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Taken from Carlota Guerrero’s Registro 6: Manglar, 2023Courtesy the artist and Sainte Anne Gallery

Carlota Guerrero wants to make you feel uncomfortable

Known for her work with Solange, Rosalía and Arca, the artist’s first-ever solo show captures the complexity of life in a patriarchal society

Carlota Guerrero is a photographer from Barcelona perhaps best known for her photographs of musicians; she’s worked with Solange, Rosalía, and Arca, among others. Her photos have the immediate impression of softness; low contrast images of women with velvety skin and gentle eyes, dancing, braiding each other’s hair.

It’s natural that her first solo show is at Sainte Anne, a women-run gallery in Paris. The exhibition, titled Registro 6: Manglar, traces the story of eight women as they orchestrate a mystical, imagined ritual “towards the centre of the earth”. This show has teeth, quite literally, in the form of nails; when you enter the space, you’re instructed to take off your shoes and stand on a bed of nails to watch Guerrero’s video installation. Much like Guerrero’s photography, the video is beautiful and soft, featuring the women orgasming together among mangroves. The nails, as Guerrero tells me in the interview, are a reminder of the devastating price of that beauty.

I loved how this show dealt with themes of privacy and pain, how it made viewers work for intimacy – turning them into participants – by standing on a bed of nails to watch your video of women orgasming among banyan trees; the experience of looking at the photo of Rosalía which one could only view by pressing oneself against the wall. What inspired you to display the work in this way?

Carlota Guerrero: While creating these pieces I felt pain, discomfort, pleasure and joy; so did most of the girls that worked with me, as we overcame our fears or exposed our vulnerability. But we also felt fulfilled as we took back a fragment of the narrative of female representation. I often create aesthetically pleasing images that come from difficult places, which can be confusing. It was important to me to contextualise these images in their structural complexity. I wanted to be quite literal about it, meaning I find beauty in all this pain and vice versa. As a spectator, there is no way you can enjoy the images without feeling the pain of the nails in your body.

Intimacy is also very present in my work, so when placing the visitor so close to the artwork there is an intention of recreating that initial proximity and the respect that comes inherently.

‘I often create aesthetically pleasing images that come from difficult places’ – Carlota Guerrero

Your work made me think about goddess iconography; how every woman looked powerful and self-contained, even while nude, almost less a female gaze and more a true subversion of the male gaze in that you could feel the women you depict gazing at you, judging you, as opposed to the other way around. How do you effectively capture this strength?

Carlota Guerrero: As Mariona Valdés, the curator of the exhibition, wrote:

‘Symbolic representations do not function as mere images isolated from their socio-political reality; they have historically served as catalysts for gender metaphors. Amongst all these symbols, that which is religious and mythological appear especially relevant due to their ability to represent a power that human beings have interpreted as divine and unquestionable. As the feminist theologian Isabel Gómez brilliantly points out, ‘Un Dios descrito como varón se convierte en un varón Dios‘ (a God described as male becomes a man-God).’

There is a certain symbolic reparation I want to achieve while taking back the narrative of depicting femininity. It is common that in response to the oppression women suffer, the images of liberation that appear in my head result as divine, timeless, elevated. It’s also my personal perception of femininity, so I just capture the strength that I see. I’m creating references the patriarchy has stolen from us throughout history.

I get the sense you are extremely protective of the women you capture in your photos. How do you foster trust on set and during the editing process?

Carlota Guerrero: I ask a lot about how it is working with fashion photographers to the models I shoot with, and the response I get the most is there is a lack of empathy. It still is very common that the model feels like an object, mistreated or not taken into consideration. I wish they would understand how vulnerable it can feel to put yourself in front of a camera and the power we hold while shooting. It’s something that feels obvious to me but that doesn’t always happen; the subject and photographer need to dance together in a flow of consent and respect.

I’m sure despite your efforts certain men project a certain sexuality or submissiveness onto your work. What do you do to protect yourself from this categorisation?

Carlota Guerrero: Sex is not my call when portraying nudity. A sensitive woman, a confident woman, a witch woman, a depressed woman, a tired one – the body is a vessel of infinite things. I stand by my vision and I protect it in many different stages. The male gaze is not present in my creative process – I am not interested in what category they might project into my work, it is not the filter I feel should take into consideration. That doesn’t mean I am not aware of it – but what’s the point of being constantly aware of a series of values that have been imposed on us, including the values attached to our own bodies? Why should we take them into consideration?

‘It’s my personal perception of femininity, so I just capture the strength that I see. I’m creating references the patriarchy has stolen from us throughout history’

What have been your favourite reactions of your subjects upon seeing the final images?

Carlota Guerrero: ‘Organised pain’, the nail platform, brought the most interesting reactions. There was something ritualistic about the visitors having to take off their shoes and go through such an intense experience to be able to see the images – parallel to the one that the women inside the artwork had to live, naked for hours on top of the mangroves, with crabs biting their feet; or me and my crew filming it on a tiny unstable boat, all wet and muddy and surrounded by mosquitoes. It made us all converge in a specific uncomfortable intensity.

My stepfather told me days after the opening that he was checking a woman’s body from the back in the street and that he suddenly remembered the feeling of the nails in his feet. He asked me if that was my intention, and even if it wasn’t exactly what I thought about when creating the nail platform, I realised how we as women feel unsafe by being observed by strangers, and he as a man got an uncomfortable feeling back by extrapolating the experience from the exhibition. I’m committed to expressing how complex our experience navigating a patriarchal society is, feeling understood always feels like a step forward.

I loved how conceptual this show was – do you have any future shows like this in the works?

Carlota Guerrero: I am working on a series of performances that involve women in the public space. At the moment, I’m at the very beginning of my research, so that’s all I can share.

If there’s one lesson you’d want women to take away from your art, what would it be?

Carlota Guerrero: You become what you admire. The images become symbols and references for those who need them.

Registro 6: Manglar is showing at the Sainte Anne Gallery in Paris until March 31

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