I have been doing anthropological photography for the past thirty-five years, and my work has focused on popular customs and folkways. In Devils of Turiamo (Corpus Christi), folklore is a contemporary expression, since it manages to update codes whose formal aspects are altered while their traditional content is essentially conserving. We could say that folklore is a dialogue between tradition and the ever-changing ways it has of expressing itself.
From the beginning, this perspective has influenced my quest for a personal language, based on mises-en-scène and certain representations of the sacred, the unclean, and the polluted. In this way, photography functions as an echo chamber for the cultural complexity and diversity that characterize manifestations of folklore, which evolve and change through time. Folkways emerge as a result of the collective practice of anonymous individuals who renew tradition and its formal means of expression. Without this dialogue, it would be impossible to understand the complexity of the contemporary ―and folkways are indeed contemporary.
Drawing on elements of violence, eroticism, and popular culture, Nelson Garrido has created a transgressive, experimental visual language that uses mises-en-scène to question and challenge socially accepted norms and beliefs. In 1991 Garrido was awarded the first edition of the Premio Nacional de Artes Plásticas in Venezuela. He has been selected to participate in the Triennial of Chile and the Mercosur and Havana Biennials. He is the author of the book Nelson Garrido (La Cueva, 2017) and the founder of ONG (Organización Nelson Garrido), a cultural space devoted to the teaching and exhibition of photography. In 2018 he presented the retrospective exhibition La ONG Santiago + de lo profano a lo sagrado in Chile, in which he reflected on the ongoing political and social crisis in Venezuela.
The story in this book begins in the fifteenth century, when Christopher Columbus discovered the Indies. Wars of conquest, forced labor conditions, and European diseases rapidly killed off the indigenous workforce. The Spanish therefore decided to bring enslaved workers over from Africa, who, after long voyages aboard rudimentary sailing ships, were kept in stockades on Caribbean islands and from there sold to places across the mainland.
Reduced to the condition of “beasts of burden,” they worked in mines or in coastal plantations for the nascent agricultural trade, as was the case in Venezuela. A hundred and fifty years ago, before slavery was officially abolished, many of them escaped and formed Maroon settlements. Others settled on the same plantations or haciendas where they had been enslaved or, in more recent times, migrated to cities in search of better opportunities.
Many of the settlements they established still exist today. It is estimated that only ten percent of Venezuela’s population is of African origin. Their small number, added to the process of racial mixing and a characteristically Hispanic social hierarchy that privileges lighter-skinned individuals were among the factors that led to the gradual loss of the African heritage. These historical events, a general dearth of research on the subject, and the poor quality of existing compilations of visual documents proved to be setbacks in the planning of this project.
The contents of this book are the result of two years of fieldwork, which entailed traveling a total distance of 45,000 kilometers and taking roughly 10,000 photographs (1).
Excerpted from Christian Belpaire’s text published in Negro soy negro (Biblioteca Nacional de Venezuela, 1984).
The distinguished Congolese photographer Christian Belpaire devoted a part of his efforts to advertising photography and photojournalism. He is one of the foremost photographers to document the Yanomami culture, the region of Los Llanos (The Plains), and the Afrodescendant communities of Venezuela, in images that highlight the bellicose character of the attire of the people portrayed. He is the author of El llano (Editorial Arte Caracas, 1986), Dejaste atrás lo lejano (Fundación Neumann, 1985), and Negro soy negro (Editorial Palladium, 1984). After studying photography in the studio of Jean-Pierre Sudre in 1970, he worked as a photojournalist in South America for the Camera Press photo agency. He also did documentary work in Belgium, France, England, and Chile. In September of 2003, Belpaire took his own life in New York City.
1. Anthropologist Sheila Walker draws attention to the fact that the indigenous workforce was not exterminated, but that it was decimated by epidemics, wars of conquest, and the conditions of forced labor. She also points out that the Caribbean islands were not used as a place to hold enslaved Africans, although islands such as Curaçao were used as redistribution hubs, and that the vast majority of enslaved Africans were taken directly to the continental Americas, without any stopover in the Caribbean. Walker also considers the term “beasts of burden” to be inadequate, since many Africans possessed the technological skills that existed in the age, particularly in the field of gold extraction. Finally, Walker points out how statistics show that Afro-Venezuelans made up more than 10% of the country’s population at the time.