FotoFest Houston’s Power Lies in What Remains Unseen

HOUSTON — For the 2024 FotoFest Biennial, director and curator Steve Evans wondered how photographers were documenting erasure. From rural Texas to urban Hong Kong, political unrest, climate change, and gentrification have permanently altered landscapes, obscuring fraught histories. 

The main exhibition, Critical Geography at Silver Street Studios and Winter Street Studios at Sawyer Yards, brings together 20 international artists in collectives, all interrogating the politics of space. A smaller show, Ten by Ten, highlights the top artists culled from over 400 portfolio reviews, and the biennial co-sponsors shows at more than 70 participating spaces that sprawl across Houston and its suburbs.

At Sawyer Yards, Siu Wai Hang and Phillip Pyle, II contemplate censorship within political protests in their respective series, Clean Hong Kong Action (2019)and Forgotten Struggle (2011–ongoing). In Hang’s photos from the 2019–20 Hong Kong Protests, he punched out the faces of every person in the crowd, both erasing their involvement and protecting them from the Chinese government’s surveillance, which has used facial recognition technology to arrest dissidents. The crowd is so thick in “08–12–2019 Causeway Bay” (2019) that a whole section of the print is punched out. Pyle takes archival images from civil rights actions and cuts out each protest sign, obscuring whether these protesters were supporting equality or segregation, as in “Forgotten Struggle #32” (2011), whose Black protesters suggest this was a racial justice action, but the missing signs leave the image unresolved.

Stephanie Syjuco’s series Block Out the Sun restores dignity through erasure. The 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis included an artificial Filipino village to show off the United States’ newest territory. There, American Filipinos were forced to perform stereotypical actions in a human zoo. In photos like “Block Out the Sun (Shadow)” (2022) and “Block Out the Sun (Shield)” (2022), Syjuco protects the figures in archival prints from continued humiliation by placing her hands over them.

Another show, THIS WAY: A Houston Group Show at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston paid tribute to Freedmen’s Town, a long-gone Black settlement within the Fourth Ward. Irene Antonia Diane Reece’s multimedia installation “You Can’t Pray A Lie” (2023) uses oral history, photography, and artifacts to reconstruct the neighborhood’s identity. She prints contemporary photographs of community members on gauzy fabric and pins them to a clothesline, intermingling the portraits with historical images from Freedmen’s Town, hand-me-down nightgowns, and floral bedsheets. The project connects a nearly lost generation to the present one, tasked with preserving their fragile memory of Freedmen’s Town.

At the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Wendel A. White’s series Red Summer continued to commemorate forgotten landscapes. His unassuming photographs of parking lots, train stations, and chain link fences, posted on walls alongside the church’s pews, are actually the sites of lynch mobs. White juxtaposes each mundane cityscape with a sepia-toned newspaper clipping documenting the event, the crime sometimes buried beneath other headlines. Most of the news comes from African-American newspapers, underscoring that the horrific murders were hardly newsworthy for the White audiences of mainstream publications. “Tulsa, OK. May 31, 1921. The New York Age. New York, NY. Sat., June 4, 1921” documents the Tulsa Race Massacre in one of the most prominent African-American publications of its time. In the aftermath of the massacre, a thriving, affluent corner of what was known as Black Wall Street is no more than a sloped roadway, fenced sidewalk, and cracked asphalt.

For some artists, blocking part of a photograph is a way to protect its subjects. For others, their photographs recreate a location that has been unjustly scrubbed from history. In either case, Critical Geographies shows that photography’s power lies in what it chooses to document.

The FotoFest Biennial 2024, Critical Geographies, continues throughout Houston though April 21. The biennial was organized by Steven Evans, executive director, with support from the FotoFest staff.

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