Josephine Sacabo: Juana and the Structures of Reverie

The following interview is published here, in the November / December issue of SXSE Photomagazine.  I’ve rearranged things a little, because there is an interesting epilogue to the story which was not germane to the interview, but makes for very good independent conversation.

The twelve photographs pictured here, selected from Juana and the Structures of Reverie, are arranged in narrative order. They carry the viewer through the story as imagined by the artist.

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Juana and the Structures of Reverie is introduced as follows:

This is the story of a woman who invents her freedom by creating an imaginary architecture made of light, scraps of memory, hopes and dreams – a permeable architecture where nothing is confined. It is dedicated to Juana la Loca, the supposed “mad” queen of Spain in the 16th century, who for political motives was imprisoned for 46 years by her father, husband, and son in an architecture of darkness and stone, in which she died broken and alone.

The figure of Juana la Loca is one who has for years fascinated both me and my friend and collaborator Jacqueline Miro. But every time we started out to do something based on her, something else took over and it wasn’t until last year in Mexico that it all fell into place. I was taken by a friend to a ruined hacienda called Jaral De Berrio, and from the moment I walked in I knew that a profound chord had been struck. I felt as if I had walked into another dimension altogether, and yet a familiar one.

I began to photograph it and soon after decided I would construct a sort of “memory palace” made up of all the rooms and details of this magical place. I wanted to record not the house as it was, but the effect it was having on me. A house of dreams. But whose dreams? When I decided to include the female figure whose dream this was, I remembered Juana la Loca and it all came together. I decided to construct an alternative scenario for her – a structure of reverie in which she could be free. It is my gift to her and an expression of my faith in the power of the imagination.

The images are 11X14” tintypes which are a real challenge in the darkroom. It’s probably taken years off my life. But I am really satisfied and happy with the results.

Judy Sherrod: This series follows the gorgeous body of work referencing Clarice Lispector (http://josephinesacabo.com/photographs/beyond-thought/#.ViFRwWuRbdc).  Is there a natural progression from the first to the next?  What do the women share that interests you artistically?  How do you, Josephine, show up in these works?

Josephine Sacabo: Actually this new work doesn’t follow Beyond Thought which was the work inspired by Clarice Lispector. In between I did a large series of 8X10” tintypes called Salutations (http://josephinesacabo.com/photographs/salutations/#.ViFSCmuRbdc) which was my solo show at the New Orleans Museum of Art in January 2015. That show did not feature a female persona and was all over the place in terms of subject matter. There was no narrative thread whatsoever. It was loosely based on this quote from Stéphane Mallarmé from a poem called “Salutations”:

to loneliness, the reef, a star

to anything that has come to earn

the blank white canvas of our care.

I don’t really see a natural progression from Clarice Lispector to Juana la Loca.

With Clarice it was her writing that truly inspired me. Her way of looking at the world and her exquisite expression of what she saw and felt forever changed my way of perceiving certain things, like orchids for example. I tried to create a visual equivalent for many of her observations. Sometimes the image came first and it was her words that explained to me what I had created. And sometimes it went the other way.

With the new series it was really the house that inspired the images more than anything. Old houses fascinate me and always have and this one was the epitome of all I loved about the various houses I have encountered in my life. It was later that I began to think about whose house this could have been, whose “shelter for daydreams” as [Gaston] Bachelard called the house. In a sense this series is more about architecture and the reveries it can inspire. All I really know of Juana la Loca is that she was an exceptional, passionate woman imprisoned in a convent with no way out. So it seemed to me the perfect architectural alternative to that scenario. I have read several books about Juana la Loca but she herself left very little testimony about her life.

As to where I fit in, I realized after I had been in Jaral de Berrio for a couple of hours that I was feeling exactly what I had felt when I was 8-years-old and had a secret room in my great-grandparents’ abandoned house in Laredo. I was blissful.

JS: Photography is a “call and response” medium. Some photography responds to the environment’s call. Some is called by social issues, some by beauty, and some by internal provocation. Your art is called by literature and the poetics of history. How did that come about? What led you to that calling?

Sacabo:  Poetry and literature were a passion of mine since I was young but cameras were not a part of my life. You could say the “call” was there but not the means for a response. I got my first camera when I was 23 and working as an actress. A friend had left his camera behind in a house where we were living in France and I asked a photographer I knew in the village to show me how to work it. He did and from my first contact sheet I knew I had found my voice. Mind you, I never thought I’d show my photographs to anyone else!! It was a very private thing for quite a while.

JS: Do these poetic influences motivate you to write or journal? Are there narratives within you that you’d like to explore and expand upon visually?

Sacabo: I only write extended notes to myself sometimes toward the beginning of a project in an attempt to focus the whirlwind of feelings of excitement that come over me. I am not aware of carrying around a narrative within me as such. Usually I respond to something or someplace or someone that strikes a deep chord within me. Probably the narrative is there and I’m just not conscious of it.

JS: How does it impact your art to be married to a writer / poet / illustrator?

Sacabo: Being married to another artist means we understand one another and give each other room to go crazy with whatever happens to be our latest obsession. That’s the good part. The bad part is there’s no one in the kitchen.

JS: You were born and raised in Laredo, Texas. Back in the fifties and sixties, Laredo was not an easy place to leave, nor was it an easy place to thrive. And yet you made your way out of and away from its then cultural limitations. What of Laredo and your early years there influences your art??

Sacabo: Laredo was great as a child but horribly limiting as an adult. As a result, what I have been able to retrieve from my childhood there has been invaluable to my work. The whole Latin culture – particularly the language- and the sense of belonging.

JS: On the technical side, you’ve used the photogravure process very successfully for years. What prompted the move to wet-plate collodion? What about wet-plate makes it a more suitable process for the Juana story than photogravure?

Sacabo: I love photogravure and wet plate and will continue to do both I think. I knew the images from the Juana series were going to be very detailed but I wanted to see if I could make a tintype that would be both detailed and yet darkly evocative in the overall feeling- as in a dream or a purely imagined reality.

JS: What’s coming up?  What’s on the horizon?  More wet-plate?  Back to the press?  Do you have concepts percolating?

Sacabo: I have 2 other series percolating right now and I don’t know what form they will take yet – one is called The Prayer Within and the other is called Emerging Form. I’m also experimenting with hand coloring gravures with pastels which is great fun. But you never know – something may come out of left field and knock my socks off.

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interviewer’s note:

I am taking the following from Wikipedia’s entry for Joanna of Castile.

Juana la Loca, also known as Joanna of Castile, (1479 – 1555) or Joanna the Mad, was queen of Castilefrom 1504 and of Aragon from 1516. From the union of these two crowns modern Spain evolved.  Her father was Ferdinand II of Aragon and her mother, Isabella I of Castile, the two more famously known as Ferdinand and Isabella, patrons of Christopher Columbus in his quest to find a route to Asia by sailing west from Europe.

Joanna married Philip the Handsome, who was crowned King of Castile in 1506, initiating the rule of the Habsburgs in Spain. After Philip’s death that same year, Joanna was deemed mentally ill and was confined to a nunnery for the rest of her life. Though she remained the legal queen of Castile throughout this time, her father, Ferdinand II of Aragon, was regent until his death, when she inherited his kingdom as well. From 1517, her son, Charles, ruled as king, while she nominally remained co-monarch.

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