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In Search of the Elusive Faces of the Gods

By: Sol Astrid Giraldo E.
Photos : Antonio Briceño

 

“In the beginning there was nothing. Everything was created by thoughts and visions carried on the wind.” A Piaroa legend holds that the world emerged from “the power of imagination” that was granted to the human race. Venezuelan photographer Antonio Briceño has borrowed this gift, but unlike the gods who imagined humans, he wants to imagine the gods.

Briceño has spent the last twenty years compiling a Gallery of Gods of America, to restore the faces that have been obscured by history. More than a documentary report, this work soars with poetry and contemporary art. This is a work of “imagination” as a creative force. Briceño was disturbed by the fact that Latin Americans knew more about the Greek pantheon than the gods residing in the tepuyes (mesas), the Andean snow, or the desert salts. As with a banked fire, with a little prodding, he was able to bring the gods back to life.

The artist did anthropological research before traveling to the communities in which he immersed himself for months, opening his senses to the breath of tribal memory. He then imagined the deities together, since each god does not necessarily correspond to a single figure in these mythologies. The vernacular pantheon is knit together by natural forces that do not always take concrete forms. Nonetheless, Briceño translated them into visual form to pay tribute to the dignity of modern-day indigenous peoples, recognize their territories, and provide a physical medium for oral traditions on the verge of disappearing.

With the help of shamans and community leaders, he chose certain inhabitants to personify the “owners” of the cosmos. In these photographs, the auras are not gold leaf, but the sun itself. The hands of the gods sport no rings, but rather the calluses of people who have worked the land. The subjects give up foreign surnames such as Rodríguez or Pérez to rename themselves Viracocha or Pachamama, thereby recovering lost lineages.

This pantheon also reveals an unknown continent. The telluric and mythical forces cannot be contained by borders or lines on maps. This is a living landscape, with other borders and depths, where the separations between countries no longer apply. It is a region of streams inhabited by the lethal Rató spirits, of ravines and summits protected by the unpredictable Mawarí, of deserts traversed by colorful sirens. The gods are lodged in lands that they have, in turn, created with their presence. Grandfather Fire of the Huichol culture is a connection to earth in the midst of a cosmic storm. The “Wisest God” is a tree among trees, a deer among deer.

Briceño faced yet another challenge: How can the unphotographable be photographed? How can non-existent mirages be captured? How can the multiplicity of spirits that inhabit one body be seen? Digital technology helped, in the same way that ideal landscapes can be constructed from several photographs, to recreate this world with the power required by these sublime cosmogonies.

After seeing how reservoirs, mining, tourism, drug trafficking, and evangelization eradicated communities, Briceño, like the replicant in Blade Runner, could say: “I have seen people and places you wouldn’t believe.

All these could be lost in time, like tears in rain.” His are the words of a fateful swan song: “The gods of America are leaving for good, and with them go an essential part of humanity. I’m working against the clock and there is still much to do,” he concludes, as he displays the remarkable flood of vitality and wisdom that is the gallery of gods of Abya Yala.