Paz Errázuriz/Matrix 251March 3, 2014
In intimate, candid black-and-white photographs, Paz Errázuriz transports the viewer to another place and time: Santiago, Chile, in the mid-1980s. With General Augusto Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship as her backdrop, self-taught photographer Errázuriz set out to document people living largely in secret, on the fringes of Chilean society. Paz Errázuriz/Matrix 251 at the Berkeley Art Museum displays two of the resulting visual essays: La manzana de Adán (1982-87) and Boxeadores (1987).
La manzana de Adán documents a community of male transvestites working in underground brothels in Santiago and Talca. Made in collaboration with journalist Claudia Donoso, the resulting photographs were paired with passages relating the personal stories of the men, and gathered into a book published in 1990 after Pinochet’s ouster. The exhibition features 30 of the 100 photographs that make up the series, appearing alongside excerpts from Donoso’s text.
Living in constant fear of violence and arrest by the police, the men chose instead the security and isolation of a largely invisible existence, essentially substituting one form of imprisonment for another. Errázuriz escorts the viewer into the private, domestic interiors these men inhabit. In full drag makeup and reclining on a bed, Evelyn, La Palmera (1983) introduces us to a central character in the series. In contrast to the squalid periphery—bubbling wallpaper, drab furnishings, scratched mirrors—there’s a sense of guardedness and defiance in Evelyn’s gaze. Errázuriz’s presentation is frank: In this, and in each photograph in the series, it’s clear that these men strive to create their own world.
In Boxeadores, Errázuriz takes us into neighborhood gyms in Santiago. While not as emotionally compelling as La manzana de Adán, the works’ spare composition in these gelatin silver prints is just as arresting. In Untitled (1987), a boxer sits on a stool in the center of the frame, against a plain wall, stoically confronting the camera while wearing his protective helmet and gloves. Likewise, another image shows a shirtless man, occupying the same stool against the same wall, hair damp and torso glistening with sweat from exertion. Errázuriz effectively captures a moment of pause before her subjects fight their way out of her frame and back into the boxing ring.
The essay accompanying the exhibition defines Errázuriz’s mission as to “visually reintegrate” people living on the margins “into a society that has juridically and economically rejected them.”1 By immersing the viewer in the peripheries of Chilean society, into the brothels and gyms populated by socially isolated men, Errázuriz’s photographs not only put an individual face on oppression, they also highlight a resilience inherent in the human spirit.