Implicit in the adage about a picture being worth a thousand words is the premise that a good photograph needn’t be accompanied by any words.
Fortunately, Richard Keis ignores this in Southern Exposures: Portraits of Oaxaca, at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg through Oct. 28. That’s not much time to see a lot of images, because the work fills not one, but three, galleries, and many are accompanied by a good chunk of text. You’re as likely to get lost in the stories as you are in the pictures.
Keis, a retired teacher and photographer, splits his time between Corvallis and Oaxaca, a region in the southern part of Mexico that has been inhabited continuously for thousands of years. Around 2015, Keis was involved with a photographers’ collective that embarked on the ambitious project of interviewing and photographing Oaxacans at work, especially those in jobs that were, for a variety of reasons, on the cusp of vanishing. Inspired in part by the oral histories of working class Americans collected by Studs Terkel in his 1974 book Working, Keis found himself encountering highly skilled artisans — potters, weavers, feather artists, bakers, and the like. After a street show that proved popular with the workers themselves, the collective planned to turn the project into a book that fell through… so Keis picked it up and ran with it.
“I had maybe four photographs in that show,” Keis said. “So from those people, things started to just kind of snowball. I would talk to them and they would say, ‘Hey, do you have anybody who’s a blacksmith?’ And so I was starting to get referred by people I’d already photographed. A lot of them were in the neighborhood that I lived in, in Oaxaca, like a 5-minute walking distance.”
Keis is in his 70s now, and many of the people he interviewed were his age or older. Sometimes, it was age and the lack of anyone who intended to carry on the tradition that made the job “endangered.” One of them was Alberto Pacheco Santos, who for 74 years had made and repaired guantes de pelota Mixteca, the 11-pound gloves worn to play an ancient ball game from pre-Columbian times.
“He truly loves the game, having played for thirty-five years before he fell and fractured his arm,” Keis writes in the accompanying notes, which are short but effectively capture his subject. “He can no longer bear the weight of the glove due to that injury. He loves his work, it is his life. He is concerned about who will take over his craft when he is gone.”
With the glovemaker, as with many others, the job incorporates art made with one’s hands, which highlights a truism of these older cultures: Art is not a superfluous extra, something to be done “for fun” or in one’s spare time. It’s practically in their DNA, part of whom they are.
“It’s not just ‘a job’ for them,” Keis said. “It was a silversmith who said, ‘You know, whatever I do, I do to the best of my ability, because I’m leaving in it a part of me, a part of my life in it.’”
Some of the work on display is also unique to Oaxaca, such as a bird vendor, or the public scribe who types letters and other documents on a typewriter for those who cannot write. The bladesmith Apolinar Aguilar Velasco, who has been making knives, machetes, and swords for nearly half a century, has a unique claim to fame: He made the sword used in the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian.
Thanks to a $4,500 grant from The Ford Family Foundation, Keis was able finally to publish the images in a book, which is available for $40. Not all photographs in the book are on display, and not all the nearly three dozen in the Livelihoods portion of the exhibition are in the book. Also, the book has more text and goes deeper into the workers’ stories.
In conversation and in the show notes, Keis makes another point that he hopes people will take from his photographs. While many of the workers Terkel interviewed for Working felt their work was demeaning and that they were not appreciated, “all of those I interviewed in Oaxaca took much pride in their work,” he said. “They felt a sense of dignity in what they did or created.”
The Livelihoods show in the Central Gallery is only part of Southern Exposures. Two other related projects spill into other gallery spaces, including Twenty Women: Portraits of Strength and Resilience and Muxes: A Dream That Never Dies.
The former is a work-in-progress and spins off from Livelihoods, featuring some of the women Keis met and got to know in Oaxaca. “Those I have selected here have shown a tremendous amount of strength and resilience in dealing with the challenges and social injustices they face in their daily lives as women,” he writes in the notes. “They are proud and hardworking: mothers, wives, craftspeople and community members that are not always fully valued and appreciated for what they do in their family and community.”
Muxes: A Dream That Never Dies took Keis into a subculture of Juchitán de Zaragoza where he turned to color to capture the visual vibrancy and dazzle of a pageant. Muxe refers to a third non-binary gender identity, and since 1976 this community has come together annually for three days of celebration. Keis was introduced to the event by a muxe from Juchitán, a poet friend named Elvis Guerra. Knowing little about the transgender community, Keis declined to provide expository text to accompany the photographs and instead asked the Chehalem center to make available one of Guerra’s poems. “It is best for me to share the photographs that I took while in Juchitán and let someone knowledgeable inform us about the world of the muxes,” he writes.
Southern Exposures in Newberg marks the first occasion in which work from all three projects has appeared together. Pieces of the projects have been featured in Corvallis, including on the Oregon State University campus. The show highlights the fact that it often takes a village to create an exhibition. The facility came to the attention of Salem poet Efrain Diaz-Horna, whose classical guitarist son played at one of the Chehalem center’s concerts, and he put Keis in touch with then-exhibitions-coordinator Carissa Burkett. Eugene artist Analee Fuentes alerted Keis to funding possibilities, including the Ford Family Foundation and the Oregon Arts Commission, which enabled Keis to pay for most of the frames.