Oaxaca: A city of galleries

Frida Khalo with a mohican
Frida Khalo with a mohican

One of the things I really enjoyed about Oaxaca was the number of art galleries and museums that there are close to the centre. I spent quite a time wandering alone (this was when Vicki had started to feel unwell) visiting different places.

I enjoyed a quick nose around Espacio Zapata, which was has a small exhibition space-cum-shop as well as a workshop with cafe. They did a nice line in Frida Khalo-with-a-mohican memorablilia the design being the same one as this graffito on the wall opposite.

One museum I visited, el Centro Fotogrfico Manuel Alvarez Bravo, was dedicated to photography, and had two exhibitions showing. The first was by an American photographer, Mary Ellen Mark, working in black and white. She had visited Oaxaca for a period of twenty years, right up until her death this year, and her photography consisted largely of portraits of poorer people in the region.

At the time I remember being struck by the downtrodden expressions of her subjects and wondered how representative they were. The overall impression I came away with was of a particular viewpoint that showed poor Mexicans as being immobile, helpless and pitiable.

Teotitl?n de Valle
Poster for Nuevas Visiones exhibition

The other exhibition was a stark contrast, one that I’m not convinced was intentional on the gallery’s behalf.

It was called “Nueva Historias” and had been run by Eva Lepiz, a local photographer. The project had worked with some rural, and hence poor, communities in Teotitlan de Valle. It had given courses in photography as well as cameras to young people and the exhibition was of their work, with one to three pieces on display each.

This exhibition was full of colour, had a huge variety of topics and was fascinating. There were photos of events in village life, dances and religious ceremonies, as well as some wonderful portrait photography, most of it bursting with life.

My favourite was of a young girl no more than ten years old. She was outside jumping off a chair, while a young boy of about two or three stood expressionless against the wall behind her.

The photographer – I think it was an older brother – had managed to catch her at the height of her jump, with her arms stretched behind her, legs tucked up to empahsize the height of her jump and a huge smile on her face.

Photograph from the “Nuevos Historias” exhibition

There are signs of poverty around her such as her brothers dirty clothes and a discarded mattress by the side of a building, but the contrast between this and the other exhibition could hardly have been more stark.

I’d like to say that I have some great insight to reveal about this, but I don’t really. I do judge Mark for her portrayal of poor people as being just helpless. Maybe she did this to draw attention to their plight, but I do think this kind of poverty fetishisation is unhelpful.

Having said that, she spent twenty years coming to Oaxaca, obviously gained the trust of her subjects and was spoken of very highly by the people at the gallery. I only spent a week in Oaxaca, as a tourist, so maybe my judgement should be a little reserved.

That girl jumping though, that is just a great photo.

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