Wit­ness for the per­se­cu­tion: Art & Op­pres­sion

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the Pre­sidio Modelo, a for­mer Cuban prison that stands as a tes­ta­ment to hu­man op­pres­sion, fol­lowed the blue­print of a late-18th-cen­tury ar­chi­tec­tural de­sign — the panop­ti­con. The cir­cu­lar, Coli­seum-like model al­lowed for pris­on­ers to be ob­served from a cen­tral lo­ca­tion with­out know­ing if and when they were be­ing watched, thereby elic­it­ing their obe­di­ence. This par­tic­u­lar panop­ti­con prison, built in the 1920s un­der Cuban pres­i­dent-turned-dic­ta­tor Ger­ardo Machado, was de­signed so that in­mates’ views of one an­other were blocked, in­creas­ing their sense of iso­la­tion. The struc­ture was pho­tographed by Carl Moore, whose stark images of the ex­te­rior and in­te­rior are in­cluded in Cen­ter’s Pho­toSum­mer ex­hi­bi­tion, Art & Op­pres­sion, on view at the Mar­ion Cen­ter for Pho­to­graphic Arts, at Santa Fe Univer­sity of Art and De­sign. The Pre­sidio looks small enough to cir­cum­am­bu­late in un­der 10 min­utes, but it was built to house up to 2,500 in­mates, a num­ber that, ac­cord­ing to Moore’s state­ment, swelled to a stag­ger­ing 6,000 be­fore it was shut down in 1967 af­ter a se­ries of hunger strikes and ri­ots. “I’ve al­ways be­lieved ev­ery­body should go to a prison at least for one day in their life,” said ex­hibit co-cu­ra­tor and doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­pher Tony O’Brien, chair of the Mar­ion Cen­ter.

The group ex­hi­bi­tion is a ju­ried se­lec­tion of images that ranges from ex­plic­itly po­lit­i­cal to more in­ti­mate, per­sonal pro­jects and touches on top­ics such as prison tourism, ura­nium mining and the en­vi­ron­ment, sur­veil­lance, the sup­pres­sion of women and mi­nori­ties, vic­tims of civil wars, and refugee crises. In ad­di­tion to Moore, pho­tog­ra­phers in­clude Fran­cis Baker, Jane Sz­abo, Jerry Taki­gawa, Joan Fitzsim­mons, Kelly Eckel, Kerry Skar­bakka, Lynne Buchanan, Manuel and Os­car Gil, Mar­i­lyn Maxwell, Me­gan Ja­cobs, Patti Levey, Pi­lar Law, Tama Bald­win, and Wes Bell.

Neigh­bor­hood Watch, a se­ries of framed self­por­traits by Kerry Skar­bakka, opens the ex­hi­bi­tion. The images show the artist as a boy, as a young man, and fi­nally in mid­dle age, de­pict­ing a per­sona or char­ac­ter that is more an in­ven­tion of the artist than a tra­di­tional self-por­trait. As a boy, he’s full of bright op­ti­mism, with a big smile. As a young sol­dier, he has the face of a stern youth out to prove him­self, and in the penul­ti­mate photo, his un­kempt ap­pear­ance and full beard ac­com­pany a face hard­ened by dis­il­lu­sion­ment. The im­age looks like a mug shot. “This is a new project, so it’s still some­what of a work in progress,” said co-cu­ra­tor Me­lanie McWhorter, pro­grams and out­reach man­ager at Cen­ter. “It’s still a con­cept piece, so he’s still test­ing out a lot of these ideas. There’s these threads of male ac­tions, and they toy with the com­plex­ity of mas­culin­ity, too, in some ways.” The pho­to­graphs show a pro­gres­sion in­tended to re­flect a com­mon ex­pe­ri­ence of white male dis­en­fran­chise­ment, which leads the se­ries’ pro­tag­o­nist on a road from open to closed emo­tion. In the se­ries’ fi­nal im­age, the bar­rel of a gun, pointed di­rectly at the viewer, ren­ders the artist’s face fea­ture­less. It’s among the first things you see when en­ter­ing the space. “Ev­ery­where you go, it’s point­ing right at you,” O’Brien said. “It’s so strange.”

For her still lifes, Jane Sz­abo takes ob­jects from her fam­ily home and ar­ranges them as tableaux that re­flect her re­la­tion­ship with her el­derly par­ents, who re­cently moved to an as­sisted-liv­ing fa­cil­ity. She made the se­ries, Fam­ily Mat­ters , in re­sponse to her role as a daugh­ter and care­giver, an in­stance where obli­ga­tions can take the form of op­pres­sion. One stark un­adorned im­age from the se­ries is a shot of a pin­cush­ion, while an­other shows a di­ary un­der a pile of rocks. The ob­jects ap­pear iso­lated, sur­rounded by non­de­script black back­grounds, and the works stir up thoughts about home, dis­place­ment, and mem­ory.

Sim­i­lar themes arise in Bal­anc­ing Cul­tures, a se­ries of images of pho­tog­ra­pher Jerry Taki­gawa’s rel­a­tives, Ja­panese Amer­i­cans who were sent to an in­tern­ment camp dur­ing World War II. Taki­gawa ex­plores the cul­ture of fear that led to their de­tain­ment as well as the si­lence and shame that af­fected them when rein­te­grat­ing into so­ci­ety af­ter the war.

Art and op­pres­sion is a com­pelling topic for pho­tog­ra­phy, a medium that of­ten serves as a silent part­ner in surveilling oth­ers. Joan Fitzsim­mons’ se­ries Sur­veil­lance: War­saw is a voyeuris­tic body of work, which the artist shot through the peep­hole of an apart­ment where she was liv­ing in Poland. She doc­u­ments the com­ings and go­ings of neigh­bors through the hole. Each im­age is a small cir­cle sur­rounded by dark­ness, show­ing the hall outside. The sub­jects, dis­torted by the cur­va­ture of the door lens, feel re­moved from the viewer. The can­did images, shot in an old build­ing, evoke the Cold War era of op­pres­sion. The theme of sur­veil­lance is also dealt with in one of Kelly Eckel’s mixed-me­dia Scratched Sur­face pho­to­graphs: a sur­real, night­mar­ish im­age of a mul­ti­tude of eyes in a dis­em­bod­ied head.

Wes Bell’s black-and-white prints deal with op­pres­sion and the en­vi­ron­ment — trees that are fas­tened with ca­bles and chains to keep them from en­croach­ing on landown­ers’ prop­erty. In some of the shots, the trees are wrapped so tightly that time has caused the wood and bark to grow around the chains, which squeeze the trunks like hour­glasses.

Ashok Sinha’s se­ries Por­traits of Si­lence re­minds us of the hu­man cost of op­pres­sion in the most poignant and vis­ceral way. His sub­jects, vic­tims of Sri Lanka’s civil war, of­fer hope nev­er­the­less, be­cause of their re­silience. They in­clude a bud­ding young sci­en­tist who lost an arm and a leg in the war and chil­dren whose school­rooms now lie in ru­ins. Nearby, a se­ries of pho­tos by Pi­lar Law — of a ra­zor-wire fence and a puffy cloud in the sky be­yond — leads the viewer on a journey from im­pris­on­ment to free­dom, or per­haps a dream of re­lease. In the last shot, the ra­zor wire has dis­ap­peared and the blue sky re­mains, a sharp con­trast to the bar­rel of Skar­bakka’s gun.

Images in Art & Op­pres­sion touch on top­ics such as prison tourism, ura­nium mining and the en­vi­ron­ment, sur­veil­lance, the sup­pres­sion of women and mi­nori­ties, vic­tims of civil wars, and refugee crises.


Art & Op­pres­sion, group ex­hibit; through Sept. 15 Mar­ion Cen­ter for Pho­to­graphic Arts, Santa Fe Univer­sity of Art and De­sign, 1600 St. Michael’s Drive, 505-473-6341 No charge

Ashok Sinha’s 2013 archival inkjet print of a young man named Thayud­san, who lost his fa­ther — as well as his right leg and arm — dur­ing Sri Lanka’s civil war. He wants to be an en­gi­neer when he grows up.

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