Alinka Echeverría: Heroine
Heroine is the culmination of artist Alinka Echeverría’s extensive research into the representation of women and femininity since the origins of the medium of photography. “With few exceptions, the place of women was before the lens, not behind it,” she acknowledges. As Echeverría immersed herself in the colonial archives of the Nicéphore Nièpce Museum in France, work she embarked on in 2015, the aesthetics of the fetishized and exoticized depiction of women both intrigued and appalled her. Directly referencing the “inventor of photography,” Nicéphore Niépce, Echeverría titles this work more broadly as Fieldnotes for Nicéphora (incorporating the “a” at the end to feminize the name that he had adopted for its meaning: victorious)—thereby explicitly reframing the legacy of this white, male pioneer of photography to a feminist and postcolonial perspective.
We are mindful of installing the exhibition amidst an ongoing global pandemic, as we all work to reimagine how physical gallery spaces exist (or don’t) and perhaps expand how works on walls may take on new forms. With that in mind, Echeverría has opened up the ways in which she would normally exhibit photographic work in a gallery. She revisits past collage work innovatively, re-adapting stills from a video piece as large-scale photographic prints and pages from a photobook project, brought to life here as a continuous stream of images wrapping around three of the gallery walls.
Echeverría’s personal experience and background in cultural and visual anthropology enriches her reconsideration of how photographic codes and techniques carry male and colonial gazes forward. Where she developed her work provides an essential context. The Nicéphore Nièpce Museum is not simply an archive; it is a monument to the invention of photography, and one of the oldest colonial collections. The museum contains nearly four million photographs now. The Combier collection, from which Echeverría selected much of her source material, comprises one million photographic images, and most of the images that she used for her works have “anonymous” attribution.
The imagery that Echeverría gathers to create her collages, videos, and books depict a variety of photographic techniques and aesthetics—from glass plate negatives to photogravures and various toned, tinted, solarized, and hand-painted images, as well as scans from more modern print media and books. The subjects include women posing nude for the camera (some of these were widely disseminated as postcards portraying Algerian prostitutes), groups of young Indigenous girls wearing traditional jewelry, a veiled woman dressed for a studio portrait, a group of women carrying amphora above their heads (ancient pottery celebrated for
its beautiful curves, often a symbol of femininity, that functions both as vessel and surface for artwork). The inherent violence of the photographic gesture—at times an apparent exoticism, fueled by a desire to possess and to classify—mutes what beauty we can find in these images. An excerpt from one of Echeverría’s poems echoes and permeates this work, and perhaps best explains how we can understand the cumulative representations of women and femininity together: Heroine with a thousand faces / Reflected, Refracted, Projected, Invented / Sculpted by Pygmalion / In the service of his desire / In the chambre noir of his mind’s eye / With the world upside down / To draw Her / Perfect Otherness
Mixed with the more direct portraits, Echeverría combines images of flowers, details of hands, the body, Greek columns, statues, photographic manuals, letters (including a handwritten letter by Nicéphore Niépce to his brother in 1816, which conveys his obsession with inventing a means to fix light onto matter), the moon and an expanse of outer space. One may even recognize a Man Ray, a silvery depiction of a woman’s legs. With the codices of ancient Mexican mythology providing inspiration for her artistic practice, she decodes, enlarges, reprints, photocopies, cuts, and collages. Echeverría reframes the photographs to examine how she can alter their purpose both through their context and materiality. “As a link between the past and the present, the photographic archive makes time resurface by way of stored visual forms,” Echeverría explains. “In my view, an active reframing allows them to acquire a certain contemporaneity with the new interpretations brought by our contemporary gazes as practitioners and viewers.”
As a Mexican-British female artist, Echeverría recognizes that she is undeniably a product of colonialism herself (that is, the Spanish conquest of Mexico). Through this, she is able to deconstruct the male, colonial gaze head on. Echeverría’s works in Heroine are both visually arresting and profoundly thoughtful—urging viewers to investigate the complexities of the photographic object itself as well as the ways in which its creation, reproduction, and distribution has been problematic since the early 1800s.