Congratulations to a couple of former students from Newport. First of all, Seba Bruno for his brilliant new book Duelos y Quebrantos, a dark retreading of Don Quixote (and Rosinante's) footsteps in deep Spain. It's a book with personality and substance. Which is what photography is all about really. Or art. Or anything.
You can see that personality and substance in his recent work for the Financial Times as well, especially in this commission on Barcelona for the Financial Times here. Just brilliant.
And huge congratulations to Lua Ribeira for becoming a Magnum nominee just two years after graduating from Newport. Again it's personality and substance at play, a dedication to a particular way of seeing, thinking and being that is committed to despite all the difficulties and the doubts.
I wrote about Lua (shown above with Amak Mahmoodian) earlier this year for her recent Grain exhibition of Noises- which formed part of her portfolio for Magnum. The work she has produced since then is, if anything, even stronger and more challenging.
You don't get good by being easy. And nothing Lua does is easy. That's part of why she's so, so good. That and the fact that the ideas she addresses in her pictures are backed up by a depth of visual and academic research that feeds back into the pictures, and then back into the research. This gives her work the layers that make her work so strong.
First of all, alot of the research connects to Noises in the Blood by Dr Carolyn Cooper, a Jamaican academic whose book (whichyou can buy here) examines....
The language of Jamaican popular culture—its folklore, idioms, music, poetry, song—even when written is based on a tradition of sound, an orality that has often been denigrated as not worthy of serious study. In Noises in the Blood, Carolyn Cooper critically examines the dismissed discourse of Jamaica’s vibrant popular culture and reclaims these cultural forms, both oral and textual, from an undeserved neglect....
Making the connection between this orality, the feminized Jamaican "mother tongue," and the characterization of this culture as low or coarse or vulgar, she incorporates issues of gender into her postcolonial perspective. Cooper powerfully argues that these contemporary vernacular forms must be recognized as genuine expressions of Jamaican culture and as expressions of resistance to marginalization, racism, and sexism.
It's really interesting research which connects resistance to these traditions as something steeped in colonial era religious moralising steeped in misogyny and fear of female power and voice. Cooper reinforced that point in an interview in which she discusses how women represent themselves in dancehall.
“Some people see it as negative, and some people see it as transgressive, women going outside the boundaries of convention that say, women are the ones who must be responsible for morality. So this transgressive projection of the body by women, I see it as something positive, a way of African women asserting the beauty of their bodies in a culture where black women bodies are not valued”
Lose the Noise and you Lose the Meaning
Noises by Lua Ribeira is a supremely ambitious work. Rather than seeking to place Dancehall in a subcultural tradition, or as something exotic and other, it has expanded outwards to see the dress, dance and ritual of Dancehall as an active cultural tradition that has its roots in ancient representations of female power and sexuality. Ribeira shows Dancehall to be an example of what Dr Carolyn Cooper (author of the book that gave the project its name) calls ‘…a cultural space that asserts the authority of the native as a speaking subject.’
It’s a place of empowerment then, a place where ‘active cultural production’ takes place. It is also intensely theatrical, filled with drama that Ribeira has drawn from her numerous visits to the Birmingham homes and venues where most of the series was photographed. Here, Ribeira’s photography is informed by a depth of research that connects to painting, mythology, and how women express themselves and derive power from communal spaces.
This research process not only helped Ribeira understand Dancehall and the women who took part in it, but also helped her understand herself, transforming the way she worked and saw the world as the project progressed.
“I started listening to dancehall artists I love, like Spice or Vybz Kartel,” says Ribeira. “After looking at the very sexually explicit lyrics, I was a bit scandalized, and that feeling bothered me, I did not fully understand it. Where was that puritanism coming from? I did not consciously identify with that feeling. But, of course, it was coming from a Judeo-Christian background, that is not particular to me, but to the European context. Women in the dancehall, very often, seem to be in control of their sexuality and make gestures and moves that will make many people blush. Their behaviour within the dancehall time does not match the western understanding of femininity.”
We see that control of sexuality evident in images where the women of Dancehall dominate the frame. When they pose in blonde wigs, or arch their backs across the frame, there is a power that is anything but supine and benign.
There is also an underlying empathy in Ribeira’s approach which originates from her upbringing in Galicia in Spain. ‘I am from a place in which, not long ago, during Franco’s dictatorship, my language, culture and traditions were forbidden and punished often with death. I think this makes me identify with the importance of the expression of a culture that has been oppressed.”
The dilemma for Ribeira was how to overcome this stigmatisation of Dancehall Culture but also avoid the photographic temptation to focus on the exotic nature of Dancehall dress and rituals. The way she did this was by approaching it head on and engaging with her own outsider status and the impossibility of understanding the complexity of the lives she was visually documenting.
Ribeira in this sense is going beneath the surface signs of Dancehall and seeing it as part of a history and a life of which she is not part. The approach is a humbling one where the power of the image is handed over symbolically through Ribeira’s confessional approach to her outsider status. This is not the photographer as All-Knowing Conqueror Seer, but the photographer as Bewildered Supplicant.
This bewilderment was there from the outset when Ribeira began photographing. At first she had no idea what she was getting into, initially making images that she felt didn’t have any substance.
“It started with me going to parties and taking photos, using the amazing light, from the camera man that makes the videos. I thought those images were pretty, and were representing the night, subculture, hip hop, gangsta culture... But they were failing to condense what I was looking for, so I started to make different pictures.”
Elements of Dancehall began to resonate with her Spanish and Galician heritage, she began to feel the passion and the physicality of Dancehall and the way it touched on universal expressions of womanhood, desire and sexuality. This in turn connected both to the layers of struggle, oppression and release that are apparent in Afro-Caribbean history, and women’s history in particular but especially to the archetypes and mythology that ultimately formed the conceptual framework for the images shown in this exhibition.
“I am interested in mythology, not in fiction. I am interested in rituals, not in performance,” says Ribeira. Her research for the project was directed heavily towards the interplay between political history and cultural expressions of protest, with elements such as Norman Stolzoff’s tracing of Dancehall back to the music that emerged during slavery revolts, Jamaican Mento music, through to jazz, ska and reggae forming part of this process.
Ribeira also identifies Dancehall as part of an oral tradition that connects to Afro-Caribbean religions such as Obeah, Myal, Ettu, and Kumina, as well as performances of everyday life which have a richness of vocal expression that is unique to Jamaican and Afro-Caribbean culture. This is the ‘Noise’ that is apparent in the title of Ribeira’s project, ‘Noises’, the Noise that is central to the rituals of Dancehall. It’s brash, it’s in your face, it’s noisy. Lose the Noise, says the poet Kamau Braithwaite, and you lose the meaning; ‘The Noise that it makes, is part of the meaning, and if you ignore that noise, then you will lose part of the meaning.”
Dancehall is the arena where the Noise takes place, a space where people transcend the rigours of everyday oppression and deprivation to be reborn in rituals that are, in Ribeira’s images, both a celebration and a statement of intent. So Dancehall is a performance with historic roots and that is part of the reason why it is an assertion of a way of being against the hypocrisy of dominating cultures. It’s something that challenges restrictive definitions of sexual morality. It’s an escape from the difficulties of everyday life then, and also a place where women (and men) can create a sexually liberated identity.
And that ultimately is what Ribeira is doing with her Noises in the Blood. It is a celebration of the power of women, a ritual power that has its roots in a world beyond our rational control. With this project, Ribeira connects into that world, linking the past, the present, the actual and the mythological in images that are both beautiful and above all completely physical and real.
See more of Lua Ribeira's work here
Buy Seba Bruno's book here