From September 30, 2021, to January 16, 2022, visitors will be able to enjoy the exhibition Paolo Gasparini, Campo de imágenes [Field of Images] at the KBr Fundación MAPFRE Photography Center (Barcelona). This photographer is the Italian artist who has best portrayed the tensions and cultural contradictions in South America. His images convey the harsh social reality that has confronted a region whose cultural authenticity is unquestionable and where past and local tradition dialogue with a clumsily imposed modernity. Gasparini’s work has a visual language of its own that always seems to criticize consumer society, while revealing a certain obsession with the way that marketing and advertising seduce us.
TEXT: FUNDACIÓN MAPFRE CULTURE AREA IMAGES: © PAOLO GASPARINI
His works allow us to understand not only the differences between Europe and Latin America, but also the diversities of the latter, from Mexico to south of the Andes. As the curator of the exhibition, Maria Wills, points out: “Gasparini’s photographs reflect on the effects of decades of political migrations in the 20th and 21st centuries: Europeans to America, as a result of World War II, Cubans to Spain and the United States, Ecuadorians to Spain and, more recently, the mass exodus of Venezuelans to Colombia. Generations and generations marked by voluntary and forced exile force us to contemplate the ambivalence of identity.”
Italian by birth, but Venezuelan in essence, the artist uses his work to eliminate the ethnocentric visions and stereotypes that have historically defined Latin America, almost always in terms of the other, to which the various populisms and nationalisms that the continent has suffered have contributed.
The photographer was born in Gorizia, Italy, in 1934. To avoid military service, he moved to Caracas in 1954, with cultural baggage that included extensive knowledge of Italian neo-realism. Part of his family, who had emigrated voluntarily, was already in Venezuela, and his brother Graziano, then already a renowned architect, gave him his first camera at the age of seventeen. He then began working actively, photographing architectural constructions, while at the same time capturing images of the suburbs of the capital. He soon began to work for UNESCO projects, in parallel to his more personal work, which he pursued in Venezuela and Cuba. As a result of this work, the book Para verte mejor, América Latina [To see you more clearly, Latin America] (1972), considered one of the most emblematic photobooks ever, was published in Mexico. In 1979, he was the first artist from Latin America to be present at Les Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie in Arles, and in 1984, with a new exhibition in Arles, he received the silver medal at Les Rencontres. In 1993 he was awarded the National Photography Prize of Venezuela and two years later he represented his country at the Venice Biennale.
Over the last two decades he has traveled extensively throughout Europe and Latin America, completing series on previously unexplored themes, and has held numerous exhibitions of his photographs and books, some twenty of which have been published to date.
The exhibition is divided into sixteen sections that bring together some of the artist’s most prominent projects from over six decades of work, and it emphasizes his photobooks, which the artist recognizes as a means of expression on a par, in importance, with his photographs.
Andata e ritorno (1953-2016)
Andata e ritorno [There and Back] is, in addition to the first section of the exhibition, the title of Paolo Gasparini’s photobook published in Caracas by La Cueva Casa Editorial in 2019. It alludes, metaphorically, to the author’s way of working, which breaks temporality, as he revisits his series in time and creates stories in which Latin America dialogues with other latitudes, revealing how consumer society has a global impact.
The publication deals with Gorizia and Caracas, which is like saying Italy and Venezuela, or the first and third worlds. It comprises seventy photographs printed with no margins that connect the realities of two seemingly opposite worlds while at the same time nuancing their differences.
Rostros de Venezuela and Bobare (1956-1960)
Between 1955-1960 Gasparini traveled through Venezuela, first with his brother Graziano, then with his wife, the laboratory technician Franca Donda, with whom he crossed the Colombian border, traversed the highlands of the Andes, and traveled through the lands of Lara state.
He documented the way of life of the peasants in rural areas and the Wayú indigenous community. He published Bobare in 1959, illustrating, in his words “the poorest, most abandoned and most miserable people in Lara state”, under the influence of one of his greatest teachers, Paul Strand, whom he met in France in 1956.
This, Gasparini’s first photobook, is arranged with reference to the structure of Un paese (1955), by Strand himself. A denunciatory reportage based on individual and family portraits, interior spaces and house facades, as well as texts describing the history of the town as told by its inhabitants. The publication summarizes the villagers’ plea to the President of the Republic, Romulo Betancourt, to help a town struggling to survive in a desertlike setting. In Venezuela, Bobare pioneered the photographic essay, raising the visibility of poverty. In 1961, he exhibited Rostros de Venezuela: 50 fotografías de Paolo Gasparini [Faces of Venuzuela: 50 pjotographs by Paolo Gasparini] at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Caracas.
Between 1961 and 1965 the author traveled to Havana with Franca, invited by architect Ricardo Porro and writer Alejo Carpentier. They toured the city and took photographs of Havana’s colonial architecture and baroque style, which gave rise to the series “La Habana, la ciudad de las columnas” [Havana, City of Columns] (1961- 1963). There he also began to represent street scenes, popular rallies, the carnival, and became interested in the project for a school of plastic arts in the city.
He shared the revolutionary enthusiasm and collaborated with the literary supplement Lunes de Revolución. He worked at the National Council of Culture and was commissioned by UNESCO to document the ambitious Cuban literacy campaign (1964-1965). It was at this time, with the aim of publicizing the Revolution, that cinema and photography experienced a golden age. Gasparini collaborated with filmmakers such as Armand Gatti and Agnès Varda, from whom he borrowed certain expressive and technical resources, such as the use of fades, image sweeps and the inclusion of frames with text in the story, with which he ordered a good part of his photographic praxis, particularly the audiovisuals, from 1980 onwards.
Throughout his career Gasparini returned to Cuba on several occasions, his experience is evidenced in this reflection: “[…] the Cuban Revolution, at a certain moment meant utopia, the alternative, the possibility of creating a new man and photographed it in that sense. Today, the course it has taken is not the one we had imagined. And that generates great sense of disappointment, bitterness and lack of credibility.”
Estudio Caracas (1967-1970) and Karakarakas, democracia y poder (1967-1970)
In his work, Gasparini articulated contradictory situations; he recorded images within images. Sometimes he assembled them in the laboratory and superimposed them. He used montage and editing as a system for producing ideas, and his narratives seek to motivate action and shock consciences.
Between 1968 and 1970, he joined the editorial team of the magazine Rocinante, published by intellectuals of the Venezuelan left committed to the revolutionary causes of the world. The magazine emerged at a time when the armed struggle in the country was over and some of those who used to take to the streets to protest began to work in state institutions and universities. Most of these issues were illustrated by Gasparini, satirizing politicians, writers and oil companies. Involved with the Venezuelan left, his photographs also illustrated books with revolutionary subjects, on the class struggle, condemnation of torture in the country, as well as the themes of guerrilla warfare, capitalism and underdevelopment in Latin America.
“[…] I left Europe with a trunk full of images of the Americas. In a second stage, I returned to the first world loaded with images of the Latin American reality. And so arose Retromundo, a photobook that does not confront realities, but rather evidences what is happening in the two continents”, Gasparini explains about this project.
Retromundo (1986) is a photobook in which, aided by poetry, the author establishes a dialogue between the first and third world. The first is represented by images of advertisements, slogans, passers-by in European and American cities that are reflected and multiplied in the translucent surfaces of the shop windows. In his representation of the third world, there are no reflections in mirrors or windows, instead he depicts street scenes, misery and poverty, aspects that are common in Latin American countries. Thus, using opposing images as if it were a diptych, Gasparini reaffirms his way of doing things, which is seen frequently in his creations. The development of a discourse that makes sense in relation to its counterpart
Series “Acá, este cielo que vemos”, 1971-1992; “Brasilia, dos en uno”, 1972-1973 and 2013; “São Paulo, la muerte del aura”, 1997. 2013 and 2015; “Maracaibo, La Guajira y petróleo”, 1970-2017; “La calle”, 1969-1999; and “El faquir de la Torre Capriles, Plaza Venezuela, Caracas”, 1970.
In 1978, Gasparini participated in the Colloquiums of Photography held in Mexico, and again in Cuba in 1984. These meetings were the most important forum for discussion during that period. The talks dealt with topics such as the role that the photographer should assume in relation to the context in which they worked, as well as the need to create a visual project depicting the contradictions that can be produced by the coexistence of poverty and wealth, but without falling into dramatism or exoticism.
In this sense, Gasparini’s work is deeply respectful and shows the harshest aspects of society, the life of miners and Andean peasants in series such as “Acá, este cielo que vemos” [Here, this sky we see], but through images imbued with great dignity, such as those of mothers with taped hats wrapping their children in handmade blankets after long days of work in Peru.
After his experience as an architectural photographer in Caracas, in 1970, together with art critic Damián Bayón, he was hired by UNESCO to photograph the pre-Columbian, colonial and contemporary buildings of the continent, with the aim of publishing these together with Bayón’s research (Panorámica de la arquitectura latinoamericana). As a result of this assignment, the author was able to photograph built urban projects from Mexico to the Argentine pampas and from Brasilia to Machu Picchu. Moreover, as Gasparini himself pointed out: “I strived to photograph the lives of the marginalized, of those who have nothing, and the great differences that coexist next to and around these great buildings.” These contradictions and the unjust effects of post-colonization can be contemplated in series such as “Brasilia, dos en uno” [Brasilia, two in one] (1972-1973 and 2013); “São Paulo, la muerte del aura” [São Paulo, the death of the aura] (1997-2015); “Maracaibo, La Guajira y petróleo” [Maracaibo, La Guajira and oil] (1970-2017); and “La calle”[ The street] (1970-1999). Photographs that reflect a robust visual project which, as Sagrario Berti points out, “is far from victimizing and, on the contrary, reflects a hostile environment, but one that is beautiful in its powerful capacity to resist”, and which underpins the idea that photography should be a vehicle for exposing social injustices, one of the ethical objectives of the Colloquiums mentioned above.
One of his most recognized series is based on Plaza Venezuela in Caracas, crowned by the 60,000-square-meter Capriles Tower with a modern façade, designed by artist Jesús Rafael Soto. This element, which transforms public space into art, is a metaphor for the fall of the utopia of progress. A homeless person who has placed their bed in the middle of the path of those who walk by is the true protagonist, and not the tower or its façade.
México-El Suplicante (1971-2015)
Since 1971, so frequent have been Gasparini’s trips to Mexico that its capital has almost become his third home. After receiving the National Photography Award in Venezuela in 1993, the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana Unidad Iztapalapa invited him to be a researcher in the Urban Culture program in Mexico City. Since then he has traveled to the great metropolis on several occasions, photographing its streets and inhabitants. Over time, these sojourns have borne fruit in Letanías del polvo [Litanies of dust] (2009), an audiovisual CD that accompanies the photobook El suplicante [The supplicant] (2010). With texts by Juan Villoro and Gasparini himself, this publication tells a story that begins with the Zapatista uprising and extends to the leader of the indigenous armed group, Subcomandante Marcos. Villoro’s texts are detached from the photos, they do not illustrate them; those of the photographer do, and appear in the introduction and at the end, as an explanatory note on his work.
In the sequence it is common to find images of Christ on the cross, graffiti, posters portraying a victim pasted on walls, masked “lucha libre” wrestlers and “Zapatistas”, as well as street vendors’ stalls, pariahs or crosses and Christian ceremonies.
El ángel de la historia (1963-2018)
El ángel de la historia [the Angel of History] is a twelve-meter mural composed of 63 photographs taken in different countries that form an overview of Gasparini’s work. The title is a specific reference to the philosopher Walter Benjamin and his idea of history, which, like an angel, looks at the past in ruins to reflect on and understand the environment and proclaim the non-existence of future and progress.