Banner photo: Misty Mount Jalibu. Photograph: Jimmy Nelson/Before They Pass Away
Art is an incredibly powerful trigger for discussion and debate. In Paris, the artistic and intellectual spheres overlap, creating a rich dialogue surrounding contemporary issues. You will often find that this dialogue is even more animated when the art is not well received...
It is for this, somewhat unconventional reason our gallery pick this month is Jimmy Nelson's photography exhibition, Before They Pass Away, in the hope it will engage you in an active artistic debate, taking you beyond the "been there, done that" tourist artwork checklist in Paris, to discover a collection of photos which will ask you to make up your mind about the moral implications displaying them involves.
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Before They Pass Away is a collection of visually stunning, and very stylized portraits of African, Asian and Amazon Indian groups, that Nelson claims is a "irreplaceable ethnographic record of a fast disappearing world". However, these portraits, selling for £45,000 each, have been criticized by community leaders of the tribes photographed and Survival International as being a "photographer's fantasy", insensitively creating an image of tribes which bear little relationship to how they actually appear now, or indeed ever did appear.
Nelson maintains that his photos are meant to be aesthetic rather than factual, celebrating the rich and beautiful cultural heritage of these indigenous people with an artistic flare. The photos are certainly striking, composed to perfection with the indigenous tribes, dressed in their traditional clothing in front of an exotic backdrop, commanding a pride and beauty in the tribal heritage they represent. However, is this representation, as aesthetically beautiful as it is, accurate? And if not, is it causing more harm than good?
One one level, the debate surrounding this collection has given a number of tribal leaders a platform to voice their discontent towards the way they have been represented, reinforcing the point that they are not "passing away".
What's more, the photos raise questions. Looking at the portraits, however Kate Mossian their stance has been made to look, are intriguing. You want to know more about these people; why do they dress in this way, what does that ritual mean to them, what language do they speak? It provokes an active research into a culture we were perhaps completely ignorant of previously.
On the other side, are we simply falling into the age old practice of Orientalism? Exoticizing indigenous people for our own artistic pleasure, and potential for the monetary gains of an artist (bearing in mind no money was given to the subjects of the photos)? These are the type of questions this exhibition has raised, and we encourage you to visit, so you to can make up your decision about the moral appropriateness of this collection.
Feel free to comment with your thoughts and feedback about the exhibition.
The collection will be exhibited until September 4th at La Hune and is free.
16-18 Rue de l’Abbaye
Check out more about Jimmy Nelson's exhibition here
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