Click, click, cliché?

Photographs from somewhere in Latin America
Reviewed by A.S.H. Smyth

The Brazilian embassy is currently sponsoring two photographic exhibitions in Colombo: Orlando Azevedo’s Brazil – Eye to Eye at Barefoot, and Vilma Slomp’s Merry Christmas at the Wendt.

It was Azevedo’s opening night, and so inevitably there were notably more photographs being taken of people than there were people taking note of photographs. But through the glare of the flash and the forest of wine glasses one could occasionally make out peasant farmers farming, naked kids running-and-jumping, fat ladies swimming. A gaucho with dogs. A mid-level politico surveying a military band from a first-floor window. Folks walking in rain so heavy you could see inch-long silver rakes across the exposure. Women working with flax – or was it horsehair? Since the photos had no captions, I couldn’t tell.

The problem with these photos was not the quality – technically excellent, gallery-work as neat and unobtrusive as ever – but the content. Or, to a point, the lack of it.

Dirty-faced urchins, black guys with milky cataracts, dark rooms with vague Catholic iconography, truckers with tattoos, a man in a lake holding a baby aloft, an old woman with a face wrinklier than an elephant’s elbow. National Geographic clichés, every one of ‘em – and only compounded by being in black-and-white and on heavy, grainy paper (shooting in b&w is a choice; the fuzz of the cartridge paper a self-conscious pseudo-historical effect, insufficiently dissimilar to digital pixelation in its end result). Perhaps I’m being unfair – perhaps, as with films and books, there really are only so many variations on any given theme – but I had seen almost all of these images before. If someone had invited you to ‘an exhibition of Brazilian photography’, this is exactly what you’d have expected. The only thing missing was the futebol.

Three pictures stood out. An upside-down kid (mid-somersault, presumably), who appeared to be hanging by his feet from the edge of a lake; a bug-eyed old codger in Coke-bottle specs, the image so clear you could count the pores on his nose; and a four-foot-square photo of a laughing gent who looked a bit like Arthur C Clarke (but wasn’t?). Plus, of course, the old lady/mummified baboon, confronting whose moonscaped visage my deep-and-meaningful choked on her strawberry milkshake. (It is only fair to say that she was promptly replaced by two leggy blondes – Brazilian cultural attachés? – who launched into the full ‘ohmygodit’ssoamazing!’ routine.)

These four were portraits, note. But Eye to Eye wasn’t all face-to-face. In fact, it looked like Azevedo originally had a collection of 10 excellent portraits, and then bulked out the exhibition with other stuff. This was a mistake. Portraits can always tell some kind of story (though I maintain that simple captions – ‘Baptism’; ‘Factory Clinic’; ‘Master Yoda’s Granny’ – put a lot of flesh on the bones), but these other, more-general photos, told us next to nothing about Brazil, or even about the individuals depicted. A trio of photographs of men squashed together in a crowd, for example. A football match? A festival? A funeral? An orgy?

Not every photo is worth a thousand words, it is true; but most deserve at least ten. No-one could accuse Vilma Slomp’s work of being clichéd: looking at Santa’s disembodied head drifting in an opened window, my first thought was that at least it wasn’t a generic third-worlder staring toothlessly out.
But then, no-one would accuse Merry Christmas of being all that exciting, either. (Or even particularly timely, come to that.)

The exhibition consists of 30-40 close-ups of Christmas decorations, pinned to front doors or hung in windows. The format of each photo is identical (where Azevedo has too little uniformity, Slomp has too much), and there are, again, no tags, so the trinkets and baubles take on an odd Chatwin-esque attitude, wilfully abstract, shorn of even the most basic context, let alone ‘story’.

Which country were we even in? If it was the Mid-West, then a Santa doll peeping from a window is less interesting than in the Mid-East (as folks in the Mid-West like to call it). Perhaps I should have guessed – see Chatwin – that this was provincial South America; but you’re only told this half-way round. Apparently Merry Christmas is an essay on old-world immigrant traditions in Brazil.

Well, now I wanted the story. But I couldn’t have it. All the woodwork was cracked, all the paint faded. Everything was sad, or seemed like it was supposed to be (a felt-and-doily chorister hovered between two badly-puttied glazing-bars, his head Sellotaped to the pane). A background of tough, Latino, dusty-poetic lives was obviously implied. But since everything was glimpsed from the outside – a closed front door, a curtained window – that was about the extent of it.

A sparse arrangement of branch, tinsel, and pine-cone had left semi-circular scratches on someone’s front door – or was it spinning (but why would it be)? A series of made-in-Taiwan shooting stars (even wise men from the East couldn’t have followed a shooting star, surely?!) was aesthetically laid out, but not so aesthetically as to make any actual point. A hand-coloured Santa (actually one of Snow White’s dwarfs, courtesy Disney Corp.), seemed to bear evidence of annual re-use. Well, if the kid left home years ago, or died, that’s a poignant detail; if not, it’s just bad primary-school art. Which is it?

Slomp tries to paper over this fundamental crack with a couple of borrowed essays. One, by a pretentious art-critic [excuse the tautology], quoted Borges, Barthes and Bwilliam Bfaulkner and told me, in its tortuous fashion, that photography captures life. The other, by a journalist, was very interesting on the topic of immigrant Christmas traditions in Brazil – i.e. all the information that one could not find in the photos themselves. This is flat-out cheating.

If, indeed, Merry Christmas is illustrative of the festive season in a Brazilian provincial town, it would have made a fitting inclusion in a Christmas colour supplement, or a photo-essay in a journal. With suitable text, it could even hold its own as a chapter in a coffee-table monograph. In a gallery, though, and unsupported, it struggles.

Brazil – Eye to Eye runs until February 2; Merry Christmas runs until March 1.

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