The first major UK solo exhibition by acclaimed Brazilian artist Rosângela Rennó, known for her appropriation and re-contextualisation of archival and vernacular images, Río-Montevideo is to be mounted at London’s Photographer’s Gallery. This exhibition originated from the artist’s residency at Uruguay’s Centro de Fotografía researching their photography collection of the now defunct communist newspaper El Popular.
Comprising thirty-two images, the project highlights the often overlooked narratives of everyday protagonists during the 60s and 70s, a time of great social and political upheavals in Uruguay and throughout Latin America. These include pictures of boxing and football matches, religious ceremonies, demonstrations and armed confrontations between the military police and protesters in the central streets of the capital. By focusing on these visual memories Rennó seeks to address elements of the phenomena of national amnesia surrounding historical events – born out of the censorship imposed by the dictatorial regime of the time.
The images were mainly taken by Aurelio González, chief photographer of El Popular, and other photojournalists who worked for the newspaper: Hermes Cuna, Julio Alonso, Eduardo Bonomi, Sergio Pereyra, Héctor Mesa and Aurelio’s son, Fernando González. Founded in 1957, the newspaper ran through to June 1973 when it was shut down on the eve of the military coup. Foreseeing the paper’s imminent closure, González hid its entire photographic archive consisting of 48, 626 negatives between the walls of its office building. He was then forced to leave the country and spent the next twelve years travelling across America and Europe, raising awareness of the political situation in Uruguay and South America before finally returning to Uruguay in 1985 following the end of the dictatorship.
On his return González tried to retrieve the negatives but discovered the old office building had undergone renovations and these could no longer be found. They were to remain hidden for two more decades until the son of the owner of the building that previously housed El Popular discovered a canister of negatives. These eventually reached the Centro de Fotografía who, recognising the importance of the find, assisted in the recovery of the full archive. Had these films not been hidden, the archive would almost certainly have been destroyed during the dictatorship’s rule. Retrieved, they constitute an invaluable visual record of the years of economic downturn and public unrest preceding the military coup – a period which bears almost no photographic witness.
For the presentation of Río-Montevideo, Rennó uses twenty slide projectors of varying formats, models and eras, found in the flea markets of Tristán Narvaja (Montevideo) and Troca-Troca (Rio de Janeiro). For Rennó these projectors offer a mechanical analogy to the materiality and endurance of El-Popular’s negatives, a quality she feels is now lost in an age of digital disposal. The projectors are operated by visitors who manually trigger individual bulbs to expose each slide. As a result of these interactions the ever changing sequence of images on the wall offers viewers new and diverse readings of the events depicted. Also playing in the space is a classical composition of the famous Communist International anthem.
The overall effect is that of a fragmented history which seeks to interrogate the past while questioning the relationship between collective national narratives and recorded facts.