USF's Museum Blog

Curating Contemporary Photography: A conversation with Sergio de la Torre

by Janet Carmona Editor’s note: In honor of the opening of the photography exhibition Existe lo que tiene nombre: Contemporary Photography in Mexico at SF Camerawork and Galería de la Raza, museum studies alumna Janet Carmona (MA, 2014) sat down with University of San Francisco faculty member and co-curator Sergio de la Torre’ to talk about curatorial vision and the process of curating a show that crosses international borders and understanding. *****

Sancari_Moises(1) copy

Mariela Sancari, Moisés I, II, III, (Moses I, II, III), 2014

Don’t ask me why but amidst my final semester as a Museum Studies graduate student — when the reality of my capstone project’s due date was weighing down on me — I felt like Ender Wiggin when he left the gravity-free Battle Room and returned to Earth.  Even so, I agreed to take on another project: translate (from Spanish to English) artist statements and bios for an international exhibition. This daunting project turned out to be incredibly enlightening and rewarding. The exhibition, Existe lo que tiene nombre: Contemporary Photography in Mexico (which roughly translates as “What has a name exists”), captures Mexico as seen through the lens of 23 contemporary photographers of different backgrounds living in Mexico. It is co-curated by Sergio de la Torre, who is Associate Professor in the Art and Architecture department here at University of San Francisco, and Javier Ramírez Limón, an artist/curator based in Tijuana. In April 2015, after the exhibition opened, I sat down with Sergio to talk about the curatorial process of this exhibition.

Juan Carlos Coppel, La grieta (The crack), 2014

Juan Carlos Coppel, La grieta (The crack), 2014

In terms of photography, Sergio says: “It’s always surprising to see that people have no idea what happens outside this country and outside of Europe.” This exhibition is a way to introduce Latin American art practices to the United States, which he feels is largely unrecognized. “When I was an undergraduate at the California College of the Arts (CCA) I took a 20th century art history class, where you go from all the isms (futurism, constructivism, etc.) to pop art: so from European to American, European to American. Only one day (about two and a half hours) was devoted to Latin America.” That was 21 years ago. Just last month at a conference in New Orleans, the Society for Photographic Education (SPE), he experienced the same discourse. “Here we are in 2015 and these people are still talking about Europe. They don’t see Latin America.” In this sense, this exhibition has been decades in the making but has only now come to fruition. Teaching and practicing art throughout the years, Sergio has amassed an impressive catalog of artists and he is constantly looking for new works. He frequently goes to Mexico, photographers come to the states, he goes to galleries, take notes, takes pictures of the labels, and buy catalogs. “A lot of the works in the exhibition I had already seen. I knew some of the photographers so I had an idea of who to include in the exhibition.” Between Sergio and Javier they compiled a list of 60 artists. They reviewed each portfolio and narrowed it down to 23. “A lot of the other photographers we looked at were artists using photography. They would do sculpture, painting, video photography. We decided not to work with them but with photographers who were looking at art.”

Melba Arellano, Principio Municipal (City Hall), 2013

Melba Arellano, Principio Municipal (City Hall), 2013

Some of the artists featured in the exhibit have a unique vision of Mexico because they studied photography abroad. They went to the states or Europe and took photography classes at schools devoted to the arts. In Mexico there are no such schools. Instead there are traditional workshops where you work as an artist’s apprentice. “It’s pretty old school,” says Sergio. “If you look at photography in the 1920’s they were doing that. That’s the way photographers learn photography.” The two forms of study appealed to Sergio when curating this exhibit. He was curious about what the photographers produced and how they would compare. “The references are not necessarily Mexican photography but other forms of photography. How do these new photographers look at Mexico? Or how do they look at things through a Mexican lens? A lot of them if not all of them have this conversation with contemporary art practice as well so that’s another way of moving the practice to a different place – not only looking at Mexican photography but also looking at contemporary practices.”

Livia Corona Benjamin’s Dos millones de casas para Mexico (Two million homes for Mexico), 2006-2015

Livia Corona Benjamin’s Dos millones de casas para Mexico (Two million homes for Mexico), 2006-2015

One theme I noticed in the exhibition is in subject matter. There are several landscape shots, such as Juan Carlos Coppel’s La grieta (The crack). This image shows a dominant crack in the earth that resulted from an earthquake near Hermosillo, Sonora in 2014. The crack separated villages from their main water source and it reminds us of mother nature’s power. Much in the same way, Livia Corona Benjamin’s Dos millones de casas para Mexico (Two million homes for Mexico) reminds us of humanity’s power through mass urbanization. It shows the sheer transformation of a landscape covered by grids of identical homes. There is, however, no main message to this exhibition. Sergio says it’s really just a way for him to engage fellow photo geeks, to use his terminology. It’s a way to continue the conversation about photography by introducing these artists and their practices.

Alejandra Laviada, from the series Hotel Bamer, 2006

Alejandra Laviada, from the series Hotel Bamer, 2006

I am sure all you current or aspiring curators out there are aware of the frustrations that come with executing a curatorial vision. For Sergio, that frustration manifested in the form of Mexican bureaucracy. “We’ve been working on this project for two years and we went to Mexico City to speak with the President of National Affairs (Conaculta) and they have no money. They have no budget this year.” It is a commentary on the unfortunate current state of affairs in Mexico, especially for artists like the ones in this exhibition, many of whom are making their American debut. “If you look at what’s happening in the country culturally not politically a lot of institutions are either closing down, firing staff members, canceling exhibitions. In the end we probably got .2% of our budget from Mexico.” While a small amount of funds were provided by Mexico other funds were generously provided by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the San Francisco Arts Commission. To help expand the discourse about contemporary photography beyond America and Europe, check out Existe lo que tiene nombre: Contemporary Photography in Mexico until May 23, 2015 at SF Camerawork and May 9, 2015 at Galería de la Raza before its showing in Mexico. A beautifully-designed bilingual catalog accompanies the exhibit. For more information on USF’s Museum Studies program, click here.

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