Lua Ribeira’s Subida el cielo (Ascent into Heaven) is an exhibition of sur- prises and wonders, of clashes and contradictions, abundant in allusions and metaphors it radically overhauls the documentary tradition. There is a baroque sensibility here. Imagining and creativity are integral to her photography. And yet she tackles hard documentary subject matter: homelessness, mental disability, migration.

This well thought through solo exhibition at Kutxa Kultur Artegunea in San Sebastian, Spain, Ribeira’s most extensive show to date, presents over 70 photographs, drawn from five series, made between 2016 and 2020. All are displayed without titles or captions. The emphasis is very much on the pictures and how we respond and relate to them on an emotional level, a response that is in keeping with the way she approaches people and pho- tography, instinctually not conceptually, ‘from my guts’ as she has said.

There is a framing introductory wall text before you enter the gallery space (in Basque, Spanish and English). It provides a good context and there is also an informative booklet with an illuminating interview about the different series of works on show and a list of titles for the pictures. But unlabelled her pictures on the gallery wall remain open and invite us to do more looking, reflecting and thinking. Explanatory texts can too easily come to dominate, frame and filter our engagement with the work of art in galleries and biennales. Stop us really looking.

The show occupies the two floors of the gallery, with three series of work downstairs and two upstairs, together with scanned images, notes and drawings, her references and source material, presented on three glass table-top displays. It is a rich and less restrictive way of contextualizing her pictures and clarifying in showing how she has been inspired by a range of powerful and memorable depictions of the human figure drawn from the history of painting, as well as film and photography (vernacular, journalistic and artis- tic). What is immediately clear is that Ribeira is a great photographer of the human figure. She is attentive and responsive to the ways in which peo- ple present themselves and perform to camera. The variations in sizes and different arrangements and configurations of the photographs and modes of presentation (some are framed others pinned to the wall) accords with her way of picturing, which often shows the life and kinetic energy of her sub- jects, often caught moving not static.

The title of the first series, Subida al cielo, which also serves as the title of the whole show, gives the work a spiritual dimension, invites us to think beyond the worldly and the real. And yet we cannot fully ignore the social and economic exclusions that we confront and react to in her work.

A central picture from the series, blown up wall size and facing us as we enter the exhibition, focuses on the colorful and swirling design of the Adidas trainers worn by a figure standing on grass. He or she appears to be wrapped in a grey green blanket and is wearing plain grey tracksuit bottoms. While their feet are on the ground, the sense given is that the person is in the process of raising themselves off the ground. The trainers speak of style and fashion, and the presence given them in the picture acknowledges the attraction and appeal of such cool brands. But in relation to the power of her pic- tures of the human figure and body throughout her art the trainers remain temporary distractions. Her primary interests and concerns are not as slight.

In her depiction of a couple in the park, sitting on a low stone wall, they are bent over; heads between their legs, we see their backs and flesh and not their faces. This uncommon and unexpected gesture animates them and the picture. Bending down, bathed in warm sunlight, they have a beauty and presence and sensuality. Their mobility, youth and agility become the subject and there is a certain liberation in this unconventional movement, a resist- ance to being fixed and framed in the picture. In another picture of a man on the grass, he has wrapped himself in a blanket and hidden his face.

One man is portrayed between bars but with his hands is reaching out through them and towards us, a theatrical extension but playful negotiation of a very real barrier and separation. Photographing such people, the brutality of such a life is also there – in the detail of a bloodied and dirty leg, an open wound and sore.

Enigmatic and somewhat apparitional depictions of women, interrupt and counter these pictures. A woman in a white dress is laughing hysterically on a mountainside, her makeup running. Wrapped in a red coat and lying down in long grass, the doll like fig- ure of another young woman is also overcome with mirth. Their excesses of emotion are counterposed by the somber poses of two Black women, one whose face appears bruised and her lips bloodied, the other standing barefoot wearing a fancy white outfit in a graveyard. Ribeira has spoken about how in this series ‘she became interested in the potential of photography to also represent the intangible, the imagination, the hallucinatory. Whilst making the work I shared experiences of a certain intensity that didn’t translate into images in that given moment. I started creating images inspired by that moment.’

A room within the center of the main white- walled space presents Las visiones (The Visions), which addresses the allure, power and persistence of a Catholic ritual of Holy Week, an Easter parade and procession in Puente Genil (Cordoba). The centerpiece is an unnerving photograph of masked and costumed children dressed as grotesque figures, Los Jetones, those who in the procession flagellate Christ. The masks represent faces that have become deformed as Christ’s Blood spatters them. Depicted outside the parade and among greenery, the picture becomes a vision of savage violence, made more unsettling by the incongruity between the children and the garb in which they are adorned.

With Ribeira’s Aristocratas, both the title and subject are indebted to Diane Arbus, since it was Arbus who referred to the ‘freaks’ she photo- graphed as Aristocrats, people who were born with their trauma and had to live all their lives deal- ing with the reactions from others. It is Arbus’ last work of photographs of people in institutions for the mentally underdeveloped that Ribeira is responding to in this series. In Arbus’ powerful pho- tographs the stigma of difference was accented through the death masks and Halloween costumes some of her subjects were pictured wearing. But at the same time the people were shown to be happy, intimate, holding hands and not atomized and disconnected like so many of the ‘normal’ folk she pictured. In Aristocratas, all the pictures were made in Galicia, and respond to a community of neurodivergent women cared for by a religious institution, Esclavas de la Virgen Delorosa. Ribeira’s interest stems from her childhood and seeing women from this congregation that had come for summer holidays in her father’s village. She had spent time with the women for two summers before she began to make photographs with them, as a result of theatre workshops, in 2016. In these pictures, we move between the informal, the posed and the constructed and staged. There are summery, sunny, beautiful pictures that play with and unsettle prejudices and preconceptions. In what looks to be a carefully composed picture of three women in swimming costumes, two seated and one standing on rocks, the color of their flesh blends with the color of the rocks behind them. This kind of photograph gives the women a certain naturalness and familiarity, despite the traces of awkwardness in how they pose and present them- selves – one woman is sitting with her right leg stretched straight out on the rock. Ribeira often accents the body and the bodies of these women, how they hold and carry themselves. One picture shows just the detail of the backs of a young wom- an’s legs and her bare feet as she lies on the grass. It is a simple but sensory and evocative picture to do with the touch and feel of the grass beneath the feet and the sun on skin. In a garden scene, in which the women are seated around a table set with china, with one woman standing and dressed as a maid, the tableau recreates a ritual associated with a bourgeois family. The picture is ironic and some- what distinct in the series in the way it shows them miming a social norm and order that we know is not and probably never will be theirs.

Death and religion become a theme in some pictures. In one such tableau set in the garden, a rit- ual of sacrifice and mourning is played out, with one person lying on a stone bench wrapped in a white sheet, adorned with dried flowers, while a woman behind holds up a large wooden makeshift cross. In another, showing the interior dormitory with many beds closely arranged together, a group of women huddle around a woman in bed in prayer, as if she is on her deathbed.

There are some powerful portraits. One woman lying down and covering her ears as she tries to sleep. Another shows a woman sleeping. People sleeping recur in this show – a condition of the body of interest in that it escapes the demand and expectation of the pose and also invites us to think of the imaginary and other worldly that plays such an important part in her photographs. The strongest portrait is the most straightforward and direct – a woman standing in a garden, beside a yel- low rose, facing and looking straight back to camera, a bit uncertain and puzzled. The charge of the inten- sity of her look and presence brings us close, invites an imaginative connection.

The upstairs space presents work that engages with events that are the most newsworthy, focusing on migrants seeking to escape Mexico for the USA, and Morocco for Northern Spain. (Ribeira is a recent member of Magnum Photos.) Los afortunados (The Fortunate Ones) includes a group of small pic- tures of young migrants in Morocco, playing and potentially performing for the camera. Their games allegorize their situation – one is kneeling and on all fours, another crawling, a group of them mime the action of falling to the ground, while in another a youth waist deep in sand, is shown as he lifts himself out of the hole he is in. There are also more obser- vational pictures – a destroyed makeshift home and a picture of them running to trucks. A view of the sea horizon with container ships is not straight, a vis- ual reminder of the imbalance and inequality we are dealing with here. In one large photograph pre- sented separately as one young man is carried by the others we are shown a scene of collectivity and support, of camaraderie. Another large picture, also set slightly apart from the rest, focuses on a corner made by two walls and the small gap between them. It is a beautiful photograph, the burgundy red expanse of one wall against the stained cement sur- face of the other is a little like an abstract color field painting. In the context of the other pictures it is also meaningful as a physical barrier, a division of space. But not quite a dead end – the gap offers a lit- tle breath of hope.

The title of the other series, La Jungla (The Jungle), refers to a half-abandoned natural park in Tijuana where the border wall passes though. Ribeira worked in the park with the people who were living there. In one striking portrait a bearded man, head tilted to the side, eyes closed and lips dry and encrusted, is made holy by the halo-like knit cap he wears atop his thick hooded garment. Another picture shows a man lying down, eyes half-closed, amidst the lushness of wild yellow flowers. It appears a bit like a funerary portrait. He holds a crust of bread to his chest, a scrap of food that becomes symbolically charged in this context – a pointer to something primary that disrupts the stylization of the picture, a bare and basic struggle for existence.

We know the context in which Ribeira makes many of these pictures is not benign, the world is unequal, oppressive and divided, full of exclusions. To work against such divisions and open a space that challenges and questions our assumptions of difference requires a capacity to connect, spending time with people, putting oneself in difficult and uneasy situations. And the work is clearly borne from this. But photography is a limited medium in terms of the senses, especially considered along- side painting and film. Drawing upon an enduring tradition of representations of the human figure, Ribeira is an artist who really pushes photography’s possibilities and in so doing vivifies and re-enchants it. And she does this by understanding the power and richness of the photograph as a picture and not merely an illustration of an idea or text. Ribeira’s remarkable human-centered work is refreshing in its sheer pictorial breadth and also daring in the way it opens us up to people and worlds that despite floods of media images still remain invisible and unseen.

Exhibition Review by Mark Durden
Lúa Ribeira, Subida al Cielo (Ascent into Heaven),
17.03.2023 Until 02.07.2023, Kutxa Kultur Artegunea Donostia—San Sebastian, Spain

Photography & Culture
Volume 0—Issue 0- March 2023
DOI: 10.1080/17514517.2023.2251320