Photography in Argentina, 1850-2010: Contradiction and Continuity
From its independence in 1810 until the economic crisis of 2001, Argentina was seen as a modern country with a powerful economic system, a strong middle class, a large European-immigrant population, and an almost nonexistent indigenous culture. The idea of Argentina as a homogenous society differs greatly from the way other Latin American countries are perceived, and underlines the difference between Argentina’s colonial and postcolonial processes and those of its neighbors.
Contradiction and Continuity examines the complexities of Argentina’s history over 160 years, stressing the creation of contradictory narratives and the role of photography in constructing them. The exhibition concentrates on photographs that are fabricated rather than found, such as narrative tableaux and performances staged for the camera. However, it also includes examples of what has been considered documentary photography but can be interpreted as imagery intended as political propaganda or expressions of personal ideology.
The exhibition comprises seven sections: Civilization and Barbarism; National Myths: The Indigenous People; National Myths: The Gaucho; National Myths: Evita and the Modern City; The Aesthetic Gesture; The Political Gesture; and Fissures. These themes were chosen to emphasize crucial historical moments and aesthetic movements in Argentina in which photography played a critical role.
CIVILIZATION AND BARBARISM
In 1845 Domingo Sarmiento (1811–1888), a prominent Argentine intellectual, published the novel Facundo, subtitled Civilization and Barbarism. Sarmiento, who would later be elected president, presented his political ideas in terms of an opposition between civilization, represented by the capital city of Buenos Aires and European culture, and barbarism, represented by colonial customs, the gauchos, and the indigenous peoples. This section of the exhibition employs these antagonistic themes to introduce some of the complexities of Argentina’s history and culture. Nineteenth-century albums show the growth and advancement of the country through views of Buenos Aires and images that refer to progressive strategies initiated during this period, including railroad construction and the development of the educational system. In contrast, the work of several contemporary artists embodies the lifestyle and popular culture of the vast interior provinces of Argentina.
Like Sarmiento, Juan Bautista Alberdi (1810–1884), another influential intellectual, viewed immigration as a definitive measure for modernizing the country. In Bases, published in 1853, he addressed the necessity of implementing policies to encourage immigration. The studio photographs in this section depict the growing presence of immigrant communities. Immigration is a key component to understanding Argentine society that continues to inspire contemporary artists.
NATIONAL MYTHS: THE GAUCHO
The National Myths section of the exhibition focuses on the construction of specific state symbols, including indigenous people, the gaucho, First Lady Eva Perón, and the city of Buenos Aires. Around 1880, coinciding with increasing waves of immigration and efforts at modernization, an avid debate on national identity arose among Argentine intellectuals and politicians.
By 1910, when the Centennial of Independence was celebrated, the gaucho emerged as an emblematic figure in the national iconography. The gaucho was already a common theme in Costumbrista (customs and character types) paintings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Criollismo (native culture), a movement of the late nineteenth century, stimulated a wider interest in gaucho-themed art, fiction, theater, and photographs.
José Hernández’s epic narrative poem Martín Fierro (1872) and Eduardo Gutiérrez’s novel Juan Moreira (1879) were major influences. About 1890, amateur photographer Francisco Ayerza staged a series of romanticized photographs meant to illustrate a later edition of Fierro. Commercial studios accommodated women and children who wanted to be pictured as gauchos. More than a national symbol, the gaucho embodied the idealized masculinity of the virile Argentine man; the contemporary fashion photographs of Gustavo Di Mario present a queer interpretation of the gauchesque.
NATIONAL MYTHS: THE INDIGENOUS PEOPLE
While the gaucho became a national myth, “official” images rarely addressed the existence of indigenous peoples. The practice of recording their presence in photography, however, was well established by the late nineteenth century. It began in the portrait studios of Buenos Aires when native caciques (chiefs) visited the capital for peaceful negotiations, or when they were brought in as prisoners and made to pose in traditional garb. Later, photographers would travel by train or wagon to Native American settlements or plantations where indigenous people worked.
These staged compositions, as in the rest of Latin America, portrayed indigenous people as exotic and passive, objectifying them and emphasizing their “otherness.” Sitters were always isolated from signs of the “civilized” or “Christian” world. The iconography found in these nineteenth- and early twentieth century photographs corresponds to a nostalgic image of a backward and subjugated group ignored by progress. Modernist and contemporary artists, such as Grete Stern and Guadalupe Miles, presented a different and more accurate view of these people. Both Stern and Miles immersed themselves in indigenous communities, portraying their subjects as individuals rather than stereotypes.
NATIONAL MYTHS: EVITA AND THE MODERN CITY
Photography contributed substantially to the construction of the myths of Buenos Aires as the “Modern City” and Evita as the symbol of Peronism. From the 1930s into the 1950s, the capital, like other advanced cosmopolitan metropolises, continued to expand. Some of the emblematic streets and monuments of the city, such as the Obelisk (1936), Avenida 9 de Julio (begun 1935), and Avenida Corrientes (1936), were built or renovated during this period. Buenos Aires became a model of progress for photographers like Horacio Coppola and Sameer Makarius, who produced series reinforcing this view.
Photography was among the propagandistic strategies deployed by the populist Perón administration (1946–55). Eva Duarte de Perón (1919–1952), known as Evita, had an important role during the first presidency of her husband, Juan Perón (1895–1974), and became the most enduring image of Peronist ideology. Numerous photographers contributed to building an image of Evita as both an elegant celebrity and a compassionate politician. While Juan Di Sandro, considered the father of photojournalism in Argentina, made her political life accessible through views of official events, Annemarie Heinrich helped create her “new” femininity in glamorous studio portraits. Jaime Davidovich's installation Evita, Then and Now: A Video Scrapbook (1984) and Santiago Porter’s Evita (2008) offer contrasting—critical as well as multidimensional—views of this complex figure.
THE POLITICAL GESTURE
The gesture of “pointing out” had its origin in conceptual Argentine photography of the 1960s and 1970s. The artistic act evolved into radical actions as the sociopolitical situation in Argentina deteriorated. This section of the exhibition investigates photographs of political gestures provoked by the last dictatorship of 1976–83, in relation to the earlier conceptual practice presented in the adjacent gallery, “The Aesthetic Gesture.”
The action of showing a photograph of a person who was kidnapped or “disappeared” during the dictatorship was employed by the activist group Madres de Plaza de Mayo. In their weekly marches, the Mothers always wore white head scarves and carried photographs of their children on homemade signs demanding they “Return Alive.” With the arrival of democracy and Nunca Más (Never Again), the official 1984 report of crimes against humanity, trials of the military leaders began. However, over the next fifteen years, many of those who were culpable operated with impunity due to such regulations as the Full Stop Law (1986), the Law of Due Obedience (1987), and the Pardons Act (1990). During this time, activist artist groups, such as Grupo Etcétera… and Escombros, emerged to remind the public of crimes and atrocities, pointing out those assassins who had hoped to remain anonymous.
THE AESTHETIC GESTURE
During the 1960s and 1970s, the art scene in Argentina fostered a radical break with traditional forms of art. The opening of new spaces dedicated to experimental art, most notably the Instituto Torcuato di Tella and CAyC (Centro de Arte y Comunicación), gave rise to conceptual art and the engagement of intellectual artists, who began to generate works in unconventional forms, including performances, actions, and installations.
Among these innovations was the “aesthetic gesture,” in which artists used actions and performances to “point out” or signal everyday life events, objects, and people, thus transforming them into works of art. Documented primarily with photographs, these pieces sought to invoke viewers as active participants in artistic actions, erasing the divisions between art and life. In his 1962 Vivo-Dito manifesto, for example, Alberto Greco advocated for “a living art”; and in his Signaling series of 1968, Edgardo Antonio Vigo “pointed out” common objects and events with the intention of producing aesthetic experiences. The difficult political climate of repression in the early 1970s, which culminated in the dictatorship period, provoked artists to undertake increasingly political productions.
The democracy restored to Argentina in 1983 followed a neoliberal model, one that favored free-market capitalism. The implementation of neoliberalism, during the presidency of Carlos Menem (1989–99), together with the catastrophic economic collapse of 2001, provoked the questioning of long-held national ideals. The works in this section utilize architecture to highlight aspects of national history in relation to current sociopolitical issues. Santiago Porter’s photographs reflect the prosperity of the past in contrast to the present fiscal situation. Similarly, Nuna Mangiante’s graphite-altered pictures revolve around the 2001 crisis and, specifically, the corralito (when citizens were not allowed to withdraw their money from banks).
The works in this section stress inequality and its consequences in contemporary Argentina. SUB, Photographic Cooperative’s series A puertas cerradas (Behind Closed Gates) documents the comfortable life of a wealthy family in a gated neighborhood outside Buenos Aires, while Gian Paolo Minelli’s photographs focus on people living in Barrio Piedrabuena, an impoverished neighborhood in the capital city. Ananké Asseff’s portraits of middle-class citizens with their guns attest to rising fear and paranoia in contemporary Argentine society.