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Briceño & Lóránt

SAVE THE FOREST, SAVE THE PEOPLE
by Donald Kuspit
 
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Antonio Briceño is a Venezuelan photographer, known for his photographs of Rwandans, and Attila Lóránt is a Hungarian photographer, known for his photographs of the Wappony. Coming from such disparate places, they would seem to have little in common. Yet they are both on a crusade to save what Lóránt calls Disappearing Cultures -- he is the founder of a foundation of that name, and works with National Geographic to further its aims -- and to use Art Works for Change, to refer to the organization that sponsored Briceño’s work.

Their photographs may not save indigenous cultures from disappearing, but at least will preserve the memory of them. And hopefully change the way they are seen, in recognition of the fact that when they disappear their values will disappear with them.

The two photographers are bound to nature, and have learned to live with it without desecrating it: Briceño and Lóránt are interested in where they live as much as how they live, for both shape who they are and their attitude to each other. Briceño and Lóránt are environmentalists as well as humanitarians -- eco-moralists and humanist protest artists, as Lorant says -- asking us to respect people who seem altogether alien. They invite us to become friendly with radically Other leftovers from a pre-industrial world who have unexpectedly become role models, not only because of their intimacy with nature but because of their communal way of life.    

The photographs of Briceño and Lóránt, shown together at the Gabarron Foundation-Carriage House Center exhibition “Save The Forest, Save the Culture,” sponsored by the United Nations -- 2011 is the United Nations International Year of Forests -- offer a close look at the indigenous cultures that continue to flourish in the forests of Central and South America. The forests are their homes, and as the forests disappear -- as they are cut down to make room for fields and cities -- the indigenous cultures will disappear.

It is a slow death by a thousand cuts -- inevitable death for the forests and for those who live “naturally” in them. It is supposedly a small price to pay for the advance of civilization (so-called), but the United Nations thinks it has become too high. It is in effect another Holocaust; Briceno and Lorant document the last of its victims.

Even more, the photographs are an idealizing homage to these peoples, even as they show them in empirical detail -- exquisitely exact detail in the close-up portraits. They convey their dignity and vitality -- the same dignity that Curtis saw in Native Americans and the same vitality that Gauguin saw in the Polynesians. No “savagery” anywhere, only the grace of people at ease with existence and at peace with their environment -- despite the onslaught on their living space, including the photographic onslaught.

It seems harder to find such people in the 21st century than in the 19th century; one still has to travel far from the Western world to find them -- emotionally far however physically easy it is to travel anywhere today, and easier it is to make a photograph. Everything happens fast today, but one can only grasp the indigenous people with reflective slowness, a state of mind that the photographs of Briceño and Lóránt seem to possess. It is their way of respecting the rights of the human beings they photograph.  

There is no sentimentality in their photographs, no nostalgia for an imagined Eden, no false empathy for some soon to be lost tribe, no anthropological curiosity about people with a “primitive” way of life, no going native in search of relief from urban life, but rather a meditative representation of distinct personalities. Virtually all the photographs are psychological portraits -- portraits which convey the mentality of the forest people through their body language and facial expressions, and, more subtly, in the group portraits, through their relationships, always familiar and intimate, for they are in effect all members of the same extended family (“tribe,” if you wish) yet with no loss of autonomy and individuality.

Nature and culture have become one in it, exist in unforced existential harmony in indigenous culture as they rarely if ever do in our sophisticated culture, except, no doubt, when they are theoretically forced together, as in pseudo-natural earthworks, among other environmental art works, in which a de-natured piece of sculpture is installed in a treeless space.   

"Save the Forest, Save the Culture," Jan. 18-Mar. 19, 2011, at the Gabarron Foundation-Carriage House Center for the Arts, 149 East 38th Street, New York, N.Y. 10016.


DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University. He is senior critic at the New York Academy of Art.