Interview by Ashlyn Davis Burns
AD: Cristina, you’ve been working on this project for two years; though in a sense, you’re challenging decades-worth, if not centuries-worth of cultural viewpoints. What led you to this project, and why do you feel this exploration of transcultural relationships is important for viewers to pay attention to right now in our current moment?
CV: I understand my practice as a continuous investigation, not exactly as project based. It sparks primarily from my identity as a Colombian woman, which became more overt to me when living abroad. It is also motivated by my fascination for photography, which eventually led me to other mediums as well.
In New York, I started feeling erased. I was stripped off the props and rituals of my everyday life, and very few, if any, of my daily experiences reflected those back in Colombia. Soon, I realized how severely under-represented the Latin American culture has been in the narrative of universal history. Also, I was alarmed by how enthralled Colombians are by selected imported aesthetics, and how little we critically appreciate our own.
I'm interested in the ways one culture translates another, and how inevitably, a dominant culture sanitizes and reduces the other in a subtle (and not so subtle) continuity of vicious power dynamics. On the other side, I explore the ways in which unrepresented cultures surrender into values and norms that are not their own. Voluntarily, they start resembling and imitating other cultures, gradually becoming indistinguishable.
As for the relevance of my work in the present moment, I see a way in which it might contribute to the global conversation. I believe that, with time, many divisions that have separate people from one another have gradually being dismantled. Yet, recently, new divisions are appearing in fearsome ways. In such context, through photographic experimentation, my work offers a view of the Latin American culture, hopefully an intimate and real view, which I believe allows the lines that separate us from one another to appear porous. It is based on the natural impulses of empathy.
One side of my work looks inwards, to our individualities and to the richness of our culture —in the spirit of sharing, of giving. The second part of my work opens up to the world and honors the coincidences of our human experience —in the spirit of learning, of unity.
AD: Why did you choose to work in this straight, documentary aesthetic? How does that influence the nature of your work?
CV: I consider many of my photographs to be rooted in a documentary tradition. I don't like the idea of looking down on the term “documentary”, and I have never felt the need to position my work in some other terrain. An important portion of my pictures refers directly to my own experience and I find myself very attracted to the idea of composing and constructing around it, in order to blur the line between truth and fiction. I believe that the ways in which the term “documentary” has been associated to a narrow relationship with “reality” is not a reason to move away from it, but an imperative to reclaim it in all its complexities.
Specifically, this work is motivated by my interest in photography as a way to push documentary directions and Latin American literary structures into the realm of pictorial depiction. My work borrows narrative conventions from literature, while at the same time questioning the very nature of narration. Constructed photographs and purely documentary still lifes present an experimental counterpoint with the intention of transforming the way the reader generates meaning.
Other work relates to multiple modes of image-making, and doesn’t necessarily take the form of the photograph. I refer here to my weavings, signage, and audio work. They have emerged organically from my photographic work. As such, they are similarly grounded in the documentary practice.
AD: Yes, those literary structures are very palpable in this work for me. At the same time, there are no central characters; everyone’s faces are obscured in some way, creating a narrative that seems to be more about place and cultural experience. How did you arrive at this device, and how do you hope your viewers respond?
CV: You are right. There are no central characters. Many people, experiences, and memories have inspired the work, and it doesn’t respond to a single one in particular. It is more inclined to reflect the fact that our lives and our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories.
I feel the urgency to contribute in some way, to the construction of a new Latin American imagery that overturns stereotypes, reductive translations and traditional conventions.
The work moves throughout time, uncovering the Colombian history and questioning a national identity that has been constructed in front of a backdrop of colonialism and patriarchy. For this reason, perhaps there is one character that I have deliberately elevated: women. I like to imagine a better world.
To answer your questions, I don't remember when was the first time I obscured a face as a depictive device. It appeared originally as my way of presenting an incomplete memory, a search. With time, It became a visual tension between the reader and the human figure. I want the reader to feel that his view of the picture is incomplete, and that in order to fully see, he has to revise the customary narrative thread. I present an idea of a fractured representation that has selectively shown some aspects, but has covered others. A representation where most of the information that speaks to identity is still waiting to be unveiled or redefined. That is what I hope the viewers feel urged to do.
AD: Tell me about the title montañera:
CV: The title Montanera, refers to my own experience as a woman from the mountains. It is related to the fact that I live very far away from them, but I still miss the smell of sugar cane everyday… To the strength of my mom, who ran away from them looking for a better education, but is defined by its tradition… And, to the intelligence of my grandparents who raised 16 sons and daughters under an inclusive family that opposes patriarchy and the absurdity of our catholic unnecessary heritage. I believe it is imperative to reclaim my own identity, as a way to resist the threats of cultural assimilation which feel very violent to me.
Ashlyn Davis Burns is a writer, editor, and curator and the Co-founder of Assembly, a gallery, agency, creative studio, and art advisory focusing on lens-based artists that launched in early 2021. From 2015 - 2020, she worked at Houston Center for Photography as the Executive Director & Curator as well as the chief editor of spot magazine.