Photography in Latin America: An Art of Oblivion Creating an Aesthetic of the Future

AHA Session 5
Conference on Latin American History 1
Thursday, January 6, 2011: 3:00 PM-5:00 PM
Suffolk Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Daniel James, Indiana University
Severed Heads and Body Parts in Mexican Visual Culture
Andrea Noble, Durham University (U.K.)
The Art of Oblivion: Photography, Humanism, and State Violence
Paola Cortés-Rocca, San Francisco State University
Jens Andermann, Birkbeck College, University of London

Session Abstract

Reflecting the geographic and cultural diversity of Latin America, this panel examines photography as a technology of representation that can be used both as an aide-mémoire to prevent certain pasts from slipping into oblivion and to create in the viewer's present an imaginary of their future. In “Visibly Modern: Palestinian Honduran Family Photographs in a Banana Company Town,” Kevin Coleman argues that the family photographs of Palestinian immigrants to Honduras crystallized their efforts to appropriate the international currency of modernity even as they distanced themselves from those dimensions of Honduran nationalism that posited them as the constitutive other. Because of their origins and occupations, together with the communitarian narrowness that they sometimes encountered in Honduras, Arab Christian immigrants often identified more with an imagined community in far-flung capitals, like New York and Paris, than they did with their neighbors in Tegucigalpa. Also concerned with the relationship between images and modernity, in “Memories of the Future: Public Photography in Brazil and Argentina,” Beatriz Jaguaribe explores how imaginaries of the future, the nation, and modernity were constructed during the rules of Getulio Vargas and Juan Perón in the 1930's-50's and how these legacies are re-interpreted as cultural memories in contemporary Brazil and Argentina. Jaguaribe selectively examines how public photography in Vargas' Estado Novo (1937-1945) and the first governments of Perón (1946-1955) envisioned an aesthetics/rhetoric of the future and the nation in order to promote notions of “imagined communities” and desired modernities. Shifting registers from the tame to the macabre, in “Rolling Heads in Mexican Visual Culture,” Andrea Noble explores the visual culture of decapitation associated with the cycle of so-called “narco-violence in Mexico. Designed to sew fear and terror amongst members of rival gangs and the population at large, as a tactic in the psychological warfare the efficacy of beheadings and other forms of bodily mutilation depend on their visual dissemination across a range of media, from the internet, print news and TV. Drawing on theories of visual agency and affect, she raises questions around the ethics and politics of visual display of the severed head. Finally, Paola Cortés-Rocca identifies a practice of “photographic archaeology” that has developed around the visual memorialization of those disappeared by Argentina's military government during the Dirty War of 1976-1983. She argues that the tension between a humanist discourse, which represents the desaparecido as what Arendt calls the “abstract nudity of the human being” and shows him/her as the face of the absolute and inexplicable victim, and a kind of collective inscription that is at the very heart of these images and which seeks to reconstruct the political, historical, cultural and ideological identity of those who were targets of the government's terror. The chair, Daniel James, and commentator, Jens Andermann, are each respected scholars of Latin American visual culture. This panel will appeal to Latin Americanists and cultural historians interested in questions of vision and visuality, photography and graphic representation.

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