A Radical Lens
In looking at the films and photography of Rachelle Mozman, and her collaborations with her mother, a native of Panama, as well her work with friends and locals from the same region of Central America and Brooklyn, New York, there is a plethora of challenging questions that arise. Especially as an artist who is dealing with the narrative of Latino minorities whose image and bodies have been neglected, marginalized and abused; who appropriates images, text and other materials that blatantly highlights this racism while herself the daughter of immigrant parents. You can see how quickly it becomes difficult to weave together a contemporary narrative that includes the weight of history, and all of the supporting materials and willing participants, in the telling of a such a long-standing history of abuses. Y de una voz Latina.
As described on Mozman’s website Opaque Mirror, 2017, is a fourteen minute video work based on fantasies of the short time Paul Gauguin traveled to Panama. "The story satirically examines the artist’s search for subjects, “primitive” life and racial purity as described in letters to his wife and his book Noa Noa, within a diverse Caribbean topography. Opaque Mirror, is a playful imagining of what might have been the stories of the women who were his muses.”
Before the opening scene, Mozman concisely provides us with important details that establish a contextual history: "In 1887, Gauguin arrived in Panama to find success as an artist and happiness in the tropics. Gauguin lived in Isla Taboga, a small island off of Panama City. He began working for the Panama Canal and grew very ill. Miserable with his experience, he left Panama, leaving nothing but letters to his wife marking his time there." Gauguin's own words and racist views of Panama and its citizens becomes the catalyst for Mozman's exploration of narrative in all of its complexity, satire and painful depictions:
My dear, here I am in Panama...the voyage was tough. Bad weather and third-class passengers packed like sheep. In eight days times, we should be on our tiny island, living like savages, and I assure you, there's is not the unhappiest lot. The first view of this part of the island discloses nothing very extraordinary, nothing for instances that can be compared with the magnificence of Rio de Janeiro.
The new place I had arrived to was a burden. It's like what I already knew I had thought to shake off, and that under the circumstances of snobbery, imitation, grotesque, even to the point of caricature of our customs, fashions, vices. Was I to have made this journey to find the very thing which I fled. I was hopeful to find in this place my happiness.
As the son of immigrant parents from neighboring Colombia, the words of the famed French painter are not surprising, and are especially hurtful and revelatory juxtaposed by the stunning economy of moving images as we hear the piercing sound of Gauguin's words. As evidenced in his disparaging description of Panama and its people, Mozman highlights this with a panoramic view of black and white photos of young indigenous girls (that would have been the subjects of his paintings), hanging against a wall of thin bamboo foregrounded with a series of small busts and other clay sculptures on a wooden table. The appearance of colorful foliage made of cut paper and the glow of magenta that radiates through the bamboo, and cascades over these beautiful faces, communicates a poignant and elegant rebuttal to Gauguin's search for racial purity.
The centerpiece of the video surrounds Gauguin's description of a young girl in his bedroom who he wants to make a portrait of:
The girl entered my chamber where I lay, she had the face of a child, she stood motionless. On her face, I could not find the authenticity I had hoped for. Tried to conceal my disappointment. Will you let me make your portrait? She agreed, showing neither displeasure, nor eagerness.
In this scene where Gauguin is retelling his experience of not being able to find the authenticity and purity he was looking for; the artist, whose face is adorned with paint and meant to remind us of the indigenous culture of Panama, is set against a bamboo backdrop. His gaze fixed on meeting the eyes of young indigenous girl who is on the other side. Here is where Mozman is at her best and most critical; her use of indigenous iconography on Gauguin's face turns everything on its head and brings the message of the work's title, Opaque Mirror, home. Ironically, the face that Gauguin is so desperately trying to find and is veiled by bamboo, is the image that burns into view. Mozman beautifully channels Édouard Manet's Olympia, 1863, a muse whose eyes are present and turned on us. This moment so rich and filled with satire cannot be understated.
The importance of controlling and communicating the power of our own image is obviously not lost on Mozman, but this line of work can also be painstaking arduous and filled with an overwhelming sense of responsibility to the collaborators she is working with, and the dark history she and other practitioners continue to reveal in the systematic abuse and spread of racist ideology. So much of our conversation during my visit dealt with the difficulties of dealing with all this history and content, and the ability to filter it down and reclaim the narrative through her own lens. The work she is undertaking is hard, but if Opaque Mirror and her previous body of work show, Mozman is meeting the moment with an agility and power that allows us to look at ourselves and each other, and find a face freed from the stereotypes and sickening representations from those who believe we appear to them as caricature.
As the exhibition which recently opened at the Brooklyn Museum Radical Women: Latin American Art: 1965-1980 reveals, Mozman (who is two generations younger than the artists in this show) is part of a long and storied tradition of female artists who continue to use their bodies for political and social critique and radical expression.
Rachel Mozman grew up in New York City and makes work between Panama and Brooklyn, NY. You can enjoy her innovate work in film and photography here: www.rachellemozman.com