Not Just Folks
An exhibition that tries to clarify some stereotypes, By Toni Hafter and Lalo Obregon
Reserved For Export I:
A Contemporary View ofMexican Photography opens in March at Diverse Works Gallery, 214 Travis.
Living this close to Mexico, it's hard to understand why there is so little interaction between artists here and artists of that country. Cultural exchange seems to revolve around holiday migrations of Texans to Cancun and San Miguel de Allende, and seasonal migrations of Mexicans to Houston restaurants and factories, or to the Medical Center and the Galleria, depending upon their social strata.
What evidence do we have of current Mexican photographic and cinemagraphic movements? Aside from the cheesy "B" movies that the Mexican film industry pumps out and exports in large quantities for "illegal-alien entertainment" (appropriately nicknamed 'Churros', which are mass-produced, elongated donuts, with a nutritional content similar to our own American Glazed Donut), independent cinema gives the impression that it doesn't exist, which is untrue.
The situation with Mexican photography is not altogether different. Who has picked up a book on Mexican photographers lately? Or seen an exhibition? Ask anyone interested in photography what they know of Mexican photography and they answer simply: Alvarez Bravo. Are we to assume that the evolution of photography in Mexico from the documentary work of Agustine Casasola at the turn of the century simply ended in the 1930s with the emergence of Alvarez Bravo? That he has existed as the masthead of an empty ship for forty years?
The exhibition Reserved For Export I, at Diverse Works, grew out of these questions and of a desire to fulfill the need for current information on Mexico and its visual artists.
The majority of the photographers whom we interviewed in Mexico make their living in photography or in something closely related; very few are hobbyists. Although they seem to share most of the hardships and frustrations of trying to live off their art, there are certain problems a photographer living in Mexico must face that differentiates him/her from their North American counterparts.
Although photography has been actively practiced over the last seventy years, only during the last ten has it been accepted as a fine art by the intellectual and artistic community. Even now photographic exhibitions are not given the support they receive in the U.S. from the general public. As a result, very few books on photography are being published; the market is so small that it remains unprofitable. Photographers must look to expensive books and magazines that are imported. Mexican photography magazines (like our Popular Photography) are printed in small editions and tend to concentrate on advertising and commercial photography.
Anyone aware of the present situation in Latin America will understand that the arts, especially photography and film, have suffered the consequences of an economic crisis. The costs of producing photographic work are extremely high in relation to the production costs of other trades. The only photographic supplies made in Mexico are chemicals and some film stocks from the Kodak plant in Guadalajara. Everything else must be imported: paper, darkroom equipment, cameras, accessories. These items carry a 100 percent markup from the retail price in the States. Between 1982 and 1983, the peso was devalued from 25 to 150 to a dollar. In less than a year, photographers faced price increases of 100 percent and more on supplies and equipment. In many cases certain supplies are unavailable, such as selenium toner and most Ilford and Agfa papers. This situation, along with a general lack of work and the rising cost of living, is having a strong impact on the photographer and his/her work, sometimes altering their technique completely.
Photography in Mexico, more than in the States, is totally centralized in one city. This makes it virtually impossible to get anywhere as an artistic photographer if you don't live and work in Mexico City. This concentration of energy has resulted in increased exhibition space, photography schools, and competition in the job market. It also has played a part in photographers breaking into different factions, many of them at odds. The most powerful is the Consejo Mexicano de Fotografia. The Consejo (council) is the national photographic organization. Founded in 1977, the establishment of the Consejo meant that for the first time photographers would be formally recognized as artists by national art institutions.
Members of the Consejo have an advantage in that the Consejo has been responsible for organizing international photographic events and exhibitions. This is due in part to its ties with Belles Aries (The National Institute of Fine Arts). This edge provokes more than a little ire among members of opposition groups and among photographers who have given up mixing their artistic endeavors with any special interest group.
These conditions, plus the fact that the government does very little to promote Mexican photography internationally, are partially responsible for the little exposure that it has received in the States. The other factor influencing this issue has an equally dark side: Americans being generally uninformed about modem Mexico. This helps to maintain a stereotyped image of a society that apparently has never evolved and never will evolve.
Unfortunately there persists a stubbornly colonial attitude in the States toward art. This attitude consciously or unconsciously affects how we value a work that comes from a third-world country. In many cases, if the artist is from an underdeveloped nation (and more so if they happen to be self-taught), their work is labeled "folk art”, somehow differentiating them from "true artists". It's a subliminal but effective way of devaluing a person's work and segregating it from other art.
Since 1976 only a handful of American cities has hosted photographic exhibitions by Mexican artists. In contrast, Mexican photography has encountered wide interest and support in Europe. Photographers from Mexico have been invited to participate in exhibitions in Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, and the Soviet Union. In conversations with photographers in Mexico, we were told time and time again that Europeans are more open to Mexican photographers than the people of North America. This exhibition will help clarify in images and ideas who and what the Mexican photographic artist is all about.