Simply put: family is important

March 07, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

They are simplicity itself, as their titles indicate:

"A man milking his cows near the school."

"My father watching the baby while my mother feeds him."

"My mother is putting away groceries."

"My sheep eats."

But these photographs by Mexican children are also moving, in large part because of that very simplicity.

The title is the most complicated part of this exhibit at the University of Maryland Baltimore County -- "Wendy Ewald: Retratos y Suenos/Portraits and Dreams: Photographs by Mexican Children."

Ewald is a photographer who has spent decades teaching photography to children in various parts of the world -- Appalachia, India, South Africa -- and showing the results. In 1991, she visited Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, where she brought photography to two different groups. She describes them as "direct descendants of the original Mayan settlers of these hills... [and] Ladinos of mixed Spanish and Indian ancestry."

Ewald gave her charges Polaroid instant cameras, then used the negatives to make black and white prints. She encouraged the children to photograph "the things that were important to them." The results are remarkably consistent in both groups. Through the photographs and the children's words, they illustrate how aware these children are of certain essentials of life that people in the more "developed" world may easily lose sight of.

Family. The preponderance of these photographs are of the immediate extended family -- grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, siblings. Playmates and school children outside the family seldom enter in, and it becomes obvious that these children's lives are dominated by family and the feeling of belonging it engenders. There is little sense of occasion or of putting on the best for these photos, either. The clothes are often dirty, the activities are utterly quotidian; no feeling comes through that these children are less than content being and showing what they are.

The land. Weeding the garden, tending the sheep, milking the cow, picking flowers. These children have a vivid consciousness we do not share that the land and the world of nature are, along with family, their sustenance and nourishment.

Belief. Faith is an everyday presence. Both the Indian and Ladino children took pictures of shrines or altars in the home, with pictures of saints and the Holy Family decorated with flowers. And those who worship identify directly with those they worship: "I imagine the Virgin Mary with black hair, a brown face and yellow eyes -- yellow gold and with a yellow dress -- chicken colored and with a red veil with little orange stars and a small collar of gold. The dress is bordered in gold but not very long -- just to the knee. She has naked legs -- no shoes." Violeta Hernandez.

Death. As children, many of us were sheltered from the idea of death. These children live with it -- it happens in their families, they have a concept of what happens when you die. They don't take pictures of death, but they speak of it.

"I am the sixth child, but we're many. I think that some weren't born right because they died when they were babies. They only made a small stopover to see the earth. Then they went up to be angels." Dominga Gonzalez Castellanos.

"After you die, I think there's a border where they check the dead people. From there, they go to heaven or to hell. But it's not really hell -- only that they clean them and send them up to heaven." Violeta Hernandez.

We sometimes say that a child is wise beyond his years; but maybe children possess a wisdom of innocence that we lose as we grow older. So much the worse for us.

Family photos

What: "Wendy Ewald: Retratos y Suenos/Portraits and Dreams; Photographs by Mexican Children"

Where: Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery, University of Maryland Baltimore County, 1000 Hilltop Circle

When: Noon to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays (Thursdays until p.m.), 1 to 5 p.m. Saturdays, through March 29

Call: (410) 455-2270

Pub Date: 3/07/97

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