Juan Orrantia’s delicately edited photo-book, Like Stains of Red Dirt, presents a visual mystery filled with poetic clues. In the absence of an introductory text, the viewer is only guided by its evocative title, encouraged to make sense of the scenes through the few, carefully selected elements in each frame. While some photographs seem clearly constructed, depicting bizarre objects from both the streets and what seems like the artist’s home, others show spontaneous family snapshots, moments of intimacy and love. This duality accentuates the uncertainty of the narrative, leaving the viewer wondering about the connection between the surreal (at times threatening) still lifes, and an apparently balanced domestic life.
The publication is covered with a red, see-through, plastic dust jacket. As we start turning each page, the minimalistic composition of the photographs give a sense of calm and order to the individual scenes. This tranquility however is sometimes broken by few frightening shapes; a spiky cactus, a lightning or a red wig with no identifiable face. The apparent lack of purpose of some of these objects deepens the enigma surrounding the artist’s place. Whose are those stones and what are they for? But it is not till the end that the author presents us with additional information through a nicely designed index in a double-page spread. The forty-seven red printed miniatures are accompanied by their captions, some of which are strictly descriptive (‘Mum and Daughter’), while others are more evocative and a few come with an explanatory text.
The project was shot in Johannesburg, South Africa, where Orrantia lives with his wife and their adopted South African daughter. Upon arriving in the country from Colombia twelve years ago, it took the artist some time to start taking pictures. His double condition of a white man and an ‘intruder’ (as he puts it) stopped him from photographing for a while. With time, however, Orrantia started to construct his own alternative story, based on his personal experience as an immigrant in South Africa. As the artist explains, his aim was to talk from rather than about the country. The domestic scenery thus became the ideal place from where to build his new perspective of South African life, while simultaneously questioning the ways in which the country had been historically represented.
The project aims to challenge preconceived ways of seeing and understanding, inviting us to look again, to find another explanation, a different meaning, which shall also be perfectly valid.
According to Orrantia, the project aims to challenge preconceived ways of seeing and understanding, inviting us to look again, to find another explanation, a different meaning, which shall also be perfectly valid. This plea for inclusivity, for the celebration of a contemporary, diverse, South African society, is made from the confined space of his home, of his very street, making use of his belongings and portraying playful moments of his own family. By estranging the scenes, changing the natural colour of certain objects or forcing unusual croppings on some of his subjects, the artist digs deeper into the riddle, acknowledging the ability of the photograph to misguide our reading, while simultaneously making use of the medium to precisely open up the ways we might eventually see the world.
If we go back to the title now, the mystery might be finally resolved. The dirt stains make reference to South African land, which is mainly formed by red sediments that are terribly difficult to remove. Like stubborn stains are thus the historical representations that impede a renewed and broadened understanding of a place, of its people, and of the many ways in which we could potentially relate to them.