19 November 2019
19 November 2019 - Written by Verónica Sanchis Bencomo
Combining elements from her family history, personal life experiences, and dual Colombian and Nicaraguan nationality, Verónica Puche creates juxtaposed realities that together call into question her heritage and identity.
Such as My Great Uncle, Eaten by a Shark is a series that responds to Verónica Puche’s family photo archive and family lifetime stories. She has gathered her family members’ words and memories in order to recreate new narrative possibilities. Through her photographic journey, she holds a distant family conversation between the past and present.
Could you share with us in more detail the misfortune that befell your great-uncle?
It was a tragic event that eventually morphed into a mystical tale that my grandmother loved to tell every time I visited at her home in Montería, Colombia. My great-uncle name was called Guillermo Uribe. He was my grandmother’s only brother. The event happened around 1944 in Puerto Colombia, the country’s biggest port at the time. This place was known as a rendezvous point where young people gathered to party and have fun. Being a young energetic man, allegedly trying to gain the attention of an attractive young girl, a drunk Guillermo jumped into the water. The waters were known to be shark-infested, especially at night. The next morning, his left leg was found, with his brown leather shoe still on his foot. This was all the authorities were able to recover.
While my grandmother would tell me the story, I remember how she would stare at the only picture of Guillermo; an old yellowish portrait hanging at the entrance of her bedroom. My aunt Nora added with a typical humorous Caribbean touch that my great uncle received a proper Catholic burial even though his coffin only contained the leg. Ever since then, I remember this misfortune with humour! His name is perpetuated in both; my father and my brother.
You've mentioned that you have visually recreated the stories told by your family. Could you share any poignant ones and mention any images that represent them?
The story of how my father experienced the Nicaraguan Revolution is somehow a sad one, considering how the country is right now versus the fact that the Nicaraguan revolution was originally an example for all the countries in Latin America. Going back in time, Guillermo, my father, arrived in Nicaragua in 1979 when he was 35 years old. When he told me about this he said he lied to his father, telling him he was going to New York City to pursue an MBA. He called him from Panama to tell him the truth. Disappointed, my grandfather asked him; “what the hell are you going to do in Nicaragua?”
The first stop was San José, Costa Rica, and then he took a long bus ride to Managua, Nicaragua. Once my father arrived there, he could still smell the gunpowder on the ground in front of the Ticabus bus station, which was littered with cartridges. The battle was still fresh, almost like a fresh market. The triumph of the revolution was represented by the outpouring of joy, people were everywhere celebrating. He said everyone was extremely young (early twenties) so he felt old next to them. There were people from all over the continent, willing to partake in the newly established government. Guillermo noticed a common feeling among the revolutionaries, which he described as “internationalist euphoria.” That led to a joyful chaos, unavoidably overshadowed by guns and firearms. However, the collective feeling of international fraternity was shared by people from all over the world, which was quite beautiful.
I have created images that evoke this past, which although I never got to experience in my own flesh, I love to vividly imagine tiny fragments of a visual narrative that fits the description of my father’s memories. For example: hands of troubled souls sneaking out of a hospital in ruins, a detailed shot of a war tank’s gear mechanism or a silhouette of Sandino in a random Nicaraguan street.
While working on this project your dual nationality - Colombian and Nicaraguan - have been relevant topics to explore as well. Could you explain what elements of your dual heritage have been most important for you to focus on?
My Colombian side comes from the Caribbean, where humour and “magical realism” are the typical ingredients. On the other hand, Nicaragua’s Pacific side is full of catholic rituals and naive tales of ghosts, which are part of their daily life. Earthquakes and volcanoes on Nicaraguan soil, and exuberant mountains with a generous pouring of rain and moody weather in Colombia. As a Colombian who used to live in Nicaragua, my father connects us to both universes while being a gifted storyteller - when he tells a story, I can almost smell his descriptions.
As I look at your photographs and read your stories in the series I find myself thinking that this is almost like a visual anthology. What are your thoughts on this? Has your work been influenced by literature and poetry, for example? Or any other art form that you would like to talk about.
The main ‘ingredient’ in this project is memory, which is the foundation of all the stories my family has told me for many years, if not all my life. I do, however, reshape and transform these stories into photographs that obey an intimate mechanism in which my brain processes these narratives. The images had been conceived in some sort of “mental limbo” until I decided to execute - “baptise” - them with my camera. For obvious reasons, my work has been influenced by the poetry of Ruben Darío and the tone of García Marquez, but also by Cortázar, Borges, and Benedetti. As a matter of fact, the title of this series “Such as my great uncle, eaten by a shark” was inspired by how Miguel de Cervantes in El Quixote de la Mancha names the chapters with the wingspan of a long sentence.
With this series, you also printed a publication. Could you share some insights about this extension of the work?
Because the series is a combination of text and images, the obvious thing to do for me was to use the book format to portray the work. I merged the photographs with short stories and divided it into chapters with roman numbers. Each one is a booklet, which makes a total of six. Currently I am working in re-editing the book into Spanish.
Verónica Puche is a Colombian artist and curator based in New York. She works with photography, video, and text. Her work mixes archival imagery as well as contemporary film photography. 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.