Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Foto Museo Cuatro Caminos – of race, class and fashion

The weekend before this one was quite the experience. We went to the Foto Museo Cuatro Caminos, a super cool photography museum in a rather less-than-appealing part of the city (in fact, one of the reasons for the museum's strange location was that the owners wanted to bring some interesting life right there).

The exhibition we were after? Roger Ballen's "Introspection". Roger Ballen is a New Yorker who's spent the last three decades in South Africa. The photography he's done there really does take you to another world, a place where different rules operate, with a Witkin-esque touch. It's one of those exhibitions where you really lose yourself – your mind is completely hijacked by the photographer, cast into a world of asylums, of dreams, of borderlands.

That's an exhibition you should most definitely not miss if you're in Mexico City. And if you want a taste of the aesthetics of Roger Ballen, but with movement, have a look at the I Fink U Freeky video by the South-African group Die Antwoord. The video was directed by Ballen. It's another must, whether you enjoy the music or not.

But there was another exhibition there, in impossibly stark contrast to Ballen's. An exhibition called "Pose" about contemporary Mexican fashion photography. Nothing could be more opposite to Ballen's work – colour, abundant colour, style, and what the industry considers beautiful people. And that's what I found most annoying. This was Mexican fashion photography. Photography made by Mexicans, in Mexico, for Mexican consumption. I'll let you have a look at the photos before I rant.

So, what you saw was mostly white models, with a few token black and Asian ones thrown in for – I guess? – exoticism. Or am I wrong?

We spent a few hours at this exhibition space. We saw lots of people. Quite a few seemed good-looking to subjective us. And many of those had brown skin and at least some indigenous features. You would guess that somewhere in a city of 20 million people there should be brown people with fashion-photography worthy (whatever that may mean) features – the kind of unusual, striking, eye-catching features photographers travel great distances to remote places to find and bring to the catwalk. 

But no. The mantra "white is beautiful" reigns supreme. Although we can't wholly blame the poor photographers for excluding in a systematic way some 70-80% of Mexicans who cannot see any representations of themselves in fashion. A friend of ours was there with us. He's an architect. And he told us how, whenever a Mexican-looking person makes it to the rendering of a project, his boss asks the person to be removed or changed for a white one, lest people think it's a thug or a thief. Seriously. 

So I can easily imagine a fashion photographer – who actually needs to make a living – opting for white models in order to sell her or his work, or to avoid someone higher up in the food chain dismissing their work altogether.

Still, racist in the extreme. Quite the clash of feelings between those two exhibitions.

We left to take the subway back home. The walk from the museum to the subway station (Cuatro Caminos) was another interesting reminder of the blatant and in-your-face class differences in this huge city, with ramshackle buildings next to modern glass complexes selling, what else? Fashion.

A fascinating day. And lots of food for thought.

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