Janneth Gil - featured portfolio
PhotoForum featured portfolio, September 2019
Essay by Andrew Paul Wood
Janneth Gil is a Colombian born New Zealander living in Ōtautahi Christchurch. Void was created as part of her studies at the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts. Originally presented as a physical installation, this iteration has been developed into an eighteen minute video work.
“No importa qué, nadie puede quitarte los bailes que ya has tenido.” - Gabriel García Márquez, Memoria de mis putas tristes (2004)
(No matter what, no one can take away the dances you’ve already had)
Janneth Gil was born in Colombia and is now a New Zealander living in Ōtautahi Christchurch. Could there be two more drastically different places – Latin America and largely Anglophone South Pacific? As a person and an artist, Gil has tried to find a bridge between these two contrasting poles, a tūrangawaewae or a place to stand. No easy task, requiring a great deal of self-awareness as one must become one’s own still epicentre. Gil herself is profoundly aware of the sense of dislocation, when she says in her work Void:
“I have been living for almost two decades in New Zealand, but I still feel that I don’t belong in this culture; I don’t belong in Colombian culture either. In both places I experience a futile search for belonging. I feel like I exist in an in-between, in an empty space. I exist in a void.”
It is tempting to think in clichés, setting up strawmen of passionate Colombians wearing their emotions on their sleeves, quick to react, theatrical and in the moment, the solidarity of family, pride, the rumbero spirit ever ready to party, often identifying closely with aspects of the otherwise invisible indigenous, versus Aotearoa’s cliquey, insecure, dour, slow to trust Anglo-Celtic reserve and uncertain accommodation with its very visible Māori self. Of course, things are far from that monolithic and clear-cut. Paradoxes are thrown up everywhere at the individual level, as they are in Gil’s own code-switching between her Colombian and New Zealand selves.
In an era of almost unprecedented global migration, a sense of anomie, alienation and epiphytic rootlessness is an increasingly recognisable aspect of contemporary life. Gil conceptualises this limbo as a void between her various identities. “I feel like I exist in and in between or in a cultural void having to constantly reconstruct myself,” she says. “After sharing my stories and listening to many immigrants, I realized that we share similar feelings.” Photography becomes the GPS by which Gil nomadically orientates herself through these complex, hybrid and often contradictory notional selves.
Void began as Gil’s BFA (hons) in photography at the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts (she is now undertaking her MFA) and offered an opportunity to negotiate and navigate this void through an intellectual and aesthetic process of wayfinding. The camera is an eye, but also a witness and an act of recording. It can aid self-understanding and mapping out personal evolution, but it can also open up empathy, identification and understanding, and perhaps greater multicultural harmony. Drawing on US philosopher Howard Stein’s assertion that, “the beauty of strangeness lies in the freedom for self-creation, but fears are easily fed by insecurity and a need to become part of the new society and to feel accepted,” Gil explores transculturalism and identity construction through her own autobiographical, often raw narratives. Instead of being an absence or an abyss, the void becomes a discursive space.
Originally a curated installation, this iteration of Void is in the form of a video work, bringing the vignettes and snapshots into a linear form where once they were experienced at once as a single environment. The individual images bound together by Gil’s personal story and impressions in loose conversation with herself (more epistolary than diaristic), offer a kind of therapeutic experience for artist and audience analogous to psychologist Silvan Tomkins “affect theory”. The latter posits that a biological component of emotion hardwired into human beings through physiological responses to pleasant and unpleasant stimuli. In turn this has been taken up by Australian art historian Susan Best as the basis of what she calls “reparative aesthetics”, where the formal beauty of an image allows the viewer to contemplate uncomfortable ideas without triggering alienation or revulsion. The beauty of Gil’s images is the spoonful of sugar that allows the medicine to go down. The aesthetic diffuses the defensiveness of an audience that might not ordinarily be open to the discussion. Gil provides what she hopes is a healing and guiding narrative.
Gil draws on the work of a number of photographers including Alex Webb’s images of Mexican life (noting shared cultural traits with her native Colombia), inspired by his dramatic formalist use of composition, light and shade to evoke emotion and mystery; and Alessandra Sanguinetti’s 2003 photodocumentary series The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams for their sensitive psychological portraits of two young girls growing up. Other sources of inspiration include Adam Jeppesen’s 2008 Wake, Peter Beard’s collaged journals, Ken Schles’ 1998 Invisible City, Jim Goldberg’s 2013 Rich and Poor, Masahisa Fukase’s 1991 Solitude of Ravens, Susan Meiselas’ 2001 Pandora’s Box and Fiona Clark’s Go Girls series from the early 1970s. Several Magnum photographers appear in that list, indicative of the documentary nature of Gil’s project, and all of the photographers are notable for the sensitivity of their depiction of vulnerable subjects and formal creativity.
Although at great pains to accurately depict her subjects with minimal projection on her part, there is a distinctly romantic quality to the images in Void, an appeal to the transcendental and universal that is often quite dreamlike. She blends subtly magical elements with the rational and photojournalistic in a way that evokes the realismo mágico of Latin American literature, touching on fable, myth and allegory, highlighting the magical lying within the smooth realism implied by the photographic image. That enigmatic quality delineates the Wittgensteinian limits of communication between worldviews whence all art comes from. This aesthetic allows Gil to move gently and compassionately through a contested terrain, both familiar and alien, describing her truth in her own words as she personally connects with the viewer. The result is objective, but with no shortage of heart.
Andrew Paul Wood, August 2019
Andrew Paul Wood is a Christchurch-based independent cultural historian, art writer and critic. He writes for a number of publications including Art News New Zealand and Art Monthly Australasia. He was co-translator (with Friedrich Voit) of two collections of the poetry of Karl Wolfskehl, and is art and essays editor at takahē magazine.
Janneth Gil is a Colombian-born New Zealander. She is an Engineer and a Photographer currently studying a Master of Fine Arts, majoring in Photography at the University of Canterbury.
She uses her art as a tool for social change and focuses her work on making an impact on problems that rise from discrimination and excesses of individualism. Her images often depict objects, places or people’s interactions with others and their environment, and broadly investigates cultures, societal norms and the conflict between perceptions, emotions and reality.
She has received several scholarships and awards including; Ethel Rose Overton Scholarship, Ethel Susan Jones Fine Arts Travelling Scholarship, College of Arts Honours Scholars Award, the Vice Chancellor’s Excellence Award, Canterbury University Art Scholars scholarship, the Friends of the Christchurch Art Gallery Scholarship, the Student of the Year Award at the Design and Arts College of New Zealand and she also was selected as one of the finalists for the ZAFAA18 and the Christchurch Art Show Awards in 2015.