Around Town: Gulu Real Art Studio: Martina Bacigalupo

Obal Dennis: “I choose backgrounds according to the person’s request, depending on the purpose of the photograph. For instance the “UWMFO,” (United Women for Co-operative Saving Society) wants their members to have their photos taken [with] a red background, I don’t know why—that’s their policy.”

Image courtesy the artist and the Walther Collection

Denis: “My father taught me to be a professional photographer but as a young man we also discovered taking photos in a landscape format and full pose, seated on a stool. Then we punch out the heads to make passport photos. My father is very much against it this way because it’s not professional but it helps serve our customers’ needs when they need only one or two copies.”
Image courtesy the artist and the Walther Collection

Gomesi (the garment worn here) is traditional African dress, most often worn by women who are well-to-do and married as a sign of being respectable.
Image courtesy the artist and the Walther Collection

Denis: “Red background is really fitting for our dark skin; it brings out the tone on the skin and makes it look nicer.”
Image courtesy the artist and the Walther Collection

Patterns of dress and even aberrations in patterns are signs we normally read unconsciously but become more legible when the face is missing from the composition.
Image courtesy the artist and the Walther Collection

“There is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face...” Macbeth, William Shakespeare

What constitutes a portrait when the face of the subject is removed from the composition? A critical mass of 73 photographs, the Gulu Real Art Studio installation, recently on view at The Walther Collection Project Space in Chelsea, presented such portraits for contemplation. The images included in the exhibition were found materials salvaged from the trash behind a studio in Gulu, a town in northern Uganda, each portrait had the face cut out for use on official documents. After gaining permission, Italian photojournalist Martina Bacigalupo, who happened to be at the studio for her own portrait, was compelled to begin collecting the discarded photographs.

The collaboration between Raymond Okot, the owner of Gulu Real Art Studio, his son Obal Denis, and Bacigalupo combines the studio's practical approach to photography with observation and interviews. Bacigalupo conducted a series of interviews with the Acholi, the ethnic group that populates the region, highlighting their history, culture and customs.

Central to the exhibition were the photographs themselves. Experiencing the series in one image after the other, one becomes more of aware of other distinguishing features and gestures, such as the folds of a garment, the formality of the pose, silhouette and the varieties and similarities in patterns of dress. These patterns are signs we normally read unconsciously but they become more legible as the eye compensates for the missing faces. By reading these details more closely, the photographs demonstrate the recurring impulse to communicate identity through signals embedded in clothing in spite of the fact that the intention of the portraits are only meant for bureaucratic documents.

Monique Long is the 2013–14 Curatorial Fellow at The Studio Museum in Harlem.