Power Structures: FotoFest Focuses on Critical Geography

When you think of geography, you may think of maps: maps showing state capitals, maps showing rivers, forests, deserts, and lakes, or maybe maps showing the migration patterns of your favorite species of bird. Alternatively, it may call to mind strict borders—invisible or not so invisible lines determined by political institutions. Both inform the world we live in, how we relate to the space we occupy, and our experiences in one area vs another.

Critical geography focuses in on oppressive, inequitable power relations in different areas. It may regard capitalist institutions and class, colonialism, ethnicity, race, or any number of factors that determine one’s relationship with a particular area.

This spring, it is the focus of the FotoFest Biennial, simply titled Critical Geography and curated by Steven Evans, Executive Director of FotoFest. Critical Geography will be on view from March 9 to April 21, 2024, in Houston at Sawyer Yards and venues city-wide.

In deciding the overarching theme of the biennial, Evans reflected upon the prior exhibition from 2022 – If I Had a Hammer. The biennial focused that year on how artists impact and are impacted by politics. This year, FotoFest builds from that foundation to highlight artists engaging with the social, economic, and political factors that impact our relationship with space, place, and our sense of community.

“Critical Geography developed for three reasons,” Evans explained. First is the zeitgeist; these issues are front and center in conversations on personal and public platforms. Secondly, it builds on the conversation of the 2022 biennial by speaking to a larger call for decolonization. Finally, there’s work connecting to this theme all over the world.

“I see artwork that inspires me and leads me in the direction I end up taking,” Evans continued. “There was work I was seeing in Singapore and Korea, so it seemed like an unavoidable thing to talk about. There were so many people making work about these issues, and the more we have global communication, the more we have an understanding of the specifics of how these issues affect everyone.”

The biennial will feature works from over 20 artists, including newly commissioned projects and site-specific installations by artists Mark Menjívar, C. Rose Smith, Binh Danh, Sao Sreymao and Zarina Muhammad, Ethel Lilienfeld, and Mónica Alcázar-Duarte.

For this iteration of the biennial, Evans also plans to more closely weave in the other branches of FotoFest, such as their Literacy Through Photography program.

Mark Menjívar, for instance, had a project in San Antonio working with high school students. The results of this collaboration overlaid statements from the students on photos.

“We brought Mark in as an artist in residence and commissioned him to develop new work,” said Evans. “He used the San Antonio project as a jumping off point to work with the legacy of Freedom Schools, collaborating with students from Jack Yates High School in a project called Looking Up.”

For the project, Menjívar asked the students to take a photo of the horizon, primarily focusing on open sky, and complete the sentence, “I am for a school that…” with results as bold as they are poetic:  I am for a school that is honest as a mirror, honest as the sun. The collaboration will be on view at Fotofest, and a selection will be on view at George Bush International Airport later this year.

Mónica Alcázar-Duarte, on the other hand, will repurpose films produced with the support of The National Geographic Society. U K’ux Kaj / Heart of sky Mayan god of storms (2023–24) and Nepantla (2023–24) look at how the colonization of South America can be seen in the impending colonization of Mars, presented as an immersive experience in Critical Geography.

“When you’re putting together a project like this, finding balance and being inclusive is important,” Evans said. “There were topics that felt very important to cover: how communities make space, how do the ways a government changes geography affect people, how do these elements affect things we don’t consider, like air.”

Artists Phillip Pyle II and Binh Danh refocus archival materials to process historical information to connect with the present in different ways. Pyle removes words from picket signs used in civil rights marches, reflecting on the history textbook released by the Texas School Board that twists and outright omits facts. Danh, on the other hand, manipulates traditional photographic techniques to print on colonial-era objects. His source material is a collection that spans 20 years with information on migrant workers, sharecroppers, and slaves.

“A big part of artists’ role is to reflect what is going on in society today,” says Evans. “These are some of the most important things happening right now, and we want to consider how artists look at things happening right this minute and how they might look back at it in a hundred years.”