Photos focus on cultures at high risk

ART

Borges reveals societies threatened with extinction

ArtColumn

August 27, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

There's a long history of Western photographers in the Third World, and most of it falls into two categories: photojournalistic coverage of wars, natural disasters and political upheaval, and National Geographic-type pictures of "primitive" peoples, which tend mainly to reinforce European notions of superiority under cover of sly, voyeuristic images of scantily clad non-white women.

Phil Borges' photographs at Gomez Gallery don't quite qualify as journalism, but neither are they just another excuse for imperialist cheesecake. All of the two dozen or so portraits in the show come from Borges' latest, as-yet-unpublished, book project, Spirit of Place, a study of peoples in Asia, Africa and Latin America who cling to ancient beliefs about the union between powerful spirits and the natural world.

Borges' photographs fairly trumpet their avowed reverence and compassion for the fast-disappearing societies they document, while offering no clue as to how or even whether such extinction might be avoided. This lends them a faint air of nostalgia - or hypocrisy - that neatly avoids addressing the viewer's own complicity in these cultures' imminent demise. In Borges' self-satisfied vision, the "primitive" is mystical, magical and spiritually fulfilling - but it's gotta go to make way for Reeboks, McDonald's and satellite TV. In other words, enjoy it while it lasts.

Still, Borges' large, black-and-white photographs are worth seeing, if for no other reason than that they are visually stunning. Made with a Hasselblad studio camera and portable strobe lights - the artist seems immensely proud of having toted $40,000 worth of gear into the bush on his own back - the pictures have the slick finish of upscale magazine photography, with the added fillip that the subjects' skin tones are artfully embellished with applications of sepia dye. The effect is to make the individuals in the pictures (whom Borges dutifully pays for consenting to be photographed) seem to jump out at you from their monochrome backgrounds - and also to constantly remind you that these are brown and black people, graphically highlighted, as it were, in recognition of their status as endangered species.

In fairness, too, it must be said that Borges' photographs generally avoid the traditional pornographies of power. No nubile, bare-breasted maidens (well, hardly any), no painted and pierced guys strutting around in loincloths brandishing 6-foot spears. His is a genteel exoticism, whose erotic content - of which there is plenty, especially noticeable in the portraits of preadolescent girls - takes second place to preachy environmentalism and a typical West-Coast fascination with occult religious practices.

In a provocative and polemical book, The Black Female Body: A Photographic History, art historian and curator Deborah Willis argues that from the medium's earliest days, Western photographers have used images of non-white bodies to map the European justification of colonial conquest and subjugation. Borges' photographs are an extension of that tradition, with apologies: Sorry the mass culture my country invented is about to wipe you out, but at least I'm remorseful, I pay - and I can carry my own camera.

Also at Gomez are paintings by Kent Williams and Brian Taylor. The show runs through Sept. 7. The gallery is at 3600 Clipper Mill Road. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Call 410-662-9510.

Art in books

Before the invention of moveable type, books were laboriously written and illustrated by hand. A new show at the Walters Art Museum highlights a rarely seen triumph of the book maker's art, A Renaissance Gem Revealed: Petrarch's Triumphs Disbound.

The exhibition runs through Nov. 10. The Walters is at 600 N. Charles St. Hours are Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $6-$10. Call 410-547-9000.

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