Susana Dobal: Minding Language

One of the things I like to say is that if your work isn’t personal it isn’t worth doing. However my navel – and probably yours – is not of a great deal of interest to the rest of the world (I don’t even have any diamonds in mine, and generally prefer to keep it out of sight.) Our work also has to have something to say to other people, in some way reflecting our ideas, the issues that concern us. It has to be about something.

In photography we share a more or less common visual language across cultures. I can look at and respond (and have written about) work from China or Mexico or Mali or Albania, and although I may perhaps miss some of the more local cultural references, feel that I can appreciate (and criticise) the work.

But once we enter the Tower of Babel and bring written (or spoken) language into our work things can become more difficult. I probably am not the right person to review the work of Susan Dobal, whose Alem-Mar (Beyond the Sea) was showing at the Espaco Cultural Renato Russo in Brasilia last month, though I spent some time looking at it and thinking about it while my own work was being hung in the adjoining space. Dobal teaches photography at the University of Brasilia and has a PhD in the history of art from the City University of New York (2003) ws as as a masters in phtoography from New York University. She is one of four members of the Brazilian photo group ‘Ladrões of Alma‘ (The soul-stealers) along with Rinaldo Morelli, Usha Velasco and Marcelo Feijó.
For Dobal’s images of Portugal have added text in Portuguese. A woman totally in black, including a black hood, perhaps a religious or a widow in mourning, stands with her back to us on a stone floor in front of the massive warm orange pillars and arched doorway of a cathedral or something similar. She is small, seen from a middle distance, just right of the centre of the image.

From ‘
Alem-Mar’, (C) Susana Dobal (image Foto Arte2007)

It was an interesting image with some nice use of colour and a contrast between the light and warmth and power of the strong erect verticals and the deep sinister blackness of the crow-like figure.

But there was more to it. As if projected onto the floor was a short text in Portuguese, intended to contrast and illuminate the work. I think it says

sob sol escaldante
passeia a dor secular e ambulante”

which appears to mean

under the burning sun
strolls a pain secular and walking

Either I am missing something in my translation, or the text seems to add little or nothing to my reading of the image.

This was disappointing, as her earlier work on Zone Zero uses text in a far more interesting manner. In World, the images are largely of trees in urban settings shot in the ‘Superquadras‘ of Brasilia, but are combined with captions giving snippets of world news. These contrast with the seeming calm and isolation of these residential building blocks of the city, in which, if present, people are shown as isolated individuals.

From ‘Alem-Mar’, (C) Susana Dobal
(My apologies for the shadow at the top due to gallery lighting – and for generally poor reproduction.)

There were two pictures that attracted me very much as images in ‘Alem Mar’, Solar de Mateus I and II – presumably taken in the grounds of the famous Portuguese ‘stately home’ or manor house which is open to the public. One was of a many-trunked tree in a garden with some purple flowers, words added on its trunks and branches, in a very organic fashion. Again I’m not sure what they add to a picture that again shows Dobal as an excellent colorist.

A final image that caught my imagination is also on the Foto Arte site:

and here it was the flow of the text and the flow or the girl’s hair. Barroco means weird or freaky (or baroque) but my dictionary doesn’t include ‘alumbramento‘, although it sounds like some musical term and is certainly the title of a song.

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