• Incarcerated Meanings

    Date posted: December 11, 2012 Author: jolanta
    Camila de Sousa, Photographs from the Center for Women´s Imprisonment in Ndlhavela (Centro de Reclusão Feminino de Ndlhavela), Mozambique, 2011.

    By Álvaro Luis Lima

    I have yet to meet anyone who enjoys having ID pictures taken. Should one smile at the camera or go for a serious look at the risk of having your picture compared to a mug shot? In some areas of the world, these pictures are named after their size, a mere “3×4” centimeters, whereas in others, they are called “passport photos” or “document pictures.” Despite our expressive choices made when photographed, most people dislike how those identification cards turn out because of the distorted presentation of how one might like her image to be perceived.

    Playing with the anxieties associated with photography and its institutional framings, Camila de Sousa titles her photographic series 3×4 (2011). This up-and-coming Mozambican artist chooses to represent women who are known to society as inmates—some from a detention center in Maputo, and others from one in Ndlhavela. Intrigued by the women’s position as prisoners, De Sousa attempts to look at perspectives different from the representations made by the legal system, comparing the conventional archetypes of these women to “3×4” photographs.

    In the hope of complicating the “3×4” representation of the women living in Mozambican prisons, the artist applied her training as an anthropologist and inhabited both prisons, along with her subjects, for several months. De Sousa’s artistic process developed organically through her day-to-day contact with these women; the photographs reveal a negotiation between the artist and her subjects regarding how the finished piece would look. Speaking to David Durbach from the South African Magazine Mahala, De Sousa explains: “My foundation in anthropology helped me a lot. I went there for three months and didn’t take anything—I just talked to them. But then suddenly, they started to open up.”

    Camila de Sousa, Photographs from the Center for Women´s Imprisonment in Ndlhavela (Centro de Reclusão Feminino de Ndlhavela), Mozambique, 2011.

    In each of the photographs, De Sousa portrays a woman she encountered in the prisons, either sitting or laying on her bed. These images are an attempt to represent the inmates in a feminine, sensual manner. De Sousa explains to Durbach, “this is about the reconstruction of their fractured bodies. Their bodies are incarcerated, but they still own their sensuality. They are still women, and this is how they want to show themselves. Doing these pictures was incredible, because they ran to their beds to find combs and put on makeup. For an instant, we were in another place.”

    The spacialization of gender dynamics is entrenched in all aspects of the artist’s process, from the work’s conception to its exhibition. In the choice of incarcerated women as subjects and their representation as sexualized bodies, the criminal and the sexual converge to indicate how notions of normalcy deeply affect the agency of those marginalized by their gender and sexuality. De Sousa’s decision to emphasize the space in which the inmates are posing—their own beds—reminds the audience of the constant negotiation these women have to undertake in order to imagine themselves in contexts other than those imposed by the prison space.

    Camila de Sousa, Photographs from the Center for Women´s Imprisonment in Ndlhavela (Centro de Reclusão Feminino de Ndlhavela), Mozambique, 2011.

    The themes of femininity and female sexuality’s continuous mediation by institutions of power are apparent in the different directions in which these color photographs lead us, depending on the venues in which they are displayed. 3×4 was first shown as part of a larger art exhibition, which took place in several sites around Maputo in September 2011 and was titled Ocupaҫões Temporárias (Temporary Occupations). De Sousa‘s work was exhibited in an anatomy room at the Department of Medicine of Eduardo Mondlane University. The opportunity to display the photographic series in such a space was intelligently embraced by the artist, who arranged formaldehyde-filled jars with uteri and fetuses around the space as well as other objects such as a prison bed similar to those seen in the color photographs.

    In this exhibition venue, the juxtaposition of the sensualized portraits and biological material, charged by connotations of women’s fertility, sexual freedom and reproductive rights, takes De Sousa’s concerns about gendered structures of power to a much broader context. 3×4 becomes not only a work dealing with the specificity of incarcerated women’s marginalization and the patriarchy of legal systems, but also a work that connects this structure of control to other ways in which women’s sexuality is measured, analyzed and diagnosed. These questions aren’t just left inside a realm of legal or institutionalized structures, but extends these boarders to the realm of the urban landscape, which implies particularly gendered performances in the public space of the city, in particular, Maputo-the focus of the show.

    The newest venue in which the color photographs are displayed is in the garden of the Gulbekian Foundation, a prominent cultural and artistic center in Lisbon, which will exhibit De Sousa’s photographs through September 30, 2012. As the audience walks through the densely vegetated garden, it encounters an image from 3×4 in a flowery corner, under a tree, and on the way to a stream. This exhibition is particularly interesting in expanding the complexity of the work and its possible interpretations. The women categorized by their “type,” and placed at the paradisiacal space of the gardens, brings to mind the ways in which indigenous people from Africa were exhibited in colonial fairs as late as the mid 20th century. The portrayal of the inmates’ reclining figures in an art institution can also be compared with how women have been represented as sexual objects in art historical canon. Associations between the space and work like those are further reminders of ways in which the signification of women’s sexuality is framed by institutions such as anthropology and museums.

    One of the most revealing juxtapositions incurred by the display of 3×4 in the Gulbekian gardens is between the incarcerated women’s pictures and the people merely strolling through the garden. One cannot help but to compare the museum visitors’ seeming freedom with the depictions of the women inmates, and the limited vocabulary available to make their marginalized position perplexing. The incarcerated women have no other option but to aggressively confront their “3×4” representations. They must retouch, crop, or draw over the social images that have become their strongest identifiers. De Sousa’s work is not an instigating project because it breaks away from the institutional framings of femininity and female sexuality, but because it exposes these constraints that shape our ideas of incarcerated women and forces us to remember that these images are a reflection of the identification cards rather than a deformation of their subjects.