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Shedding New Light on the Marginal Lives and Lifestyles of the African Diaspora

Shedding New Light on the Marginal Lives and Lifestyles of the African Diaspora

Organized around the work of four different photographers, the exhibition (Un)hidden, on view now at the Dominique Fiat gallery in Paris, provides a glimpse of various forms of resistance.

In the late 80s, Chantal Regnaut documented the New York “ballroom” scene, when voguing was at its peak. Through twenty images taken from her enormous body of work, she sheds light on this underground community living in the shadow of AIDS, which found an escape from poverty through dance and fashion. Her work, still largely unknown to the general public, reveals a darker reality behind the surface glamour of sequins. The “ballroom,” which functioned as a social, artistic and surrogate family structure, attracted men and women wounded by life, whom America in the midst of an economic boom had left by the wayside.

Most of them, largely uneducated and the targets of racism and homophobia, found more than just a refuge in this alternative queer community that was freed from gender norms. It was out of this context of exclusion that voguing emerged. Wishing to move away from the characteristic conventions of the white elite class, they parodied the poses from fashion shows and models. More than a dance, voguing is thought of as a form of flamboyant exaggeration of the body. Photography, according to Nicola Lo Calzo, curator of the exhibition, has “the power to look at the memory of subordinate, racialized, invisible bodies. A memory absent from official archives, embodied in living lifestyles.” The body therefore emerges as a legitimate historical archive that must be taken into account. 

Tanqueray Ball (Aids Benefit), Sound Factory, 1990. © Chantal REGNAULT, Courtesy Chantal REGNAULT & Galerie Dominique Fiat

Breaking with the conventional iconography of Cuba, the imposing, brightly colored triptych from Nicola Lo Calzo’s Regla series (2015-2016) reveals another form of counter culture specific to marginalized Afro-Cuban communities: the descendants of Maroons, members of secret societies, and practitioners of both voodoo and hip-hop. The Binidittu series explores the story of Saint Benedict, the son of African slaves and the patron saint of Palermo since 1601, whose figure had become subversive and forgotten until it was reborn as a symbol of integration in a Sicily in the midst of an identity crisis. A mirror effect that sends us back to another reality, that of rejected or stigmatized migrants. 

Binidittu and Regla are part of an ongoing, long-term photographic exploration of the memory of the slave trade and of slavery that the Italian photographer has been working on for more than ten years. A project that finds its roots as much in activism and militancy as in ethnological research. This hybrid approach, which mixes photography and historical research, is fundamental for Nicola Lo Calzo: “If one seeks to deconstruct certain representations, it is necessary to develop a critical eye far away from any opportunism,” he explains. 

Omar, Senegalese actor and asylum seeker, performing at the International Puppetry Museum in Palermo, Italy, 2018. © Nicola LO CALZO, Courtesy Nicola LO CALZO & Galerie Dominique Fiat

That same level of commitment underpins the work of South African photographer and activist Sue Williamson. In her series The Last Supper, she immortalizes the last evening of a family before the demolition of their house in Cape Town’s District 6. In the early 1980s, 60,000 residents of that district, who were victims of apartheid, were evicted from their homes to make room for the construction of new neighborhoods reserved for whites. Sue Williamson, by photographing the messages of relatives on the walls of the house, has preserved the memorial fragments of a stolen life and saved them from oblivion.

Last Supper at Manley Villa – Naz with wall messages, 1981. © Sue WILLIAMSON, Courtesy Sue WILLIAMSON & Galerie Dominique Fiat  

A mix of resistance and utopia, the images of Rut Blees Luxemburg, an artist and professor of urban aesthetics at the Royal College of Art in London, explore the growing importance given to economic interests in our society. His recent Eldorado Atlas series documents the housing crisis generated by the frantic search for profit in the central district of Old Street in London. 

Golden Shutters, London, 2016 © Rut BLEES LUXEMBURG, Courtesy Rut BLEES LUXEMBURG & Galerie Dominique Fiat

Relevant and political, the curatorial theme of (Un)hidden is freed from the dominant narrative. It sharply raises the question of the role of the artist in the construction of an alternative collection of historical archives while identifying the new dimensions of documentary photography. 

By Cathy Rémy

Cathy Rémy has been a journalist at Le Monde since 2008, where she features the work of young photographers and emerging visual artists. Since 2011, she has contributed to Le Monde Hors Série, M Le MondeCamera, and Aperture.

(UN)HIDDEN, Nicola Lo Calzo, Rut Blees Luxembourg, Chantal Regnault, Sue Williamson
Through March 27, 2021
Galerie Dominique Fiat
16, rue des Coutures Saint-Gervais. 75003 Paris

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