Metaphysic Mutations in color
This book is, above all, the story of a man who will rather transit on the outskirts, paraphrasing the poet, in the outside walls of the world. For the hero of this book, the sheep are already too many: we outsiders watch reality form the outside and analyze it. Swimming against the tide is a clash of titans. But from pain emerge beauty, new worlds; phantasmal, dark, strobing, healing, questioning, iridescent dimensions; raw, colored structures that lull both saints and pagans, as the sea when it mineralizes the human who goes into it, walking on the sand with tempestuous steps, or with the sun on their chest.
This book is, above all, the story of a man who would rather register the soul of a people in the verge of disappearing, or of being reborn. I am at war with the obvious, said the legendary US coloristic photographer William Eggleston; and the author of this book makes that evident concept his in his photos, that take us deep in the magical maws of Lobitos, town enclosed within itself.
In Lobitos, doors open and close on their own: the wind wriggles as if it were the spirit of the luxury that lived there at the beginning of the 20th Century, in the middle of the dessert: social clubs, pinewood houses, a church, a market, a sophisticated desalinization plant, 250 petroleum wells and the first movie theater in South America. A marvel of the industrial period developed when Lobitos Oilfields Limited started operating there in 1905, near Km 1147 of the Panamericana Norte highway, in a hidden district of the province of Talara (next to the sea), in the department of Piura. Nowadays, among its residents, a legend lives, about a Queen of England who visited it and walked on a red carpet so long that it joined the pier and the church of the first industrial petroleum camp in the world.
Lobitos. The beach that whistles. Lobitos. A separate town. Wild and coruscating nature that laughs in the face of those who attempted to tame it, no matter how many petroleum entrepreneurs and military who cemented it, timbered it and filled it with infrastructures, exploiting everything once and once again; it never stopped expressing itself. Nature in its rocks, in its sea, in its sky; in its mysterious mountains that metaphysically mutate, joyous in their impermanence. Santiago Bustamante Mujica responded to this gesture, uncovered his Hasselblad X1D and discovered the secrets of Lobitos walking among its entrails, or ride across its aura on a mototaxi, always towards the peripheral. And so begins the story of the man who converses with the ghosts of the salty city, he who exchanges hearts like a fish in the water. This is how the book titled Lobitos came into being.
In Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia: work written more than five decades ago by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (product of direct reflection on the French May), the authors mention the vanishing line as an act of resistance and affirmation; a vanishing line allows a metamorphosis within a system, to be somebody else, to rebel against the dogmatic, to be a schizo in pursuit of action; and that is something the system fears as much as the un-territorialization, that proposes a sort of ontological anarchy.
Santiago Bustamante Mujica’s vanishing lines started showing even before discovering photography. He remembers: “My first act of rebellion was to drop out of Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, after completing Estudios Generales Letras (two years of humanities studies), specifically after one week in the faculty of Economics; I told myself it was not for me; I had to break away from the family pressure for transfering to Universidad de Lima and joining the Faculty of Communications; it was a radical change; there, I discovered photography.”
He started with abstracts in black and white, deeply influenced by two world photography masters, North Americans Aaron Siskind and Minor White; the chiaroscuros, the strong contrasts in his photos expressed a dissociation that our artist started experimenting inside, and that was reinforced by the strong political discussions he witnessed at home. For seven years, he exclusively produced black and white photography until he became, thanks to a small lab he assembled in his garage, what North Americans call a Master black & white printer. Afterwards, in New York, from scratch, he started exacerbating color; a practice that captivated him for life to the point of also becoming a both analog and digital Master color printer.
According to Santiago’s words, “three intense years” were those he lived in New York. Thanks to the fact that he studied a master’s degree in Visual Arts (MFA), with a major in Photography and Related Media in the School of Visual Arts (SVA), he met many famous photographers, such as Martin Parr and Alex Webb. The latter was his thesis counselor, together with another world-known photographer: Stephen Shore, pioneer in color experimentation, with whom in 2001 he made a tour as part of an image hunt in mysterious Peruvian territories, such as Nazca and Cusco; an initiation voyage that would consolidate their professor-disciple relation. Shore, we must add, was a protagonist photographer in The Factory of Andy Warhol. Santiago points out: “I also had the great honor of conversing with people of the standing of my idol Robert Frank, with William Eggleston –an important North American photographer who is well known for achieving the recognition of color photography as a form of expression worthy of being exhibited in art galleries-, at the opening of his exhibition in Chelsea.”
An event worth highlighting, given its importance in the evolution of our artist’s work, took place precisely in New York. In his first class with Stephen Shore, at SVA, Santiago was impressed by the work of Germans Bernd & Hilla Becher –known for their series of images of industrial buildings and structures- that he showed his students. The architecture the German couple of photographers, as well as Shore, present in perfect framing, imposes on the landscape because it transforms it into an often apocalyptic, futurist, expectant, desolate and even extraterrestrial one. Bustamante specifies: “It was then when I shot my first nocturnes in color in marginal neighborhoods close to Manhattan, like Queens, for example, where I lived.
We have already mentioned the admiration of our artist for chiaroscuro; but the nocturnes Santiago refers to –Suburban Spaces (New York City, 2001)–, as well as those he produced some time later in California –Industria (California, 2004)– bring out his favorite line of work –or escape– that would consolidate the character of his photographs: the immense importance of the Chromatic, as well as weakness for what the Peruvian expressionist painter Enrique Polanco called The asthetics of abandonment (when he wrote about Santiago’s photos in the book titled Nocturnos limeños published by Fondo Editorial de la Universidad de Lima –where our artist works as a professor– in October 2018) in reference to the decadent marginal architecture. These aspects of his creation are of course, also present in Lobitos.
But it is exactly in his past photographic excursions that we can unsnarl the present of his work. Santiago specified he moved to New York to teach in a community college; and for producing the series of nocturnes titled “Industria” he used a plate camera. In “Industria” photos of immense factories that work by night are seen, lit with almost outer space colors, which make them seem like gigantic monsters in the middle of darkness, emanating smoke of diverse colors; obviously, there is an allusion to the environmental issue, Santiago says. And the thing is, politics, activism contrary to the system will always pierce through his creations, sometimes hidden; sometimes gaudy, as it happened mostly at the beginning, when he plowed through the waves of photojournalism.
During one of his returns to Lima, in 2002, he came across an immense protest against the visit of Bush to Peru. He took hundreds of photos of that demonstration, that had Confederación General de Trabajadores del Perú (CGTP), as protagonists at the San Martín Square; he registered US flags with the swastika superimposed, with skulls instead of stars; he photographed people carrying and burning a coffin of Bush; also a great wall where protesters made a graffiti that surprised him enormously “for being ahead of its time”; on the walls, read: “the CIA blowed up the Twin Towers”. Only in two places was he able to show these photos: in a gallery in Manhattan called White Box; and at the controversial The Brecht Forum in New York soon after 9/11, the dramatic event that made many North Americans “wake up” and ask themselves “why they were hated in many countries of the world”, according to Bustamante, who adds: “The images were quite controversial for those times of fear, of media control; there was apprehension of speaking ill of the Bush policy.”
In relation to the career and professional adventures of Santiago Bustamante Mujica, a lot more can be said; photographically speaking, he practically, did a little bit of everything; we will only add that his curriculum is impressive, and it includes teaching in foreign universities, as well as exhibitions in the United Kingdom, Sweden and Peru, of course; with his Hasselblad, he has traversed US and Peruvian cities such as Lima, Cuzco and Tarapoto without losing sight of perfect compositions, the exacerbation of color, the abstract, architecture of the marginal; on occasions accompanied by even two bodyguards; sometimes, defeated by the law.
This book is, mainly, the story of a man who “unintentionally” started taking pictures of marginal locations; and after a while he realized why he did it: “I identify with decadent structures; with peeled walls; with all things that are outside what we know as ‘city’; with what is on the periphery. I discovered theses places coincided with my feelings…”
The theory of equivalence formulated by Alfred Stieglitz (North American photographer who became relevant at the beginning of the 20th Century) has close relation to what Santiago expresses. With a book by Baudelaire in one hand and a camera in the other, Stieglitz settled at the edge of a New York lake and started shooting clouds, and he became so detached that his fears emerged, his happiness, sadness, his most hidden emotions; the clouds, now abstract images, imitated his feelings; equivalences arise; the photographer is not a mere registrar of something others have seen; and our photographer, as visual artist and poet, is rather more like a shaman.
For Claude Lévi-Strauss, as he writes in his book Anthropologie structurale (1958), the cure of the shaman consists on “making explicit a situation originally existent at an emotional level and in rendering acceptable in the spirit the pains the body does not want to accept, causing an experience through symbols, that is, equivalent of things, charged with sense, that belong to another order of reality.”
And there we have dear Havana maestro and senior celebrant, don José Lezama Lima, to approach the image of Rimbaud to that of the shaman. In his book El reino de la imagen (1955), the aesthetic Cuban poet, novelist, essayist and thinker expressed the following: “That way, in his totalizing fragments, Rimbaud is not just the vigorous boost towards metaphor and penetration into the region of the incessant spring of cascades and archetypical houses, woken to this new land of poetry, when acquiring its buried territories, but the secret son of the sorcerer, who stealthily pronounces syllables for the myths, superior than those of his father, and structured for diseases not to settle, with more briefness and fortune of touches, than the healing of the tribe chief by the venerable and centennial wizard.”
Rimbaud himself in his «Lettres du voyant» (1871) writes something about this: “I say one has to be clairvoyant, to become clairvoyant. The poet becomes clairvoyant through a long, immense and reasoned derangement of the senses.”
And what does the photographer Santiago Bustamante Mujica makes us see in Lobitos?
In the section “The English Neighborhood”, we witness a very subjective/expressive documentary in which everything glows at five in the afternoon, “the magic hour”, when the sun always shines, Xanadú, wooden chalets with gable roofs reminding of New Orleans, formerly inhabited by petroleum workers, now revived by surfers or evangelic churches.
In “Beach” (Playa), the reflection of the sky in the sea shown an excitement of colors; the lunar sand surface offers faces; psychedelia transports us to the spirituality of art, or the cinematography of Oliver Stone or Wim Wenders. In “Fishing” (Pesca), the fish are from another universe and tell us a story, while they are stabbed in the eye by the fishermen.
The “red series” (La serie roja) and “Landscapes” (Paisajes) show pictures that are rabidly and organically abstract depending on how they are seen; and they also look at us, those pictures; or the earth living and corporeal, in chiaroscuro, the earth, spirit-animals, animals of a prehistoric future, mythical. In “Cemetery” (Cementerio) the tombs of the English emerge from the earth: SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF JAMES HIPPS BOOTH. DIED FEBRUARY 15TH. 1925. AGED 65 YEARS. In “Ruins” (Ruinas) bricks crumble, they light and extinguish, they form Roman and totemic ruins, and a swimming pool announces the party was over decades ago.
“Petroleum” (Petróleo) and “English Containers” (Tanques ingleses) represent the structure of a system in decadence, but functional, stealthy; a rocket that will never take off; collapsed bases show their experimental entrails; and robots resign themselves to being enslaved.
The expressionist and the abstract blend once again in “Details and Abstracts” (Detalles y abstractos) and in “Surfaces and Textures” (Superficies y texturas); and we seem to be immersed in a Japanese war, where there is hell and celestial beauty. “The Golden Series” (La serie dorada) closes stunningly, and once again colors burst flaky, scaly, “watercoloury”, vertiginously scrambled.
On April 22, 2014, Santiago Bustamante Mujica noted down the following notes:
- 1. Finding beauty where others never will look for it
- 2. Arrange the chaos by means of composition
- 3. Transform the ordinary into extraordinary
- 4. Fight against the obvious…
Months later, in the following pages, he wrote:
“During the las few days, I have been thinking about three important values: first, in the real importance of GIVING, in the full sense of the word; second, to what extent BEING KIND with everyone in general is essential, whether they are acquaintances or strangers; finally, I was thinking about how transcendent BEING GRATEFUL is, also in all its possible dimensions. I think these three small ideas are fundamental in the life of any good person.”
Lobitos is the story of a man who rather transit on the outskirts, outside the walls of the world, but who also illuminates our souls.
With all the darkness it entails.
Walking many steps further in the inter-dimensions of his work. And of photography.
GABRIEL GARGUREVICH PAZOS
Journalist and writer