Mariela Sancari, Moisés

JTF (just the facts): Published by La Fabrica in 2015 (here). Hardcover, 64 pages, with 51 color photographs. In an edition of 1000 copies. There are no texts or essays. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Mariela Sancari is originally from Argentina, but since the late 1990s, she has lived in Mexico City. She started her career as a staff photographer at a local newspaper and as a freelancer, but when she won a residency with Centro de la Imagen in 2011, she made the decision to focus on her personal photo projects. Since then her work has taken off, bringing invitations to festivals, portfolio reviews, and broad recognition.

Sancari’s photography takes a close and very intimate look at identity, and in particular, the way we build and process memories. Her first project, entitled The two headed horse, dealt with her relationship with her twin sister and their strong connection. As she worked on that project, she seems to have gradually become more comfortable opening up and touching on deeply personal subjects. Her second project, Moisés, is a continuation of that inward looking investigation.  

Sancari’s project goes back to 1990, a day her father, Moisés Sancari, committed suicide; she was 14 years old at that time. For reasons that are still not clear (maybe because it was a suicide, maybe because of their religious beliefs), Sancari and her twin sister were not allowed to see the body or to say a final goodbye. Soon afterward, the family’s life changed dramatically; they left the country, finding new home in Mexico. The absence of their father and the new life away from a familiar environment made the bond between the girls stronger than ever. But their father seemed to haunt them, and they constantly tried to imagine how he would look like if he were still alive.

Sancari ultimately turned her trauma and unanswered questions into a deeply personal photographic project. She placed a classified advertisement in a newspaper in Buenos Aires with a photograph of her father, asking men in their 70s (the general age of her father today if he had been alive) who had any resemblance with the picture to contact her. For such an obscure request, she got plenty of replies. She set up a studio in her childhood neighbourhood and started taking portraits. Sancari asked all the men to wear her father’s clothes, making both a symbolic and visual connection. All the portraits are shot against plain backgrounds and from various angles – Sancari would take a series of front, profile, back, and 3/4 portraits and once a level of trust was established, move on to other postures. In some photographs, her subjects stare straight back in the camera, in others they seem lost in their own thoughts.

The format of this photobook project, through its construction and layout, creates a unique personal experience. The book is put together as two booklets, with the pages crossing from both sides, interleaved one over the other one in the middle, creating triptychs. The first triptych shows portraits of a man in a wool sweater  (it was her father’s) – from the back, in profile, and as he turns his head looking almost at the camera. As you slowly peel out the book, the images start to mix, creating an intermingled array of elderly men. Through this act of almost typological repetition, they all look different, yet there is an elusive could-be-Moisés resemblance that runs through all of them. As we physically turn page after page, we share Sancari’s emotional sensation of searching for her father, with its alternating waves of hope and despondency.

As Sancari was taking the portraits, she realized that most of these men didn’t care much about the project; each had his own reasons to be there and personal stories to share that were unrelated to her quest. To connect with their realities and experiences, she began to include herself in the photographs. As we get closer to the end of the book, there is a tender image of a man brushing Sancari’s hair – we only see her long brown locks, while the man with the comb keeps a distance, abstracted, with his mouth slightly open. This image shows us two people being close and distant at the same time, and it smartly captures the emotional landscape of the project. Throughout the book there are fragments of the original advertisement from the newspaper, and we unintentionally puzzle them together; at the end of the book, they are printed as end papers. The last images show a close up of a man (his chin, his neck, his open mouth) and finally a series of portraits as he is taking a deep breath, relaxing (or maybe dreaming), and turning away. It brings a sense of lightness and release, a relief and an end point.

Working on this project was clearly an intense and emotionally charged experience for Sancari. Moises is a powerful and beautifully produced object that shares with us a portion of her process of grieving. As Sancari moved through this half documentary, half fictional journey, she got closer to knowing her father, grasping at reconstructed memories, and finding a semblance of balance. In an interview, she says: “I’m hoping to have my own child soon. But to do so I had to try and understand my own father. These photographs, and the men that posed for me, have allowed me to become a mother myself”. This moving personal project is a crisply executed demonstration of how artistic creativity can be channeled in unexpected ways, turning a straightforward photo series into a cathartic and healing pilgrimage.

Collector’s POV: Mariela Sancari is represented by Patricia Conde Galeria in Mexico City (here) and by Sello de Agua ART Gallery in Taipei (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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One comment

  1. Pete /

    Excellent review of an extraordinary project. Thank you.

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