Volume 16, Number 28 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | December 9-16, 2003

Local teenagers host Mexican photographers

Art & Community Gallery
Lower East Side Girls Club
56 E 1st St. bet. First and Second Ave

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg

There is a picture of a young Mexican girl with long, black braided hair draping dozens of colorfully woven bracelets over her arm for display and gazing toward the ground. Another photo reveals dogs in bright sweaters frolicking at the Tomkins Square dog run, their bundled owners watching them from the nearby benches.

These images are just two of the 32 photographs from “Village Voices/Virtual Journey,” a multicultural art exhibit at the new Lower East Side Girls Club on 1st St. between First and Second Avenues.

It was produced by two groups of women — black and Latina girls from the Lower East Side and Mayans from Chiapas, Mexico. Over a period of three years the New York teenagers and the Mayan women traveled to each other’s countries with digital cameras to explore each other’s neighborhood and culture.

“The Mayan women were looking at our lives and we were looking at theirs,” said Lyn Pentecost, executive director of the Girls Club, a community organization that offers after-school, weekend and summer programs to more than 300 girls age eight to 18.

“Seeing and understanding other cultures is one of the ways we can empower girls and help them find their place in the new global community that digital technology is creating.”

Teenagers at the Girls Club learn digital and traditional photography skills. The four Mexican women, age 15-32, belong to the Indigenous Photography Archive, a group of over 200 working Chiapas photographers. Beginning in 2001 the Mexican women and the New York girls each took two, ten-day trips to each other’s country and neighborhood. Together they’ve produced hundreds of images.

“The project definitely exposed me to a different style of living,” said Kaceehy Campbell, 17, one of the New Yorkers who traveled to San Cristóbal de Las Casas. San Cristobal is a colonial town in the Chiapas highlands, the home of the Indigenous Photography Archive.

Campbell snapped one of her favorite shots in an outdoor market in San Cristóbal. Her photograph captured the muted pastel colors of the busy marketplace — the women covered in light purple and pink shawls — and the starkness of the white church with green trim set in the background.

On her second trip to Manhattan, Juana López, 32, took a picture of a black shoe salesman as he stood behind the shoe store’s front counter and adjusted a tiny tennis shoe. On the counter sits a small gray box with red and green buttons—a high tech credit card machine. Designer boots and bags balance on a ledge behind him. López also shot a slick oven and stove in a bright New York kitchen.

“There are hardly any black people in San Cristóbal,” she explained in Spanish as she smoothed down her gold and purple embroidered silk top. “Also, I don’t have an oven, only a stove. That’s why I took those photos, because those things are different for me.”

The project began when Pentecost partnered with Carlota Duarte, director of the Indigenous Photography Archive. American-born and educated, Duarte holds her MFA in photography from the Rhode Island School of Design. She is half Mexican — her father is from the Yucatan. She moved to San Cristóbal in 1996 after years of wanting to work in Mexico. With donations from friends she started the Chiapas Photography project and archive.

“Indigenous people lacked the opportunity to speak for themselves,” she said. “Photography for them is art, but it’s also documentation. It’s a way for them to make a record of their rapidly changing culture. It gives the new generation a visual history.”

Those who visit the New York exhibit will see these changes reflected not only in the photographs but also in the Mexican clothing interspersed with the images. On the gallery walls hang vintage Mexican ‘huipils,’ Mayan women’s traditional blouses. They are on loan from Chip Morris, an authority on Mayan textiles.

As part of the project, the women have compiled a book of the photographs they took complete with artist biographies and excerpts from the journals the New York girls kept while in Mexico. The book, as well as a documentary film depicting the women’s experience in both countries, will be released this spring. The photographs and a selection of lead-free pottery will be available for purchase at the gallery.

Pentecost’s next endeavor will involve three cultures: “Island to Island” will include girls from an island in Maine, the Dominican Republic and New York.

In her Mexico travelogue, New Yorker Talia Santiago, 18, now a student at Albany State writes, “I don’t think I am very different than they are. Although my scene may be far more appealing, our plot remains the same—we are both attempting to survive and pursue happiness. I came with an open mind and shall leave with a humble heart.”




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