A Mexican Photographer Confronts Her Difficult Personal History
Veronica Sanchis Bencomo speaks to Liza Ambrossio – recipient of the 2019 Photography Grant New Generation Prize – about the story and inspiration behind her award-winning series The Rage of Devotion.
Hoping to change her life after an emotional breakdown at a young age, Liza Ambrossio turned to photography and began experimenting with differing methods of image-making. Amidst this immersive search, Ambrossio produced The Rage of Devotion, a deeply personal project she describes as a real mental journey that traces her darkest emotions about herself.
Liza, you were awarded the PHmuseum 2019 Photography Grant New Generation Prize with your project The Rage of Devotion. It's a story in which you've combined archival photography, paintings, and even performance to create a flawless visual dialogue. Could you talk about the importance of including different practices into your project and why this was relevant?
My work is a collision of performance, film, installation, written narration, and constant analysis of personal and social theories. I am an artist; theorising and questioning life is for me the beginning of existence. In The Rage of Devotion, photography acts as a four-way route for me, through which I run at great speed because it allows me great creative autonomy. Photography has revealed to me the gross honesty with which we have to tackle daily life and the fantasy of those who build on the air, and the independence, that only the religion of art endows.
In addition to all the archival imagery you use, we can also find many medical references in your project - why is this so?
An obsession with human monstrosity on all levels plays a meaningful role in my work and in my life; I have done a deep investigation. My images are the consequence of four years working alongside a specialist doctor of rare diseases back when I studied at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). For example, the double iris is diagnosed as blindness because the brain does not have the ability to deliver an image. This means to me the inability to observe the extraordinary level of surrealistic violence with which Mexicans live every day. There are many more photographs that I have made and that I will continue to reveal over time, but I need to modulate their circulation.
In the past you have talked about having left home at a very young age - how has this impacted your photography today?
My life and my look have been transformed by that decision. To give some context, I was educated in Mexico City in one of the largest and most voracious megacities in the world in a very traditional and religious family. My parents came from different countries, different economic statuses and different religions. Their parents, likewise, come from hybrid backgrounds. As a result, I am a mestiza not only in race but also culturally and religiously. Somehow, these elements intertwined and produced what I describe as a "catastrophe of thoughts", which I believe is found in my work, especially in The Rage of Devotion.
From them, I learned about revenge and guilt. Maybe that's why my photographs are presented as ritual acts that have a direct relationship with Mexican witchcraft practice. For five generations, women in my family practised witchcraft and I learned by seeing their rituals. It's a tradition that I consider a symbolic act to accept colonisation, personal demons, and Aztec heritage. I find my images represent these symbols, and also represent feminine struggle against machismo.
Going through a constant state of family psychosis very soon became too much for me. At 16, I fled from my mother's house to make things happen for myself, to live on the pain of others; let's say it was a form of punishment to my body as a treatment for my soul. I started working on The Police Red Note while working for a local newspaper. At this time, I was already 18 years old, I was completely emancipated from my family and I needed to pay for my university, so I worked late at night at the newspaper for a period of two years.
In that year, the war against drug trafficking was declared in Mexico and the violence grew in the streets. Every night my routine was to photograph death by suicide, murder or torture. Meanwhile, I portrayed myself and portrayed the people that crossed my life. All the death instincts emerged in me; I became obsessed with the subject and I found myself in such a deep degree of loneliness and madness. At that moment I discovered that the chaos that was inside me was also the trace of the chaos that was outside of me.
I understand you worked for a long time on this personal project - how did it begin? Was it a conscious process?
You're never aware of the level of consciousness that you can have, but I worked on the idea that reality is overrated and fantasy is underestimated. From my perspective, the richest thing that exists in life is the fable and the power of the imagination. That is why my photography is full of performative and cinematographic gestures, while simultaneously alluding to pictorial archives and the documentary. As a result, my work has become an exercise in sinister freedom carried to its strangest consequences. My images have a strong relationship with chance and instinct - I'm trying to use all the narrative tools to create some emotion within the imperfection.
It's an affront to terror and dehumanisation because I believe that human passion is in itself an act of defiance. I enjoy playing to fail and live, mixing different techniques (archive images, pictorial intervention, make-up, collage, analogue, and digital photography ...). The texts that accompany my work are themselves based on crude instances of extreme detachment. Between madness and complete clarity (flashbacks).
In order to acquire photographs from the family archives, you asked for help from your mother's housekeeper. Could you elaborate more on this process? Did your mother ever find out? What was your method of selection?
When you stay adrift and you take off from one day to the next leaving everything you knew, you miss that which caused you pain, emotion, fear, and love. My mother and everything around her was that for me. When I left home she did not look for me, so I decided to look for her through one of the servants of my family. I wanted to understand where the trans-generational hatred came from and I discovered many more things: the war in my country, the solitude, the personal independence, the machismo exercised by women, etc.
I obtained the photographs through correspondence that the maid gave me, whom I paid every month. Some of the photos were extraordinary, others not so much, but I knew them in depth. I do not think my mother discovered that some of them were missing, but if she has, I can not know because I have not had any relationship with her for nine years.
I am intrigued by the title of the series, La Ira de la Devoción, (The Rage of Devotion in English), being that rage and devotion are two strong personal stages of the mind, and I guess, even of the soul itself. Could you talk us through the meaning behind the title?
It started with a mental image. An angry virgin like my mother. In The Rage of Devotion, the feminine is threatening because it seduces and in the poetics of its seduction, it devours. Immediately after that, my decision to change my life in the most extraordinary way possible arrived. I looked inside and unintentionally remembered the phrase with which my mother said goodbye the last time I saw her when I was 16 years old - "I wish you well, and believe me, I hope you’ll become strong and brave, so you can be merciless when the time comes to destroy your body and crush your soul the next time we see each other”.
After an overwhelming emotional breakdown, I started a series of images intermingling pictorial canvases and photographs from my family archive to encourage the viewer to immerse themselves in my psychology. For several years, while I was studying at university, I built, portrayed, and edited a personal world. And yes, I stumbled, but also freed myself, finding my mother's lascivious eyes, my fear of touch and the instinctive repulsion that represents the concept of "family" for me. In the making of this series I discovered that although I look, I don't want to see, because what lives inside of me looks, and is, completely monstrous
Liza Ambrossio is a Mexican photographer currently based between Madrid and Paris. In 2018, she was the winner of the Voies Off Award first prize as part of Les Rencontres de la Photographie, Arles and selected for Cortona On The Move's New Visions projection. Her body of work combines photography, cryptic paintings, performance, intervention, installations, videos, psychology, medicine, lucid nightmares, science fiction and witchcraft that come together in free association. Follow her on PHmuseum and Instagram.
Verónica Sanchis Bencomo is a Venezuelan photographer and curator based in Hong Kong. In 2014, she founded Foto Féminas, a platform that promotes the works of female Latin American and Caribbean photographers. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
This article is part of In Focus: Latin American Female Photographers, a monthly series curated by Verónica Sanchis Bencomo focusing on the works of female visual storytellers working and living in Latin America