The year 2010 marks two momentous episodes in the history of Mexico, both are 100 years apart. The first is the bicentennial of the Mexican War of Independence (1810–1821). The second is the centennial of the Mexican Revolution.
To celebrate both events, the Mexican Embassy in Cairo has organized a new photographic exhibition entitled, “Mexican Sites of World Heritage,“ which opened on Monday at Cairo Opera House’s Visual Arts Venue.
Unexpectedly, in the most conventional of venues, with the most conventional of subject matters, the photographers of these heritage sites seditiously alter the feeling of the spaces, creating a binary of expression within the photographs that unsettles and scintillates.
The outward trappings of this exhibition would suggest that it is not so much a show based on artistic insight, held together by the creative merit of one person: an artist. Instead, it appears, on the surface at least, as the kind of dull affair frequently held by embassies.
Forty large photographs of Mexican historical sites circle the walls, all quite conceptually coherent. Each photograph is additionally girded with plenty of historical information and small maps, pointing precisely to the location of each site inside Mexico.
For a person unfamiliar with Spanish language and the Mexican expat community, the easiest thing to do in events like this is to drink as much juice as you can without needing to bring the arduous task upon yourself of finding a bathroom.
This would be a shame though, because despite the outward trappings of the opening night, and a curation style I am not partial to in this setting — where the photos are hung as if displayed in a museum rather than an art gallery, emphasizing that the focus of the exhibition is educational rather than artistic — the photographs are unexpectedly subversive and simply stunning.
Given the limits of the subject matter at hand— the building, the historical site —the photographers skillfully deconstruct the conception of architectural and historical photography, peeling away conventional ideas about this often staid genre of photography and creating something very exciting.
What makes this exhibition so interesting is the way the photographers assert and shape our perceptions of the sites themselves through a gentle cajoling of the space controlled by the photograph, be it through cropping, unusual composition, or an unsettling perspective or focus.
The color patterns of the images, too, are actively coaxed to incite different responses from the viewer. The artists work on two levels: saturating and increasing the contrast of the images to the limits of what could still be interpreted as a realistic photograph, making them appear vivid and immediate, or scaling back the colors, desaturating them nearly to the level that they appear faded and of another time. A good example is the unusual photograph of the long-leafed blue Agave fields.
These images actively shape the way the viewer reads the site. For many of the Latin Americans at the opening who have visited these sites, this meant a triggering of memory and nostalgia. For those of us who have not had the pleasure to go, the photographs become our reality.
Images like those documenting the Historic Center of Mexico City and Xochimilco and the Franciscan Missions in the Sierra Gorda of Querétaro, transform the sites into saturated, luscious, romantic places.
Both become near fantasy, yet never treading over the boundary of what is indeed make-believe. Historic Center is a haunted, dark castle lit brightly from the lower crevices of the building, set in front of an incredible blue twilight.
In The Franciscan Missions, a brilliant, grandly decorated façade, the photographer apparently relishes in the obsessive detail of the place, focusing his lens directly on the most ornamented and greedy of the walls.
In these photographs, the mood of the place and the most significant details that make it unique are cleverly isolated and exaggerated for real dramatic effect, producing in effect an honest representation of these sites. At the same time, it slyly unsettles the truth of the image with a mantle, or overlay of feeling; the kind of superficialities that mankind is so partial to, the mise-en-scene.
Lighting and construction of an image considerably alter the way we perceive such emotionally depicted space, therefore subtly empowering the photographers of these heritage sites.
The Mexican Ambassador, María Carmen Oñate, told Daily News Egypt that they “Wanted to show a sample of life in Mexico to the Egyptian public — cultural values and the richness of the country.
“I hope Egyptians coming to the exhibition can receive a better knowledge of my country and a sense that we are more similar [to Egyptians] than they think.”
It is fitting that an exhibition celebrating two separate independence movements in Mexico showcases photographs operating on two disparate and yet inextricably connected planes.
This cultural heritage manages to showcase beautiful Mexican buildings while rebelliously circumventing conventions of architectural photography, wryly incorporating a completely new level of meaning and a unique sense of humor to the images, a sense of humor Mexicans are of course, famous for.
“Mexican Sites of World Heritage” is showing daily, except Fridays, at Cairo Opera House’s Visual Arts Venue, from 10 am – 8 pm. The exhibition closes on August 19.