Operation Condor and the Statue of Liberty: two photography exhibits in Arles address freedom and repression

One day last summer at ‘Les Recontres de la Photographie’ (The Arles Photography Festival), I saw two exhibits that in retrospect seem a dark premonition of today’s political ‘scape. Even their location, in a museum dedicated to fallen Roman rule seems prescient.

The shows were both presented at the ‘Musée départemental Arles Antique’, Arles’ Archaeology Museum. I’ve written about a previous visit to this striking place, and late one morning, I stepped out of the simmering Provencal sun into the Museum’s chilly expanse.

I’d come to see the show on the ground floor “Operation Condor”. Upstairs was a historical exhibit tracing the development and creation of the Statue of Liberty which I didn’t plan to see. She seemed settled history; what new could be learned there? In any case, I only had a few days in Arles; with scads of work to take in, “Lady Liberty” wasn’t a top priority. In retrospect, Liberty had a lot to say, and the pairing of the two exhibits was unexpectedly resonant.

“Operation Condor” presented the passionate work of Portuguese artist Joao Pina, who spent 10 years documenting its complexities. I went to see the show almost the way you might check in on an old acquaintance. Having spent time in the 1980’s heading a non-profit that promoted peace through people-to-people ‘citizen diplomacy’ during Nicaragua’s Contra war, I’d learned some about Latin American dictatorships and U.S. intervention. Operation Condor was notorious. A coordinated anti-communist program conducted against citizens by governments of six South American countries with support of the CIA. Tens of thousands of people were tortured and killed.

The installation was extremely dark. Life-sized, full-body mug shots of exiles lined the entrance walls. There were portraits; survivors of torture and imprisonment accompanied by stories of what they’d risen above in order to continue living. There were photographs of torture chambers, sites of mass death, and unmarked graves. Unspeakable pain.

Pina’s doggedness is evidenced in one photograph in particular. A plane mounted on a pole, angled above a lumberyard. He’d tracked it down. This plane was used by the Argentine security forces to transport tortured humans, living bodies they pushed out over the jungle or into the sea. Disappeared. Pina includes a photograph of the sea. Meditations on the depths to which some descend.

The exhibit followed a rough timeline – presenting near the end photographs from the trials of government and military leaders responsible for the torment. Years after perpetrating these crimes against humanity, they are sentenced, finally, to prison.

The show was an inspiring testament to survival and courage. What struck me was the life this history still held. How people keep going. It had seemed to me settled and in the past, but Pina’s message is that life goes on. The past keeps living in the present, and in the future of these people.

Diogenes Moura who curated the show describes the photographs as “outcries frozen in time”. Joao Pina’s “Operation Condor” unfreezes these stories into the present day.

On an impulse I decided to take a look at the show upstairs after all. “Lady Liberty” surprised me – bright expressions of shared optimism for enlightened democracy, paired against the dark repression and fear in the show below. Each of these exhibits, drawing in its way on humanity’s capacity for greatness and compassion – but from such opposite directions.

Lady Liberty: the Photographic Making of an Icon” was curated by Luce Lebart and Sam Stourdze, the latter in his second year as director of the Recontres. He’s put a mark on the festival that takes on big ideas, and the pairing of these two shows was brilliant.

There were many discoveries for me in the Liberty show. I’d not been aware of the numerous iterations she’d gone through, nor of sculptor Auguste Bartholdi’s obsession with bringing her to the world stage.

Visit this slideshow and read on below.

The Statue of Liberty is based on a colossus Bartholdi had designed for the Suez canal, and the idea of a U.S.-French shared project was only one of the many possibilities he explored for creating his great ‘colossus’.

According to the “Lady Liberty” exhibition statement: “the photographs waver between reality and fiction, documenting 20 years of an outsized, utopian project intersecting with and marked by the greatest political, social, architectural and aesthetic issues of their time.” This seems true, especially the part about her resonance with social issues.

While the show’s main idea is Bartholdi’s brilliance marketing the project and the multiple roles photography played in its success, the exhibit also traces a chronology of the social context in which the sculpture took shape.

The idea for Lady Liberty is attributed to Édouard René de Laboulaye, who proposed to Bartholdi a symbol of U.S. French friendship celebrating the first 100 years of successful American democracy, the end of slavery, and affirming the ideal of a Republic.

The Statue of Liberty (Liberty Enlightening the World) was not initially intended as a monument to open immigration. But at the time of her installation, finally, in New York Harbor, the terrible racism, and antagonism toward refugees that roiled the U.S. led to the Emma Lazarus poem which was eventually inscribed on her base.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

Leaving the museum, I walked along the wonderful Quay of the River Rhone. It’s being developed and extended by the city of Arles, and it is a wonderful place to walk.

I passed by the “Tour de l’Ecorchoir“, a tower from the old Roman city wall, now a ruin. Arles was a significant site in the Roman empire, and walking along those ancient walls beside that beautiful river helped to settle the discordant tension raised by those two shows. I was drawn into a larger context. Empires rise and fall. Citizens within them pursue ideals, suffer for their beliefs, survive, and even triumph.

These days I’m taking some comfort in this awareness of history’s long reach; the knowledge that we’ve been in terrible places before, so we can survive. Human progress dims, goes off course to dictatorship, greed, cruelty, meanness. There’s cold comfort finding relief in the bad spots we’ve been before. But it’s proof we can survive and flourish.

Even when dark prevails, still there is light. Bringing light to shine in every day and in some way of every thing we do, we counteract the darkness – even dark forces like those that led to the Condor.

The slideshow above takes you on a tour through these exhibits with a peek at Roman Arles.


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