In ‘Urbes Mutantes,’ Scenes From Latin America’s Transformations

From paramilitaries and cartel soldiers to Frida Kahlo and civil rights, an International Center for Photography exhibition captures an alternative Latin vision—of ‘mutant cities.’

Yolanda Andrade, Courtesy International Center of Photography

The black-and-white image depicts dozens of men wielding large, thick wooden sticks, a brief but powerful scene from the 1971 Corpus Christi Thursday Massacre, as it has come to be known.

Captured by Mexican photographer Armando Salgado, this shot was from a peaceful student protest in Mexico City that resulted in the death of dozens of students demanding reform and support for their schools. The group of paramilitaries who rapidly descended on them, the halcones, remain unpunished to this day, despite an abundance of evidence points directly to the guilty parties.

Scenes like this and many more are seen throughout a collection of photographs at the International Center of Photography’s most recent exhibition, Urbes Mutantes: Latin American Photography 1944-2013, in New York.

Urbes Mutantes, which translates to “mutant cities,” brings together more than 300 images from all over Latin America—Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela—creating a diverse and alternative vision of these cities to link together a social climate that spans seven decades. These images, filled with graffiti walls, scenes of intimate nightlife, protests and punk rebellion, focuses on street photography as a way to reclaim cities that no longer wish to be the cosmopolitan metropolis imposed by European models.

“It is the city in chaos that, from our curatorial focus, is charged with a very particular beauty,” curators Alexis Fabry and Maria Wills wrote in the extensive accompanying catalog. “In the images presented here, there is poverty, there is alarm, there is disorganization and anarchy, but in the sensibilities of the photographers selected the urban esthetic of Latin America emerges out of paradoxes that end up constructing an identity full of tension.”

Opening the nine-part exhibition, the “Living Walls” section positions public spaces as a stage for social protest and political propaganda that highlight the remainder of the show. The word evaporados appears on a wall adjacent to a freeway in a collection of photographs by Eduardo Villanes. That translates to “evaporated,” and these images protest the amnesty granted to a military death squad involved in the 1992 Cantuta massacre in Peru, which left nine students and one professor dead, burned and buried in a hidden grave.

Latin American nightlife takes shape through images ranging from the dark corners of Colombia’s sex workers to vibrant scenes of Cuban dance halls. These photos combine a wide range of social classes, often using experimental techniques, documenting a cultural escape from the strife that often plagues the poorer classes.

Delving deeper into this despair, photographs of “The Forgotten Ones” examine the lives of various groups of Latin American women. Argentinean photographer Adriana Lestido’s black-and-white series, “Women Prisoners With Their Daughters,” reveals the reality and familial relationships female prisoners have behind bars. Another collection of photographs, including Lola Alvarez Bravo’s iconic portraits of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, explore the ethnic complexity of Latin America’s urban areas.

Other identities are revealed through depictions of the sexual revolution and drug cultures that started in the 1960s. Colombian photographer Gertjan Bartelsman captures a time when drug trafficking and violence associated with Pablo Escobar’s cartels was at its peak. His “Pogo” series depicts mostly men from the city of Medellin “moshing”—dancing violently and frantically—in houses and abandoned warehouses.

“Many of the young men in the photographs are dead,” Bartelsman is quoted in the wall text. “And many of them were certainly gang members, hired killers, young people from the neighborhoods of Medellin who would have preferred to pick up an old electric guitar rather than a machine gun and form a heavy metal band.”

The alternative and queer cultures that emerged in Mexico after the 1969 raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York are seen in Adolfo Patino, Armando Cristeto, and Graciela Iturbide’s depictions of cross-dressing, transgendered, and gay communities. The activism that arose with the area’s first gay and lesbian civil-rights organization are also highlighted through bold black-and-white images.

But the social, economic, and political discord is not just seen through depictions of Latin American people. Their surroundings also take shape in the “Urban Geometries” section, a look at the various forms of architecture—colonial, baroque, neoclassical, and modern—that have influenced the landscape of these rich cities.

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A full survey of works drawn from collection of Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski, one of the most extensive private archives of Latin American photography, Urbes Mutantes brings together an extensively historical look at Latin America while defining a new perception of its cosmopolitan cities.

Urbes Mutantes: Latin American Photography 1944-2013 is on display at the International Center of Photography until Sept. 7.