created a generation of photographers committed to documenting the urban tragedy that subsequently emerged on the streets of Santiago.” State terrorism wasn’t restricted to Chile however. Across Latin America, artists held up a mirror to the reality of government-sanctioned murder. Eduardo Longoni’s two images allude to Los desaparecidos (the disappeared), a term strongly associated with Argentina during The Dirty War (1976-1983). The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo are shown protesting outside the presidential building in Buenos Aires, with their weary defiance emphasised by their distinctive headscarf and solitary presence against a crowd of armed military personnel. Adjacent, Ataúlfo Pérez Aznar compliments these images with his depiction of artistic resistance; silhouettes representing the missing are plastered over the Plaza’s walls, detailed with their names and date of disappearance.
While fostering a rather grim impression of modern Latin American history, it’s one leavened with occasional scenes of normalcy. Exuberantly playful is Pablo Ortiz Monasterio’s Flying low (1989), a photo of a skinny youth bounding off a wall emblazoned with the “Sex Pistols” logo and two guns. Meanwhile, in If You Shoot, I Shoot (1989), a young man squints down the length of a camera—possibly a gun—at Monasterio. Three gelatin silver prints by Armando Cristeto depict the hard-partying milieu of the photographer (PolyMarchs, 1985), and similarly, José Luis Venegas’s chromogenic photos capture the revelry of weddings, although documenting a more socially-privileged class.
The dual concerns of the exhibition enmesh in Herbert Rodríguez’s Equis (1985): a large, square collage of magazine adverts crossed with a black ‘X’ of paint. The proliferation of advertising in the 1960s marked the region’s “rapid transition to a consumer society” and, in light of this development, Equis provides a visceral critique of class inequality. Glossy adverts for food processors, televisions, and bottles of Johnny Walker surround one small, reportage-style image at its center: a tearful mother with her gaunt child. It’s a potent juxtaposition of poverty with frivolous excess, whose imitation of urban materiality is utilised to socially damning effect.
‘Pop-ular’, the second section of the exhibition, is positively sedate after the blood, sweat and tears of ‘Shouts’, providing a more conceptual focus on Latin America’s architecture and its media-saturated spaces. While lacking the morbid charge of ‘Shouts’, these images offer their own obscured histories. The irregular geometries of Andean facades in Pablo López Luz’s Neo Inca (2015-2016) reflect a modern appropriation of Inca motifs—harking back to a pre-Columbian heritage—while at the other end of the gallery, Beatriz Jaramillo also pays attention to “the vocabulary of vernacular architecture” with close-ups of decorative, colourful features ostensibly re-photographed from the original strip of film.
That Latin America is “a pastiche of the past and the present” is seen in the juxtaposition of pre-Hispanic symbolism alongside modernity’s more commercial surfaces. International iconography infiltrates the region’s spaces to suggest processes of cultural colonization, particularly by the American mass media. Armando Cristeto’s Imperial Heavenly Fauna series (1980) details four high-angle shots of advertising billboards—often of U.S. superheroes or brands—against large swathes of sky, while Marcos López’s untitled Polaroids (1987) reveal hybrid influences. We see Gary Cooper in the Western High Noon (1952), an homage to British Painter David Hockney, and the Peruvian appropriation of Coca Cola. Even the myriad photographs of individuals doing the tango in Argentina and Chile—overrepresented here by three separate photographers—remind us of that pastime’s mixed heritage of European, South American, and African styles.
Urban Impulses is a great opportunity to experience the visceral urgency of Latin American photography. The show provides an overview of formative national events and embraces a range of topics, covering marginalised sub-cultures, civil wars, architectural facades, and advertising. However, the exhibition is more of an introduction than a reappraisal, with its broad scope obscuring the historical specificity of each nation, and with a focus quite firmly in the past (only a handful of works post-date the noughties). While admittedly ambitious, it would have been enlightening to see how Latin America defines itself in our contemporary moment.