Martina Bacigalupo: Gulu Real Art Studio
It is likely that at first blush, Italian photographer Martina Bacigalupo's collection of several dozen photos, currently installed at The Walther Collection in New York City, appear to the viewer as a commentary on the violence endemic to Northern Uganda. Knowing nothing else of the provenance of the photos, and wishing to fill the lacuna left by the figurative beheading, the educated Westerner might guess that these photographs represented the victims of the decades-long insurgency waged by the Lord's Resistance Army. Or, perhaps, these are photos of victims of the AIDS epidimic, which continues to rage in sub-Saharan Africa. A more informed viewer may even suppose that the photos, simple but striking, represent the many millions of Ugandan's forced by the violence to leave their homes and resettle in the inhumane confines of government 'internal relocation camps'. The viewer should certainly be forgiven for such assumptions, for it is the assumptions we have about Africa that makes Ms. Bacigalupo's collection of found photos so uncanny.
These discarded remnants are images of the Acholi people of Gulu, a city in Northern Uganda now slowly emerging from the ravages of war and displacement. It is a testament to the horrors affecting the region, and to our own vague understanding of the causes and consequences, that the remains of standard identification photos should elicit such interpretations. Working in the region in 2011, Ms. Bacigalupo was waiting in the Gulu Real Art Studio for some of her negatives to be developed when she spotted some unusual photographs littering the floor. She asked the proprietor, Obal Denis, why the faces had been excised from the portraits. He explained that his ID photo equipment produced four photos at a time. If a customer required only one ID photo, it was easier to take a standard sized photo and simply cut out the head. What is left after such a banal procedure is the photographic evidence of a cross-section of Gulu society. Sitting against a standardized background, with their hands in front of them, what distinguishes one from another are the subtle variations of dress and gesture.
The story these photos tell is one of deprivation, displacement, and daily violence. But it is equally one of resilience, of family and friendship, and of the everyday concerns that persist even in the midst unspeakable tragedy. Speaking with Frameweb about the project, Ms. Bacigalupo remarked, "You see journalists coming in and out, looking for tragic news. But by reporting events in Africa in that way, we are perpetrating a way of looking at it as a continent of misery. This project has been a way of talking about things—including the war in northern Uganda—in a more everyday way. The child who is sleeping on the lap of his mother while the picture is taken—it’s something we can all relate to." Gulu Real Art Project goes some way towards translating the lives of people touched by an utterly foreign tragedy into the language of the everyday common to us all.
On view at The Walther Collection Project Space, 526 W. 26th Street, Suite 718, New York City through February 8, 2014.
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