Landscapes of the New World
by Santiago Muñoz Arbeláez
Cristina Velásquez’s photography plays with nature, technology, and the body as a way of addressing deeper questions about labor and identity in Latin America. Velasquez’s compositions build on and react to visual tropes that emerged from centuries of colonial imagery. From the sixteenth century, representations of Latin America have been saturated with images of nakedness and an imposing tropical nature. These tropes have embedded in nature and the territory itself stereotypes of its inhabitants as backward, almost a-historical beings. Velásquez inverts these tropes to create a vivid depiction of Latin American identities. Nudity is not a sign of precariousness, but rather of intimacy, connection, vulnerability, beauty, and, ultimately, humanity. Bananas and plantains—symbols loaded with associations to backwardness and imperialism from the "banana republics” to Carmen Miranda—appear in Velásquez’s work as extensions of the human body. In some images banana leafs cover human heads, in others the fruits themselves appear as extensions of hands and toes (“Leaf hats”). Her photographs capture the landscapes of an agrarian society in which the rhythms and dynamics of social life are framed by the production of commodities, as coffee or bananas, in demanding––sometimes excruciating––working conditions. Humans create the conditions for the production of these fruits, but these fruits also define the activities of people. Velásquez’s work speaks to these relations of mutual dependence, moving away from the usual victimizing narratives. These landscapes of labor and asymmetric power relations are not inhabited by passive victims. On the contrary, these are landscapes that people have transformed into homes and shelters (“Angélica”).
Human bodies are, themselves, featured prominently in Velásquez’s work. These are hybrid bodies, organically combined with nature, synthetic materials, and tools. In her photography, nature is not an obstacle to be tamed and technology is not a medium for domestication. Both appear as extensions of the body and they are as natural as they are social. They represent, replace, complement, and mimic each other. The body––full with marks and traces of lived experiences––is inseparable from synthetic and organic elements. In “los huevos en mi casa los puso mi mamá”, a deeply personal image, the green synthetic fabric mimics nature, the red glove replaces the hand, and the eggs play as a metaphor of the economic responsibility over the household, possibly even evoking an absent male body. In this composition, as in “De nosotros para el mundo”, the artist creates a playful dialog between the photographic studio, the portrait, and other art mediums through her use of synthetic backgrounds, and the attention to the human figure. These compositions are framed as portraits, yet displacing the studio to everyday rural settings, frequently replacing faces by isolated limbs in stylized, almost sculptural arrangements in front of multicolored or textured materials. Sometimes people are barely visible, standing behind the curtain, only leaving exposed small fragments that peak the observer’s curiosity.
Like in studio photography, one can almost see the artist at play in Velásquez’s compositions. They invite the observer to reflect about the interaction between the artist and those photographed drawing connections to performance and inviting to think about the complex dynamics of identity. Her compositions hint to a co-constructed scene, one built through a complicity between the artist and those photographed to create a single image. Velásquez composes a scene, but the people photographed also tell their own stories through the pictures. Through this dialogue between the artist and the seater, the compositions reveal a deeper inquiry into the complexities of Latin American identity. As a Colombian artist trained in the United States whose work is viewed in both places, Velásquez works in a context in which representations of Latin American identity are fraught with power. Her work engages the politics of depiction, displaying, and viewing by complicating the relationships between who is being described, who depicts, and who looks. The seater is a composer and the composer is, in a way, a seater. Both are creators and performers, composing and being represented in these portraits of identity. For this reason, Velásquez’s representations of Latin America are not ones to be easily consumed and classified. Latin America, its peoples and geographies, are not readily at the service of the viewer. They are slippery, furtive, human, and resilient.
Through the interplay of nature, technology, and the body and through her engagement with the photographic studio, portraiture, and performance, Velásquez creates an image of Latin American identity that complicates dichotomic views of the continent framed in terms of tradition vs. modernity, or between a pristine indigenous culture and a foreign European elite. Instead, she reveals a popular culture marked by modern elements, such as a Sony radio or industrial fabrics, that are part of global economic networks but are woven into local cultures. Far from the ahistorical beings depicted in colonial imagery, Velásquez creates a picture closer to what Nestor García Canclini has termed hybrid cultures, which oscillate between tradition and modernity, creating a rich world of contrasts and uneasy combinations. It is precisely this non-essentialized and complicated view of Latin American identities that comes alive in Cristina Velásquez’s work.
Santiago Muñoz Arbeláez
Santiago Muñoz Arbeláez is an Assistant Professor of History at Universidad de los Andes (Bogotá) and a founding member of Neogranadina (www.neogranadina.org/en). He received a Ph.D. in History from Yale University in 2018. His work focuses on Indians and empires in the early modern Atlantic world and is informed by scholarship on comparative borderlands, agrarian history, material culture, and the history of books, prints, and maps. His most recent publication is Costumbres en disputa. Los muiscas y el imperio español en Ubaque, siglo XVI (Bogotá: Ediciones Uniandes, 2015), which received honorable mention in Colombia’s National History Award.
August 28, 2019
Contact Sheet 207: Light Work Annual 2020
Paperback: 128 pages
Publisher: Light Work (July 2020)