Visceral Imagining


Comprehensive Survey Captures 150 Years of Guatemalan Life

With the tensions surrounding the immigration issue today, it’s always good for people to remind themselves just how little they sometimes know about present-day immigrants. There’s a tendency in these contentious times to cast a kind of blanket over the issue, one generally grounded in an “illegal vs. legal” argument.

In this argument, immigrants from Mexico and various parts of Central America get lumped together into one indistinct group. But a visit to the Art Museum of the Americas offers a startling and eye-opening reminder of just how distinct that indistinct group is.

In an evocative, comprehensive and large exhibition titled “Imagining / Imaginando Guatemala,” a country, its people and history emerge—if not entirely without attendant clichés—through viscerally real photographs ranging from 1850 to the present day.

In the exhibition, which covers a good chunk of two floors and a number of galleries in the relatively small museum, a diverse array of faces have been captured by cameras that range from the daguerreotype to the digital. These people stand stiffly, formally or awkwardly, as if some requirements were being asked of them, or they pose in triumph, or are absolutely still in death.

Some are the indigenous remnants of the native Mayan culture, while others are the upstanding representatives of colonial, merchant and corporate powers. There are also soldiers, children, politicians, presidents, ambassadors, dictators and despots—not to mention the picture-takers themselves, a remarkably diverse group made up of 50 national and foreign photographers.

Some of the earliest photographs appear to have a market in mind, made by Europeans or class-conscious local photographers posing indigenous peoples—workers, children of slaves, farmers—or dressing up the elites in their identifying elaborate and ornate clothing. Among these, you will find a president—Manuel Estrada Cabrera, both while he was ruling and in prison—as well as portraits of assassins and their victims.

Upheaval in the form of earthquakes, revolutions, coups and demonstrations is a recurring theme here as well. You’ll see whiplash-like snapshots of the devastation caused in Guatemala City in 1917 and 1918 and again in 1976 when massive earthquakes killed thousands.

But the revolutions and coups, the politics of Guatemala, took their toll too. For instance, the power of a photo by Marlon Garcia is conveyed by its stingingly detailed title: “Funeral portrait of the reencounter of the family of Juana Pacheco and her sisters assassinated in the Che! Massacre of April 2, 1982.”

Even in a worldly city such as Washington, it’s doubtful that the majority of people who live or visit here know a lot about Guatemala, and yet much of the work in this exhibition seems disquietingly familiar. The Mayan ruins, for example, seem like a barely distinguishable, ghost-like echo of a lost civilization. The coffee plantations, the long line of generals and officers staring into the camera ready for action, the self-satisfied owners, the foreigners dressed up in pith helmets as if on safari—they all look like common images we’ve seen elsewhere around the world.

But it’s the individuals that are important here. After all, to individualize a country or a culture, you have to individualize its people—and in this display, Guatemala’s people come alive for us, revealing a country with diverse strains running through it like powerful music with discordant notes. Just look at a group portrait of natives from the Gilbert Islands brought to work on Guatemala’s coffee plantations and you’ll get a glimpse into how such diversity was created. The coffee industry also accounts for the country’s large population of natives from India.

Strange too that the large and almost fantastical landscapes of ruins and lakes tend to have English surnames attached to them, while the most magical and theatrical portraits of Mayans dressing up tend to be the work of an Italian: photographer Tomasso Zanotti.

It’s evident that photography in Guatemala from the 1850s to the present seemed to reflect the growth of the medium everywhere else—postcard work merges with ornate portraits, for example, while the 1940s are characterized by extremely, almost-Hollywood-Hurrell-style-lit portraits.

As political turmoil and repression increased, the photographs became more energized and dramatic—as if trying to find a way out of the conflict. These photos from the 1950s through the present day ought to entice viewers to the museum’s book holdings to learn about all of the international tensions and local power struggles, the disastrous revolutions and civil strife, and the horrors of a time when people disappeared namelessly into mass graves.

It’s a long journey, still ongoing, with some of it making its way to the United States. Guatemala has gone from Mayan descendants playing dress-up to transplanted plantation workers to Sandra Sebastian’s “Child’s Play,” where a smiling small boy points a big handgun at the viewer, to a high-spirited Gay Pride Parade photo today. “Imagining Guatemala” lets you do just that—imagine a country that is whole yet fractured, diverse, full of noise, color and the dramas lived by its peoples.

Imagining / Imaginando Guatemala through Nov. 25 Art Museum of the Americas of the Organization of American States 201 18th St., NW For more information, please call (202) 458-6016 or visit

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.