The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Lessons Lost
Juan Manuel Echavarria
Photo by Juan Manuel Echavarria . Source:
Juan Manuel Echavarria, "Silencio con mapas politicos," 2014

Juan Manuel Echavarría calls his photographic series "Silencios." Amid installations and openings so bursting with audio and visual noise, silences have become rare. One may relish these silences. One may, that is, until one remembers the silenced. Yet nothing in Echavarría's photographs seems disturbing, at least at first and at least to First World eyes. But soon enough, one starts to notice the loose ends and the missing faces.

His interiors look inhabited, even without people. Class might be starting again any minute. Blackboards and hangings are ready for today's lesson in English, geometry, or geography. A hammock offers rest, and clothing hangs out to dry in overcrowded rooms, waiting for families to pick up. If the double purpose of schooling and domesticity is troubling, perhaps impoverished village life is like that. Even in New York City, schools err on the side of staying open rather than taking snow days, in part because children deserve a warm room, a warm heart, and a hot lunch. These are empty classrooms in Colombia, with every sign of life but the living. If the silences become ominous, though, one should not forget that initial warmth, for even amid the political divisions of death squads and a drug war. Echavarría offers hope of a common humanity.

Photo by Juan Manuel Echavarria . Source:
Juan Manuel Echavarria, "Testigo despertador" 2013

Compositions, too, make a point of stability. Blackboards fall close to dead center, as one horizontal rectangle within another. For a lesson in "geometric figures," the circles, squares, rectangles, and a triangle painted on a wall pun nicely on the garments hanging to their side, in their own warm colors. Not everything, though, is so tidy and humane. Scraps and buckets pile here and there, with abandoned husks strewn across an entire floor. A line of dried tobacco adds to the aridity, and smeared blackboards hold out a less comforting silence. A cord hanging down almost takes the shape of a noose.

Photo by Juan Manuel Echavarria . Source:
Juan Manuel Echavarria, "Silencio con lazo" 2014

How long ago did death pass through? Have the children found refuge only a day or a moment before? Have the teachers begun reassembling after the violence? One title identifies the map from a geography lesson as "political," another identifies clothing with the naked. Much as Richard Mosse's video find births and child's play after years of war in the Congo, these photos document the striving to maintain everyday life.

Six years earlier, he titled a suite of square photographs "Death and the River." He means the Magdalena River – the scene of drug traffic and unmarked graves. And here, too, the inhabitants take death personally. In fact, they have adopted the dead as their own. An individual tends to the tomb of an NN, meaning Ningún Nombre (or "no name"). They also thank the escogidos, the select or the chosen, for their favors from the next world.

Photo by Juan Manuel Echavarria . Source:
Juan Manuel Echavarria, "Testigo La Esperanza" 2013

From the look of things, the dead are not doing anyone any favors, but the care of the survivors has sustained a sad but beautiful sense of community. Like the classrooms, the graves accumulate objects and inscriptions, in human handwriting rather than etched impersonally in stone where they can become starker and more geometrical, but more distinct and colorful at the same time. Echavarría reinforces the variety, color, and geometry by arranging the 2008 series in a tight grid on a single wall. As a mural, it documents, represents, and also replicates a mausoleum and a social contract. Even now, his photos are devoid of people but never of life. Echavarría leaves his scenes empty and in silence, supplying few clues to a world torn apart and unable to heal.

Juan Manuel Echavarria

Josée Bienvenu Gallery
529 W 20th St. 2nd Fl
Chelsea         Map

212 206 7990

Thursday, March 6 to
Saturday, April 12, 2014
Hours: Tues - Sat, 10 to 6

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