Latin Fire Fails To Ignite

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A mixed bag of images fails to hold your attention

Palacio de Cibeles in Madrid is home to a photographic series that promises to highlight images showing a different side to what we know — or what we think we know — about Latin America. The striking yellow poster that advertises the exhibition has a recently-anointed groom set in monochrome stone. He stares you down in some Latino, macho bravado that may be a tongue-in-cheek attempt by the exhibitors to challenge whatever preconceived ideas that may have coagulated in your ignorant, non-Latin mind before you even dare to enter. His bride, somehow more alive in the black and white photo, is veiled, beautiful, and indifferent.

Indifference is one of the emotions you may feel, and perplexed is another. The exhibition sets its stall out quite early and the promulgation on the walls that prime you for what you are going to see speak of a Latin America that we don’t know. Devotees of photos of cocaine and of hit squads, feel free to go elsewhere. Except, don’t. The first photos that greet of you are of ordinary people posing with guns. As a comment on the normalisation of violence it works, but it is directly at odds with the mission statement of the exhibition and a feeling that runs through the exhibition is that it all would have been more satisfying if the exhibition had been framed differently. The premise of not showing the guns and narcotics of Latin America is an odd one given that is the image we are presented with.

This lack of clarity jars and it undermines the power of the imagery contained within the exhibition. Personally, I have no aversion to photos of people in ordinary and prosaic situations but because there is no real context to connect with, I can only feel the cool indifference of the veiled and aloof bride from the poster. The photos are jumbled up and there is no connection between them, with pictures of a dead Che Guevara aside flamboyant movie stars. Prostitutes stare vacantly from grubby rooms but, not to sound trite, don’t we already know of the emptiness of that world? There is even staged photograph of a murder hit at a petrol station but when it comes to violence on the street, reality is already bloodier than fiction.

There are highlights. That picture of Che Guevara is not the one we know the best, of the bearded Messiah under a cocksure beret. It is the Christ-like death mask of a fallen soldier that offers no hope of resurrection in its stillness. There are pictures of women who have been imprisoned yet they are also mothers, and they will be separated from their newborn babies. A series of black and white photographs put me in my mind of Belfast. The best section of the exhibition, undoubtedly, was a serious of photos of the personal effects of prisoners framed by a claustrophobic circle that intrudes in on the image.

Overall, the exhibition succeeds in an unfulfilling way. I do see Latin America in a new light and a region of colour and life is seen now, at least with this series of photographs, with a boredom and detachment. A missed opportunity.

By Enda Kenneally