Latin American Photography and the Legacy of 1968

10 Sep 2018, 10:41 am

by Rodrigo Orrantia


It is a well-known fact between followers of the history of photography that this artistic language was not properly recognised as art in many Latin American countries until the 1980s. Four years ago, a major retrospective exhibition of Latin American photography opened at the Fondation Cartier Pour L’Art Contemporain in Paris, to explore photography in the continent as far back as 1960. The show’s title “América Latina 1960-2013. Photographies” [Latin America 1960-2013. Photographies] brought under the spotlight artists and works of great relevance for each country, showing them under the same roof for the first time. It introduced a generation that has become of topical interest for art historians and curators, as it provided an enlightening window into Latin America, looking at the marginalised, the suppressed, the censored, and the disappeared ones.

The exhibition sent a message to the global art world: photography produced in Latin America during the last half of the 20th century is not only valuable, but essential to piece together the seemingly unconnected national histories across the continent. The common strands between works and artists from all over Latin America opened my eyes to a larger and more complex story, one that I have been working to untangle and explore ever since.

The opening night of “América Latina 1960-2013. Photographies” was a true landmark, reuniting artists that hadn’t met for more than twenty years, but also bringing in some of the most important minds thinking and writing about art and photography in the continent. The short essay written by Luis Camnitzer titled “Imagination Redirected: Photography and Text in Latin America 1960-2013″ set my bearings for the research I was to undertake in the years to come. Thinking about the political and social history of the continent during the 20th century, Camnitzer explains: “It is not a coincidence that there was a wave of progressive thought and activity in the 1960s and 1970s, as empowerment and liberation became themes in many cultural arenas.” He highlights the emergence of revolutionary theories and movements for free education, university autonomy, and, more importantly, how the idea of resistance took over the continent.

As an art historian and curator, these two decades became an interest for me not only for academic reasons but also due to a sense of personal connection. Artists working during this period would be around the same age of my parents, so I can clearly recognize their influence on a whole generation – my generation – and how we will take their legacy forward. The research seems to have taken even more urgency over the past few years, as many of the key artists of the late generation have recently died – luminaries like Felipe Ehrenberg (1943-2017) and Graciela Sacco (1956-2017) –, making it more important than ever to highlight their contemporary vision and work.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the summer of 1968. What started as a series of student demonstrations in France became a global cultural movement that defined an entire generation. Artists born in the decade of 1940 would have been in their twenties during this period of uprisings, and the impact of these years is evident on much of their subsequent work. Mind-mapping artists and works from over twenty countries in Latin America only reaffirms this view and opens an exciting route for research.

I have recently worked with Argentinian artist Marcelo Brodsky, researching and writing about his projects “Buena memoria” [Good Memory] and “Tiempo de arbol” [Tree Time], both made in response to the dictatorship regime in Argentina at the end of the 1970s. I met Brodsky for the installation and opening of his most recent project “1968: El fuego de las ideas” [1968: The Fire of Ideas] in Paris, before it began a yearlong tour across the world. This is an ambitious project to remember and celebrate the spirit of that restless summer, in the style that has become his trademark. He has spent years researching public and private archives, newspapers, libraries, and even online auctions, in search for original images of some of the most important demonstrations across the world triggered by the legendary uprising in Paris and across France.

I asked Brodsky to tell me more about the images he found of Brazil and the intention to portray the spirit of 1968. The two photos from the country comprised in the series were shot in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and were exhibited in a show entitled Hiatus at the Memorial da Resistência in São Paulo, curated by the renowned academic Márcio Seligmann. The image from Rio is taken from the archive of Jornal do Brasil, and its caption reads “Theater artists in the strike against censorship in 1968, Guanabara Bay, R.J. The dictatorship censures the works considered ‘political’.” Working with colour pencils on reprints of the original images, Marcelo highlights fragments to allow the viewer to read the work as both an impartial archive but also a layered image, loaded with clues, references, and hidden stories. The image from São Paulo is similar, referencing the “Battle of Maria Antonia” a confrontation on October, 1968, between students of University of São Paulo and Mackenzie Presbyterian University, respectively against and in favour of the military dictatorship.

Over the last year I have seen more exhibitions and general interest regarding artists of this generation than in the last ten, with shows across Europe of big names, such as Paz Errázuriz (b.1944) from Chile, Graciela Sacco (1956-2017) from Argentina, Oscar Muñoz (b.1951) from Colombia, and Rosângela Rennó (b.1962) from Brazil, to name a few. This interest has also allowed me to add new names to my radar, with artists like Mario Fonseca (b.1948) and Mauricio Valenzuela (b.1951) from Chile, and Adriana Lestido (b.1955) from Argentina.

In May 2018, the Barbican Art Gallery in London recently opened an exhibition titled Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins, presenting Paz Errázuriz’s “Adam’s Apple” (1982-87) alongside works from trailblazers like Mary Ellen Mark, Daido Moriyama, and Larry Clark. This is an exciting development, as it gives artists and work coming out of Latin America – specifically over the last decades of the 20th century – not only global relevance, but also the recognition it deserves, at the same level of better known contemporaries across the world.

I am currently working with a new wave of artists, strongly influenced by the aforementioned generation. It is crucial to establish links and relay their original vision and experience of Latin America. One of these latest projects was Lucía Pizzani’s “Broader Implications” for Photofusion, in London. Her work Inventario personal [Personal Inventory] references the current crisis in her home country of Venezuela, through the scarcity of basic sanitary products and medicine in shops and hospitals. For the exhibition, Pizzani’s installation was placed opposite to a selection of images from photojournalists working in the front line of this ongoing conflict.

Just like poet Nicanor Parra used newspaper headlines for his work, Pizzani also references the press for her project. I asked her about the title of the show, to which she commented: “I borrowed Broader Implications from a newspaper headline about Venezuela, I wanted to look at the media as a way to express the ideas behind the exhibition, to see how this crisis was presented to the world. This is my response to the Venezuelan crisis.”

The legacy of 1968 can also be seen in art and photography as a vehicle for resistance, and artists taking political stands through work that is impactful and intelligent. Pizzani’s exhibition is only one example, but it is clear for me that a new generation in Latin America is building on the spirit shared by the youth of 1968, learning from the experience of artists before them who managed to survive some of the continent’s most violent years. Fifty years on, art and photography still play a key role in confronting social injustice and oppression.


This piece was first published at the second edition of SP-Arte Magazine, in August, 2018.

Rodrigo Orrantia is a Colombian curator and historian

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