Alinka Echeverria Explores Boundaries Between Documentary And Fine Art

Alinka Echeverria was born in Mexico City in 1981 and although she has spent most of her life in the US and Europe, studying at prestigious institutions such as, the International Center for Photography in New York, still retains a deep understanding of her native culture.

Echeverria’s work explores the boundaries between documentary and fine art.  Alinka is very much a visual anthropologist, charting ritualistic behaviour with a keen journalistic eye and transforming her subjects into a conceptual representation.

In her series, ‘The Road to Tepeyac’ for which she won the HSBC photographic prize is a typology of the backs of three hundred Mexican Catholic pilgrims on their journey to the Basilica de Guadalupe. This pilgrimage undertaken by six million people every year, celebrates the five apparitions of the Virgin of Guadalupe in 1531 when the Virgin’s image miraculously appeared onto the cloak of a local indigenous man, called Juan Diego. A belief in this myth of apparition marks a turning point in the spiritual and by extension the territorial conquest by the Spanish. Ever since, the Virgin of Guadalupe has become a central part of the Mexican cultural and spiritual identity and is often called upon as an iconic symbol to represent faith and freedom.

The pilgrims photographed carry ‘their’ own virgin – Paintings, sculptures, posters or cloaks of the Virgin taken from home and shouldered on their backs to the place of the apparition.  The journey is an arduous one, a physical and spiritual undertaking with each pilgrim bearing their own evidence of devotion whilst enforcing their own personal relationship with the Virgin.

Echeverria takes each portrait separately, which is then ‘cut out’ and mounted onto a plain background. This ‘de-contextualisation’ is intended to raise the subject above the corporal world, thus making them appear like an isolated icon.

Seen as a series, each portrait creates a dialogue with the others. A narrative of interconnecting personal missions removed from the rest of the elements originally in the image. The sheer number of portraits helps to create a visual maze of similarities and differences.  With the surrounding landscape removed we are struck by the contrasting richly coloured Virgins and muted tones of the pilgrims. The effect is startling, with focus on the individual yet seen a part of group with shared objectives.

As part of the gallery installation, this series all 150 pieces will be mounted on the wall creating a compelling grid of pilgrims, starkly prominent and ordered against the pure white background. The basement space will be darkened and separated off by black out curtains, inside will be the new ‘Small Miracles’ series. These are close up photographs of small good fortune trinkets, which are sold by the numerous vendors by the site of the apparition. These tiny objects are representations of miracles requested, such as one of a woman with a baby inside her, which would be pinned to a cloak adjunct to the shrine. The interest here is in the object, an image of an image, a kitsch mass-produced thing, created for commercial gain yet bestowed with personal significance and meaning.

This series is presented in light boxes surrounded by a wooden frame, thus giving the impression of an elevated altarpiece, with the ‘miracle’ becoming a glowing token of hope mounted on a cardinal red background.

At once we have an art, which encompasses a range of disciplines, there are various associations with analytical documentary practices yet the work transcends a literal interpretation. Echeverria presents a series that challenges our preconceived notions of representational photography. The emphasis is on image layering as pilgrim becomes a separate identity, removed from the physical world, as Christian Caujolle states in the prologue of the book – ‘They become image because they carry an interpretation of the image they are going to venerate, and because the only thing photography retains of them is this echo image of another image’.

‘The Road to Tepeyac’ is not religious or devotional art, yet charts a mass pilgrimage whereby each pilgrim is examined, isolated and preserved, Alinka has likened her series to the collection of exotic butterflies, which are lined up in a row, documented and displayed. Echeverria simultaneously captures a moment in each of the pilgrim’s progress and the image of their own ‘Virgin’ that they are bearing on their backs. The image of an image creates it own iconographic subtext and this is seen in a truly dramatic fashion with the ‘Small Miracles’ new series.

Alinka Echeverria is a graduate of The International Center of Photography (New York) and has an M.A in Social Anthropology (The University of Edinburgh).  In 2011, she was the Winner of the HSBC Prix pour la Photographie and a participant of the World Press Photo Foundation’s Joop Swart Masterclass. Alinka has been featured in over thirty exhibitions worldwide, notably the 52nd Venice Biennale (2007), Pingyao Photo Festival (China, 2008), The New York Photo Festival (2010), Maison European de la Photographie (Paris, 2011), the National Portrait Gallery (London, 2011).

The show runs 25 May – 22 June EB& Flow 77Leonard Street London EC2A 4QS

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