Notions of family and community are universal, no matter what the culture, and they are front and center in a new exhibit at a new art gallery. The Photographer as a Child: Memories of Guatemala, on display at La Casita Cultural Center, showcases images taken by Efren Lopez during a 2009 visit to Guatemala. They reference his feelings about growing up in that nation and then returning there three years ago after his father died.
The color photos mix with text discussing Lopez’s family as well as life in Petaca, a small community where he lived as a young child. He writes not only about growing up poor but also about having a good family life. Indeed, one snippet of text touches on what he learned from his parents.
Many years later, his lens captured rural and urban scenes, in locales including Petaca and Guatemala City, the nation’s largest urban center and capital. Lopez’s images make it clear that life is hard for many people. One photo shows a man lugging firewood; another depicts a boy straining as he carries a heavy load.
The exhibit also presents photos ranging from a fine portrait of an elderly woman to various images of children. Lopez clearly feels affection for his young subjects. At the same time, he works with a photographer’s agenda, creating images that are intimate rather than clichéd.
Thus, one photo of seven little girls simply captures the joy of childhood. A second image shows a little boy looking outward through a railing, with that scene symbolizing his eventual journey into adolescence and adult life. A third photo shows a little girl running down a city street, past a graffiti-marked wall.
Like other good photographers, Lopez picks up small but incisive details in his work. One photo, for example, depicts a priest celebrating Mass, the congregation praying and a dog stretched out on the floor. Lopez also shot four children from behind, focusing on the backpacks each of them carries. He also portrayed the rhythm of their walking, their feet coming off the pavement at an unusual angle.
In addition to his one-man show, Lopez, over a four-week period, taught photography to 13 students from the West Side Academy at Blodgett School. They came to La Casita once a week for an after-school program that encompassed tutoring, mentoring and activities such as photography.
For Immaculada Lara-Bonilla, La Casita’s director and an assistant professor of Spanish, the combination of Lopez’s exhibit, his workshops for the students and the display of their work dovetails nicely with the center’s mission. Supported by Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences, La Casita, which translates to “the little house,” focuses on arts, education and culture not as separate entities but as avenues for fostering community and building bridges between various groups.
Included in that mission are after-school programs offered two afternoons a week: the one serving the Blodgett students and the other offering instruction in “Bomba y Plena,” two genres of Puerto Rican dance, for 31 students and/or family members of all ages. The center also hosts one-time events such as film screenings.
Finally, Lara-Bonilla emphasizes that La Casita is open to other groups using the facility for cultural programs. “As long as an activity fits in with our mission, we welcome people using our space,” she says. “That could be a rehearsal or screening a film.”
The Photographer as a Child continues on display through May 10 at the La Casita Cultural Center, 109 Otisco St., also called the Lincoln Building. The gallery is open weekdays from noon to 6 p.m. For more information, call 443-1879 or visit lacasita.syr.edu.