The component objects of still life photography reflect our relationship with the world, as they outline fundamental structures of our society. In the Migrant series, Vanessa Colareta, who was named Still Life Professional Photographer of the Year at the 2013 Sony World Photography Awards, reinterprets still life paintings of the Spanish Golden Age from the Prado Museum collection to address female migration in Spain. Various testimonies on female migration experiences accompany the images, re-writing individual and collective history. ‘Germany was twenty years more advanced. I always remember the snow, it was very cold and the days were short’ says one of the women; ‘I departed from Rieti when I was twenty-six. I have been living five years outside. I study fashion design and work as a waitress’ says another woman. Most of the stories refer to family separation, isolation and the longing to belong. The pictures in the Migrant series seem to focus on this idea of ‘longing’. The re-writing and narration of the individual shifts to a slightly different perspective in the artist’s later series, titled Exodus, as the classical compositions emphasize global aspects of living and the political geography of our globalized culture.
In the Migrant series, apples, oranges and classical arrangements of flowers predominate the settings, with only ‘Plate of Sweets’ to bring forth Macarons. Yet in the artist’s later series, titled Exodus, these mix with fast food, donuts or jam. One needs to be reminded here that in the 1600s and 1700s, when still life painting flourished as a genre in Northern Europe, painters depicted various china with oranges and lemons, which were rather expensive fruits in Northern Europe at that time. An ‘exotic’ fruit was brought up North from the ‘exotic’ South. A more elemental approach is taken in the Migrant series, closely related to issues of identity and feminine motivations. As a continuation, the Exodus series describes an experience that involves different, more globalized and altered dynamics. Throughout these compositions, the artist addresses profound questions of representation and invites the viewer to search for the differences and cultural context. The images retain an illustration of the domestic, but they question the ideals which are being put into such depictions. Still life painting, as a genre, has been indeed less appreciated than war or religious themes, in spite of its complexity and references to religious symbols and moral lessons, and this had also to do with the genre’s assciations with feminine motifs.
In the Migrant series, the artist seeks to reconcile the pictorial textures with the smoothness of the photographic print. There is a subtle choreography as the artist interprets the arrangements of fruits, vegetables and flowers as if to blur the line between what’s real and what’s fake, what is history and what is present. By doing that, she questions the very intimate and social constructions women are facing. Both the crisp details of the camera and the gestural expressions of the brushwork unveil an intimate oscillation between the two mediums that blurs the subjects’ conditions. The artist is less interested in respecting the pictorial approach as such; instead, she outlines the frame, the condition, the arrangement, and the hues as expressions of sociopolitical circumstances. Everything pictured here takes center stage, with clear focus and attention to the formal details. Yet in spite of the gracefulness of the settings, Vanessa Colareta’s efforts highlight the instability these images instigate, the intimate oscillation, the ‘longing’. While the artist pays close attention to the ‘correct’ depiction of natural objects, their framing and positioning leave space for idealization, aspirations, desires, and imagination. In a way, it is as if these women were on the brink of leaving, expecting for the fulfillment of a promise.
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.