Welcome to Confluences, a weekly column on art, kinship and life. Each week we approach one of the themes of the magazine’s current print issue by looking at a creative event, endeavour or body of work that links to that theme and taps into a larger conversation with the world around us.
“We live in a world that is overcrowded with visuals. Images have the power of shaping our collective imagination,” Italian photographer, filmmaker, and visual anthropologist Valeria Luongo tells me. Our current magazine theme is knowledge - something that is fluid, subjective and context-dependent. In considering the concept of knowledge, a surrounding scaffolding of questions reveals itself to me: how is knowledge passed down or shared? Why? By whom? Why? To whom? Why? These are questions - of culture, of ethical storytelling - that I think about often. Perhaps that’s why I am drawn to Luongo’s work, which engages thoughtfully on all these counts.
“My background in anthropology has deeply influenced my photography practice and the way I work on my projects,” the artist explains to me over email. “I normally like to focus on long-term projects and I care about truly engaging with my subjects. I want to understand their point of view and discuss with them their own representation. I try to build a great level of trust and dialogue while at the same time questioning my perception of things.” Documenting cultural knowledge that is not your own is an ethically fraught undertaking, and a deep long-standing relationship of mutual trust and understanding is essential to build this trust. When I ask Luongo what she feels is the role of the artist in our current moment in history, she gives me a thoughtful answer: “I think we have the responsibility to produce ethically informed work. Especially when working in a different cultural environment, it's fundamental to generate new narratives that take into account participants’ perspectives, representations and consent.”
— Valeria Luongo
I’m particularly interested in Luongo’s project, When Women Fly (Aquí las mujeres también vuelan). In it, she photographs the Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flying Men), an ancient Mesoamerican ritual still performed today by the community in Cuetzalan del Progreso, Mexico. This traditionally excluded women, but Luongo instead turns her lens to the growing number of women who are participating. The ritual, as the photographer explains, “begins with a ceremonial dance. The 5 participants then ascend a 30-metre pole and jump off the top, head first, tied to ropes as they revolve around the pole towards the ground.” With the photographs, Luongo says, “I hope to celebrate the daily lives of the flying women of Cuetzalan and show their balance between being mothers, sisters, daughters, workers but also proud voladoras.”
Luongo has worked with the community of Cuetzalan for the past ten years: initially in her capacity as an anthropologist, researching traditional medicine, healthcare and other topics. Over time, as she moved into documentary photography and film, she began working on collaborative visual projects with the community. Over these years, Luongo says, she has “become familiar with many aspects of the local traditions as I built strong relationships with the people who I met along the way.”
Cuetzalan del Progreso is home to a large Indigenous population, primarily Nahua and Totonac people, and the flying dance has been practised there for centuries. “It’s difficult to tell where the [flying] dance first originated,” Irene, one participant, tells the Guardian, “I personally think the tradition… was born in different parts of Mexico at the same time.” But it is clear that the dance, and its significance has changed over time. In pre-colonial times, as the Guardian explains, it “was performed as a way to communicate with the gods and ask for a good harvest. After the arrival of Spanish colonisers, the dance was reimagined as a tribute to Catholic saints during religious festivities.” A few years ago, Luongo became intrigued by the presence of women taking part in the dance - many of whom have faced pushback for doing so, either because their participation is untraditional or because of the physical risk involved. Shebegan asking around. “I was introduced to some voladoras, we talked about the possibility of working on this project and they really liked the idea,” she says. “It took me a few years to properly start working on the project but I eventually managed to get funding and at the beginning of 2022 I returned to Cuetzalan” to photograph.”
To Luongo, the newfound inclusion of women in this traditionally male ritual is yet another example of how customs may adapt and evolve to stay alive over time. And it’s also an example of how cultural knowledge can be kept alive and passed down in innovative, communal, even radical ways. “My work usually focuses on the role of rituals and spirituality,” the artist tells me, “two elements that keep living through generations thanks to shared, collective knowledge."
— Valeria Luongo
Confluences: Valeria Luongo and the ethics of storytelling