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Foto Studio Bluefields: Photography and Political Life on the Nicaraguan Caribbean

Research Lunch – Ileana L. Selejan

  • 22 January 2021
  • 12:00 – 1:00 pm
  • Online Event

Inhabited by a number of diverse ethnic groups (Miskitus, Afro-mestizos, Garifunas, Creoles, Ramas, Sumu-Mayangnas, Ulwas) the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua has historically sought to maintain its independence from the rest of country, a separation that began during the colonial period and has endured through to the present. The Miskitu Kingdom was a British protectorate during the eighteenth century, and alliances were maintained until it was incorporated into Nicaragua in 1894. Visual practices in the Caribbean, photography included, were marginalized until the Sandinista Revolution, when they started to be incorporated into cultural discourses through a form of revolutionary mestizo nationalism. Approaching the region as if it were a clean slate, the central Sandinista government neglected claims towards regional autonomy, ignoring the fact that indigenous and afro-descendant cultures already had their own history of identification with resistance and revolution across the Mosquitia and in the Caribbean.

This talk investigates forms of vernacular photography and their impact on politics through participation and identification in the city of Bluefields, capital of the South Caribbean Autonomous Region of Nicaragua. Scant photographic material has survived to document the history of this important regional centre, which was partially destroyed by a hurricane in 1988. Nonetheless, personal photographs from family archives continue to tell important histories about this resilient multi-ethnic community. Although little acknowledged, local photographic practices were long established, with photo-studios active since the mid-nineteenth century. Thus far, scholarship on Nicaraguan photography has focused on centralised practices almost exclusively, due to the prominent role assigned to photography in the aftermath of the Sandinista revolution. Through the example of Bluefields, this paper examines how photography has contributed to the formation of political identities at a local and national level in Nicaragua, and how the visual legacy of emancipatory movements is articulated in present discourses. 

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Image: Anonymous family photographs, stored in the archives of CIDCA, the Center of Research and Documentation of the Atlantic Coast, in the town of Bluefields, on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua. Photograph by Ileana L. Selejan.

About the speaker

  • Headshot of Ileana Selejan

    Ileana L. Selejan is Research Fellow with the Decolonising Arts Institute and Associate Lecturer at the University of the Arts London. Previously based in the Department of Anthropology at University College London, where she is now Honorary Research Fellow, she participates in the European Research Council (ERC) funded project, Citizens of Photography: The Camera and the Political Imagination. She was the Linda Wyatt Gruber ’66 Curatorial Fellow in Photography at The Davis Museum at Wellesley College where she curated the exhibition Charlotte Brooks at LOOK: 1951–1971. She received her PhD in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and was granted the 2012–13 Joan and Stanford Alexander Award from the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, for her research in Nicaragua. As an associate lecturer, she taught in the Photography and Imaging Department at Tisch School of the Arts, and in the Art History Department at New York University, at the Parsons School of Design in New York, and in the Fine Arts Department at West University, Timisoara, Romania. She is a contributing member of the Romanian experimental arts collective kinema ikon.