In her previous series, titled Migrant, the artist emphasized elements that seem to circumscribe questions of identity and female motivations in the first place. In the Exodus series, she exploits the symbolic potential of still life to address female emigration from Peru and Spain, confronting us with the women’s actual narrative in a globalized context. Just like in her previous series, the artist relates the objects that make up each image to testimonies of women who have emigrated abroad or mentions of the specific cities where they have lived, outlining a political and personal geography simultaneously. Family issues and isolation continue to inform these testimonies, alongside a series of testimonies on sociocultural aspects. ‘I emigrated from Peru alone to study a postgraduate degree’ says one woman; another one says ‘I made a master that helped me to rediscover my identity as a teacher’. Another testimony says ‘The return was hard. What impacted me most were the sexism and homophobia’.
In Exodus, the question of the relation between representational painting and the medium of photography might be less important. It is rather a sense of history, social condition and behavior, cultural patterns and fleeting experiences that artist seems to capture. The images create a bridge between the present and the past, current location and place of origin. While flowers count among the most temporal of objects in art, food and beverage can only emphasize the fragility, transience and changeable condition characterizing our contemporary condition. They add stories on globalization, social isolation, the strive for integration. In the Migrant series, the grapes had an almost ‘sculptural’ feel, evoking a strong and lively sense of identity. All that is completely lost here. Grapes near fast food, a melon and a Coke, lemons and fries – they all come to express contemporary conditions and cultural shifts. What is more interesting is that they tell a tale of exploitation and consumption that traces the history of North and South, and from here, the history of the contemporary. The relation between transience and permanence is even more evident here than in the Migrant series. The almost ‘sculptural’ forms, the representations of social orders and perceptions now meet with the fleeting symbols of our daily lives throughout a globalized, homogeneous, consumerist culture. The scenes are allegories of the transformations identities assume in a globalized context. Unlike the setups in Migrant, these photographs question ideals and imagination less. There is something luscious and softly lit that creates a tension between the exacting images and the cafeteria like arrangaments. While the accumulation and mix of food and beverage express the logics of exploitation and a fall into the Western lifestyle, the compositions raise profound questions on how representations inform and are constantly being informed by their contextual existence.
Still life painting flourished in Northern Europe throughout the 1600s. The Spanish tradition seems to have had a rather discontinuous favour for it. The highly refined execution of still life paintings, their subjects and symbolism were clearly addressed to a cultivated audience. But Spanish artists never rivaled artists in the rest of Europe and therefore could not match the cultural hegemony of its rival European states, in spite of all the formal conventions and technical innovations shared by the century’s new art. We could say, metaphorically, that the history of still life painting in Spain was itself a more marginal one. It is not accidental, therefore, that Vanessa Colareta choses to portray migration by means of still life photography, or is it accidental that she choses to portray migration in Peru and Spain.
Migration continues to inform the political agenda of many states. In the last decades only, migration is a process that balances and unbalances the social and economic relations across space. Of course, capitalism brought a significantly different type of migrations, creating a series of inter-dependencies between the states but also unveiling the vulnerable situations of emigrants. Social perceptions are rarely changed, generating ever new forms of racism and segregation; starting the so-called crisis in 2008, economic stability seems to be ruled under the reign of the exception, generating instability. The so-called ‘feminization of migration’ influences social relations, raising questions around women’s empowerment as informed by transnational migration, with direct implications on family and gender patterns. While I make no attempt to discuss these issues here, as they might very well be outside the scope of Vanessa Colareta’s work, a short note is necessary.
Ever since the 1970s, South America has been confronted with an unprecedented wave of emigration. Political instability, economic decline, and the expansion of labour force determined many Latin americans to try their chances in the United States or in Europe, Spain and Italy in particular. Urbanisation, higher education and lower fertility rates, the ageing of industrialised countries and the flexibilization of labour increased female labour market participation, especially in metropolitan areas. But due to a series of causes such as legal status, language skills or employment, many migrants have experienced instability and a tendency to circulate. Exposure to different gender norms triggered a radical transformation in women’s status, raising more questions on gender inequality. Given that gender relations in Latin America are constructed around ideas of marianismo and machismo, with marianismo seeming to predominate in urban areas in Peru or Bolivia as a symbol of feminity, we need to question how do these influence women’s experience at the collision of cultures. Questions like these unveil the potential the Migrant and Exodus series have to trigger a debate.
Like a true painter of still life, Vanessa Colareta restricts herself to a single class of objects to create sumptuous and harmonic compositions. Shapes, colours, lighting, and textures create formal variety and abundance, while reflections and transparencies make reference to elemental transitions. Ideals and aspirations are reflected in the way life is being framed and in the way it continues to evade the framing. The oscillation between painting and photography, the shift of consciousness and the matrices that have been created along with women’s migration inform sociopolitical issues of identity, migration and globalization, the waste and haste with which people negotiate their daily condition. Underneath all these, the issues of time and consumption inform Vanessa Colareta’s photographic work too. In his recent book, Nature Morte. Contemporary Artists Reinvigorate the Still-Life Tradition, published by Thames&Hudson, London-based artist and curator Michael Petry discusses how the years of war and the threat of terrorism have made it all the way more clear that death is a notion walking with us post-September 11. The permanent instability and fragility of life becomes a potent drive. While this is one little side of the overall story, it is nevertheless true that traditional still life painters expressed this drive for centuries, even if only in their memento mori.
Still life photography has seen a revival in the past decade. Its constant presence in art magazines and on gallery walls might signify the reassertion of a traditional genre and the potential to create a rich and significant contemporary imagery. Whether this momentum will be exhausted as artists appeal to a repetition of motifs or formulas, timely works as those of Vanessa Colareta punchily reflect current cultural conditions and the role of photography in telling significant stories and reflecting the very nature of our time.
Text by Sabin Bors / May 2, 2014. All rights reserved.