María Isabel Arango, Los Gestos Muertos

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2017 (no book link available). Softcover, 336 pages, with 328 black and white photographs. The book comes in a box. In an edition of 50 copies, each signed and numbered. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The long running conflict between the Colombian government and the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), the main rebel group, spanned over 50 years, making it the longest civil conflict in the region, resulting in the death of more than 200,000 Colombians and the displacement of many millions more. Peace negotiations between the two sides began in 2012 (mainly taking place in Havana, Cuba) and a final agreement to end the conflict was reached in August 2016.

That process led to a public referendum in October 2016 to approve the peace deal. But hampered by low voter turn out, it was rejected by a narrow margin (a half of a percentage point against the peace accord). This led Colombia’s congress to approve a revised peace agreement in December 2016. And while the significance of the overall peace process is undeniable, both the lack of transparency and limited press coverage by the Colombian media (the peace deal didn’t make headlines on radio and TV newscasts) were troubling issues.

María Isabel Arango, a visual artist from Colombia, offers her reflection on the peace process in a recently self-published photobook. Arango’s project Los Gestos Muertos (meaning “the dead gestures” in Spanish) was first presented as a performance and exhibition, and later turned into a photobook. Her primary research focused on portraits of Colombian politicians as they delivered speeches during the peace talks. As the negotiations were held behind closed doors, the only access the public actually had to the proceedings was through the limited press and government sources. Drawing from the Internet, newspaper clippings, magazine spreads and other sources, Arango assembled an extensive collection of images which became the raw material for her artistic efforts.

As a photobook, Los Gestos Muertos is medium sized, hosted inside a black box and with the title appearing in red on top. Two strings inside help to carefully lift the book outside of the box. The book has a rich red cover, which stands in high contrast to the full bleed black and white images inside (the images were apparently converted to black and white to create a consistent aesthetic motif) – and this juxtaposition reminds us of the bloody deals that politicians often have to make. The book is printed on a newsprint-style paper and the black ink easily stains the fingers. There is no text or other explanatory background, yet the context and the title of the book make further supporting materials unnecessary.

The images collected by Arango depict politicians gesticulating, pointing, touching their faces, making signs, holding microphones, and shaking hands and were sorted by the various intentions of the hand motions: assurance, persuasion, threat, and approval. She then cropped the photographs of the politicians to show only their hands. As Arango crops out faces, she removes the main actors and their emotional expressions. The gestures now clearly signify the performative act of political sphere. Certain details, like expensive looking suits, ties, watches and jewelry remind us that these people hold plenty of power in their now disembodied hands.

Throughout the book, there are also small interventions that can be seen as additional comments. For instance, one spread pairs an image of a white bear covering its head with a palm and an image of a sculpture depicting a man covering his face with hands. There are also shots of ordinary people covering their mouths with their hands. These isolated gestures function as signs of disappointment and shock, and mixed with the images of people in power, they provide a reference point of action and reaction. And of course, these images of people also remind us whose interests these politicians were elected to represent.

The organizing concept behind Arango’s book is both simple and powerful. As we flip the pages back and forth, diving into an effluence of hands, it is clear that this symbolic reference can be applied to political processes far beyond Colombia. Los Gestos Muertos, with its visual humor and strong political context, is without a doubt a sharp and witty protest photobook.

Collector’s POV: María Isabel Arango does not appear to have gallery representation at this time.

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