Transgressing Boundaries

by Jo Ortel

American Voices, Latino/Chicano/Hispanic Photography in the U.S. was one of the 1994 FotoFest exhibitions.
Last year, to mark its fifth International Festival of Photography, FotoFest devoted a sizable portion of its resources to presenting contemporary photography by Latino photographers. Among a host of satellite shows celebrating Latin Americans, one particularly worthy exhibit, curated Ben De Soto and on display at Maldonado Consulting, showcased the work of local Hispanics. A far larger and more ambitious exhibit, with over 700 photographs by 39 photographers, “American Voices” offered an impressive, and at times overwhelming, survey of photography being made by Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Cuban Americans throughout the United States.
To underscore further the multicultural emphasis of the festivities, FotoFest hosted a symposium entitled “Across Cultures,” in which a diverse group of internationally-recognized artists, scholars, and curators offered their perspective on creating and using art as a bridge between cultures.1The symposium was sparsely attended, which was unfortunate because the presentations served as a useful backdrop to the “American Voices” exhibition. Together, the symposium, the exhibit, and the satellite show of local photographers raised a number of concerns about the nature of identity and its relationship to representation, which lie at the center of much current debate.
“American Voices” was the collaborative effort of four U.S. Latinos, Kathy Vargas, Robert Buitron, Charles Biasiny-Rivera, and Ricardo Viera. The decision to invite Latinos to curate the exhibition was in itself laudable, particularly at a time when Latinos are regularly challenging the right of exhibiting institutions to control the cultural presentation of their communities.
Together, the curators decided upon a loose over-arching framework that they then divided into three subsections based on photographers’ ethnic identities or cultural ties. Vargas and Buiron curated the Mexican American segment, Biasiny-Rivera the Puerto Rican section, and Viera the Cuban American section. Each section had a unique flavor and deserves careful critical attention on the basis of its own set of strengths and weaknesses; however, I would like to explore the difficult but related questions that the exhibition in its entirety prompted.2
With “American Voices,” the curators sought to bring new visibility to a vital, but little-known part of U.S. culture.3Further, they hoped to avert and dispel simplistic, stereotyped conceptions of what Latino photography looks, or “should” look like, by offering a wide sampling of the rich and diverse photographic practices with which Latinos are currently engaged. The sheer scale of the exhibition ensured that the first objective was realized, and the work that was included encompassed a range of aesthetics, techniques, and subjects, with well-chosen examples of everything classical portraiture and documentary photography, to video and mixed media installations.
The show presented many photographers who warrant critical attention; the seductive black-and-white photographs, by the Cuban American, Abelardo Morrell, might serve as an example of the most engaging work in the show. In one group of images, Morrell photographed interior scenes onto which he had first projected another image with the aid of a camera obscura. Because it inverts what it “sees,” Camera Obscura Image of Brookline View in Brady’s Room, 1992, depicts a child’s bedroom superimposed by an upside-down view of the street outside. Leafy trees and neat, clapboard houses appear in sharp photographic detail on the walls of a quiet space cluttered with an array of toy dinosaurs and a miniature fortress. The room comes alive with the unexpected confluence of two worlds, private and public, interior and exterior.
Morrell addresses question of illusion and perception, fact and imagination in other seemingly straightforward photographs.4 In one series, Morrell positioned his camera obliquely and photographed the light glancing off shiny book illustrations. In Book: Boy with Fruit by Caravaggio, 1993, we glimpse only the indistinct, ghostlike image of Caravaggio’s familiar painting; the figure appears very dark-skinned. The photograph is a study in the physics of light and shifting perspectives, but it also sets the viewer to ponder the larger philosophical and cultural meanings associated with light and illumination, sigh and insight. Is Morrell commenting on the “blind spots” of our mainstream, Eurocentric United States? The use of an open book – medium, vehicle and embodiment of Western civilization – and a reproduction of an icon of Western high culture suggest that the artist’s concerns range far beyond the photographer’s art to include the role of culture in defining and shaping what we are able to perceive, what is visible and invisible to us.
“American Voices” was highly commendable, but like any exhibition, it was not without flaws. A fundamental problem lay in the curators’ acceptance of highly contested pre-existing concepts, such as an essentialist notion of ethnic identity, as the basis for their exhibition. Consequently, “American Voices” was vulnerable to some of the very conundrums it sought to eradicate and redress. Where the curators did attempt to redefine the parameters of the debate, their efforts were muted and tentative; as a result, they were largely lost on the show’s visitors.
Even as the exhibition attempted to correct misconceptions about Latino photography, it appeared to leave unquestioned other controversial terms. How, for example, should Latino and Hispanic be defined? Whom do such labels encompass? As Guillermo Gomez-Pena has written, these terms are loaded with ideological implications: “they create categories and hierarchies that promote political dependence and cultural underestimation.” In the absence of more enlightened terminology, he writes, we have no choice but to use them with extreme care.5
In fact, this absence points up the linguistic and, by extension, cultural-conceptual biases and prejudices that many are struggling to change. We have an overabundance of words that we use to the name Others, but most of these labels blur distinctions between specific groups; we lack the terminology that would particularize in a satisfying way the diversity ofOthers – not to mention the diversity and complexity of relationships to more than one culture that individuals routinely juggle.6
Given these circumstances, Gomez-Pena is right to insist that we use preexisting terms with the utmost care. Unfortunately, the curators of the FotoFest exhibition did not always follow this sage advice. Their choice of title, “American Voices,” was very effective: it implicitly challenged unspoken assumptions that light-skinned, European-descended people living in the United States are somehow “true Americans.” Further, it drew attention to our linguistic chauvinism, which seldom acknowledges the hemispheric dimensions of America, the simple truth that America does not in fact stop at the U.S. border.
But the subtitle the curators settled upon, “Latino/Chicano/Hispanic Photography in the U.S.,” perpetuated the inexact and disturbing usage of terms that Gomez-Pena (and others) find harmful. The caption seemed to suggest that the show would encompass work by photographers with cultural connections to all of the more than twenty-seven Latin American countries; in fact, only artist with ties to the three oldest and largest Spanish-speaking cultures in the United States – Mexican American, Puerto Rican, and Cuban American- were represented.
Although some of the work included in “American Voices” raised questions about precisely these matters of identity (Laura Aguilar’s multimedia three-part installation “How Mexican is Mexican?,” 1991, was perhaps he most pointed), and although the curators acknowledged the inexactitude of their subtitle during the symposium, nowhere in the exhibition proper was indication given that the terms were provisional. Without clarification, the slippage or gap between what the title implicitly promised and what the exhibition actually delivered reinforced our North American tendency to conflate and homogenize distinct Latin American cultures. As one Brazilian photographer remarked, the show effectively rendered invisible all those artists with cultural ties to countries not included in the exhibition.
One wished for greater accuracy about precisely who was represented. Better still, the curators might have omitted a subtitle altogether. Of course, this alternative would have had its own limitations. But, as noted scholar Juan Flores asserted when he emphatically refused to define the term Latino, “there’s no way that — especially nowadays— it is possible really to talk in any kind of definitional way about anything, least of all about such a complex issue as the question of identity among such a diverse group of people…because, no matter what you say, somebody will feel excluded or will feel that some aspect is left out.”7
The same problem of exclusion plagues the format that the curators chose to employ in “American Voices.” In a survey, a part is meant to stand in for, or represent, the whole. Clearly, this means that someone will have to make selections based on their perceptions of “the whole,” and that some will inevitably be excluded from the final presentation, even as it is meant to be representative of the whole. Curators (Authors, when the survey takes book form) seldom acknowledge and even less frequently stress that is this an essential component in the fashioning of a survey; more often, the significance and process of selection is minimized with an evasive comment about obvious choices, or with false assurances of comprehensiveness and “truthful” representation. The obfuscation may be unintentional: utmost precaution might indeed be taken to insure that works will be chosen with regard for a perceived sense of truthfulness in representation. But what about the unacknowledged, unconscious biases that result from cultural conditioning—from education and training, for example, or from class-based and regional traditions? Insidious, potentially harmful problems arise when a perspective or opinion is mistaken for or propounded as Truth.
Certainly there is no reason to doubt the sincerity and integrity of the curator’s selections for the “American Voices” exhibition. But some visitors criticized the show for being too conservative; other complained that traditional documentary photography was over-represented, imparting the “wrong” impression about the state of contemporary Latino photography. The show ultimately reproduced the structure that led to the exclusion of Latinos and other groups in the first place. With no guidance to help them think and look in a new way, viewers were left to sort out the overwhelming number of images with whatever (lack of) knowledge they might possess about Latino photography. The form of the exhibition undermined the intent of the curators to dispel simplistic stereotypes about Latino photography. The show ultimately reproduced the structure that led to the exclusion of Latino and other groups in the first place. With no guidance to help them think and look in a new way, viewers were left to sort out the overwhelming number of images with whatever (lack of) knowledge they might possess about Latino or Hispanic art.
This assessment might have been averted had the curators focused on a specific topic or aesthetic rather than trying to provide a representative survey of the photography of entire cultures or ethnic identities. In fact, the organizers had hoped to provoke re-assessment of commonly-held assumptions about issues of cultural identity and authenticity, by emphasizingbi-culturalism and multi-culturalism. The subtitle in full read “Latino/Chicano/Hispanic Photography in the U.S.” after all. “American Voices” was not simply about ethnic origins, nor was it exclusively about immigration. It was about both of these issues—and much more. The show sought “to ‘speak’ through photography to issues of cultural origin, history, immigration and the experience of working between cultures.”8 The exhibition, it hoped, would illuminate the complex nature of the relationships that exist between and among cultures, as physical, spiritual, and cultural borders are traversed and transgressed, crossed, and re-crossed.
Among other things, the curators wanted to highlight the great variety of bi-cultural or intercultural experiences that are negotiated by ever-increasing numbers of individuals. The photographers included within the Cuban American section, for example, represented different periods of migration and settlement, as well as a host of diverse memories and political views of the exile brought on by the Cuban Revolution of 1989.9 Different national histories affect individuals’ histories and relationships to two (or more) cultures.
Re-conceiving cultural and ethnic identity as a fluid, continual process rather than as a fixed, unchanging entity offers the opportunity to reconsider the validity and usefulness of labels, to recognize their limitations in capturing the particularities of individual experience. Regrettably, however, scant information was provided in “American Voices” that could have set this line of thinking into motion for the viewer who saw the exhibition but did not attend the accompanying symposium. One could only speculate how Victor Vazquez or Arturo Cuenca, for example, positioned themselves culturally, where they reside emotionally, intellectually, physically (and for how long). The press release designated geographically places of residence (Vazquez: Puerto Rico; Cuenca: New York, NY), but it did not detail the length of residence or other intangibles.
Moreover, the photographer’s works were grouped according to their ties to the Mexican America, Puerto Rican, or Cuban American portion at the back, and the Puerto Rican section was sandwiched between the two. Within this layout, and without information about the specific connections of each photographer to his or her respective Latin American country, the exhibition tended to bolster rather than challenge the view that ethnic identity is monolithic, impervious to change.
I was disappointed that the physical arrangement of the exhibition was not utilized more creatively to underscore in a symbolic way for the viewer the notion of transgressing boundaries, and of straddling two or more cultures. As it was, the maze-like organization of the exhibition space, and the blurred distinction between each of the three subsections was confusing and frustrating. If the idea of border-crossings had been developed and accentuated, the experience of the exhibition with its three overlapping and merging segments could have served as a rough metaphor to what Gloria Anzaldua has so lyrically called the experience of “living on borders and in margins keeping intact one’s sifting and multiple identity and integrity.”10
With its much more intimate scale, the satellite show of local Houston Hispanic photographers at Maldonado Consulting avoided the problems that haunted the FotoFest exhibition, although the included works spanned an equally wide range of aesthetics and subjects. In a talk presented at the FototFest symposium, Dr. Tatcho Mindiola, director of the Mexican American Studies Program at the University of Houston, mused that Houston has not yet witnessed an indigenous proliferation of visual art and literature by Latino’s that cites such as San Antonio and Los Angeles boast.11 Though somewhat uneven, the Maldonado exhibit suggested to me that the problem does not lie in some unexplained lack of talent among Houstonians; rather, it is a matter of fostering and nurturing those in our midst, and providing them with the necessary resources and support. For me, the emotionally complex, grainy black-and-white photography by Maria-Theresa Hernandez, Untitled (Mother’s Day), Rosenburg the startling image by Eduardo Muñoz of a monkey jeering out from a cage, and the stark interiors by Juan Garcia from his Grandmother Series were as compelling and evocative as many of the photographs in “American Voices.”
If others registered the same excited response that I did to individual work and photographers included in these two exhibits, a wide-ranging and lively dialogue about contemporary Latino photography will soon follow. As it travels across the country and is seen by different audiences, “American Voices” (together with the forthcoming catalogue) will undoubtedly stimulate more discussion about presentation, and more substantive critical analysis of Latino photography. When both of these happen, it can only prove beneficial—for Houston as for the nation, for contemporary photography in general, and for Latino photography in particular.

Footnotes:

  1. The symposium was held on November 11-13, 1994. Puerto Rican scholar and professor Juan Flores, artists Harry Gamboa, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Juan Sanchez, Adal, Martina Lopez, Tony Mendoza, and Celia Muñoz were among the featured speakers.
  2. “American Voices” is scheduled to travel to destinations as yet unknown at press time. The published catalogue, will include essays by the curators, as well as by noted scholars and historians.
  3. FotoFest press release announcing the exhibition.
  4. According to Ricardo Viera, the photographer has called these works “meeting-places for fact and imagination.”
  5. Guillermo Gomez-Pena, “Border Culture: The Multicultural Paradigm,” in the catalogue to “The Decade Show, Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s.” New York: Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, & The Studio Museum in Harlem, 1990, p.94. For a brief overview of the origins and usage of some of these terms, see Shifra Goldman, “Homogenizing Hispanic Art,” New Art Examiner, 15 no. 1 (Sept., 1987), p. 30-33.
  6. For a more complete discussion of some of the problems of names and of naming, see Lucy Lippard, Mixed Blessings, New Art in a Multicultural America. New York: Pantheon, 1990.
  7. Opening remarks of Flores’ excellent talk presented at the symposium “Cross Cultures,” sponsored by FotoFest. A version of his talk will be published as an essay in the forthcoming exhibition catalogue to “American Voices.”
  8. FotoFest press release announcing the exhibition.
  9. Ricardo Viera, in presentation at the FotoFest symposium.
  10. Gloria Anzaldua, preface to Borderlands/La Frontera, The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987. To be sure, the primary bi-cultural exchange the curators were hoping to present was that of each of the three Latin American countries wit hthe U.S. As they moved through the exhibition space, the “American Voices” visitors would have made “border crossings” bridging the three Latin American countries. Still, even if it were not exact, the analogy might have been usefully exploited. And, in any case, many of the photographs (and photographers) included in the exhibition embodied multiple crossings, intercultural influences, and connections. Certainly during the FotoFest symposium, one could witness very real exchanges occurring between photographers and individuals from the three countries.
  11. Mindiola was speaking in particular of Mexican Americans. His talk offered an excellent, if over-generalized, history of Latino heritage and experience in Houston.

Author’s Note: Special thanks are due to Alan Carroll for his insightful comments, helpful suggestions, and enduring patience while I worked to clarify my thoughts on the “American Voices” exhibition.

Top