Luis González Palma: The Art of Sadness

© Luis González Palma ‘Esperanza’ [Hope] [detail] 1995

The subjects of fear, loneliness, emptiness and absence are deeply embedded in my work.


There is a deep sadness in the work of Luis González Palma. He was born in Guatemala, a small Central American country bordering Mexico and Belize to the north and El Salvador and Honduras to the south. From 1960 to 1996, the country was riven by civil war. It began before Luis went to school and ended as he was approaching forty. In that time, more than 200,000 people died or went missing, including 40,000 to 50,000 people who ‘disappeared’, and a million made refugees. Hundreds of indigenous villages were razed to the ground and, in the haunted silence that followed, those who survived were too terrified to name their persecutors.

In sharp contrast to this abject violence, Guatemala enjoys some of Central America’s wildest and most beautiful landscape. With its cool pine-clad mountains and warm lowland rainforests, its famous lakes and volcanos, it has been called the country of the eternal spring. It is also the heartland of the Mayan civilisations, the indigenous peoples of Central America, with twenty-two distinct Mayan groups making up around half of the population of the country. This rich indigenous culture along with the great natural beauty of the country has made it a tourist destination, even during the turmoil of civil war.

It is against this background of contrasts and contradictions, of beauty and violence, of terror and silence, of racism and cultural richness that Luis González Palma’s work came into being. His portraits of Mayan Indians are powerful, melancholy, haunting. Larger than life, they look you straight in the eye. Neither submissive nor domineering their gaze becomes the central experience of the work, simultaneously emotive, aesthetic and political.

Luis González Palma’s concerns with sadness stem neither from a desire to sentimentalise nor to wallow in the abject; for while his images address pain and speak of sorrow, they do not counsel despair. Rather they affirm the transcendent nature of the human spirit: for the weakest to be our strength, the most debased signifiers to be our most potent symbols, and for sadness to be understood as the other face of joy.

Alasdair Foster


Alasdair: How did you begin as a photographer?

Luis: My professional training was as an architect. After that I spent some time dedicated to painting and then, by chance, I began to devote myself to photography. I am self-taught. I learned alongside friends who are artists from various different disciplines, and that encouraged a great freedom in the use of the medium.

The work which first brought you to international attention was a series of portraits called ‘La Loteria’ [the lottery]. Tell me about these images…

The Lottery is a popular game that the Spaniards brought to America after the conquest. They used it to teach the native people to read. Language was one of the many means the Spanish conquistadors used to penetrate the indigenous culture and spread their own ideological and political ideas as a way to establish their power. The idea was to associate certain words with images. My approach was to generate images using the same strategy of attaching new meanings to the symbols associated with the game, but these new images are symbolically loaded, with the intention of generating a degree of tension in the viewer’s mind. 

© Luis González Palma from ‘La Loteria’ [The Lottery] 1989

There are a lot of different objects used in ‘La Loteria’. How and why did you select them?

The series presents alternative interpretations of the original images from this popular game: there is an image of a king, but he is an indigenous man, not a conquistador; a moon is tied to a woman’s head, suggesting she is bound to a monthly cycle; a man with bird’s wings is perhaps transformed by his wish for freedom. I must make it clear that each interpretation is left to be made by the viewer. They are open images that look for other meanings, other readings, whether historical, political, or metaphysical.   

The images have a distinctive finish. What is the process and why did you develop it?

The photographs are taken using black-and-white film and then they are chemically toned to sepia. After that, I painted most of the surface with bitumen, leaving only small parts such as the whites of the eyes uncovered. All of this conveys a particular pictorial and tonal quality to the finished work that could not be achieved by photochemical means alone.

How has the history of Guatemala affected your work?

The culture in which one lives, especially during childhood, affects the entire way one perceives what we call reality. Our perceptions and our being in the world are bound up with the way we lived when we were children. No one leaves childhood unharmed. It is something we must deal with for the rest of our lives. And I think art is an ideal way of doing so. It allows us to revisit and reinterpret the pain and trauma of the past. In my case, having lived in a country ravaged by more than thirty years of armed conflict, this approach is particularly meaningful. The subjects of fear, loneliness, emptiness and absence are deeply embedded in my work.

In the series that followed you begin to focus not only on people but on pieces of household furniture. What do you want to communicate through these objects?

My intention is to deny these domestic objects their functionality. The chairs in my photographs are useless for sitting on and resting, they are absurd objects. On the other hand, in the series ‘Jerarquías de Intimidad’ [hierarchies of intimacy], objects serve to symbolise people with all the deficiencies individual people have; they reflect the impossibility of communication, presenting the human being as fragile and fragmented.

© Luis González Palma ‘Historias Paralelas’ [Parallel Histories] 1995
[Left] Installation view; [Right] Detail

Tell me about the work called ‘Historias Paralelas’ [parallel histories] in which transparent images of shirts hang in space, their shadows falling across the ground before them. Each shirt pierced with holes…

This was part of a larger project I undertook in Mexico, Guatemala, and Sweden. The series that you mention was made in Mexico City and is based on a famous picture by the French photographer François Aubert [1829–1906], in which he presented the shirt of Emperor Maximilian the First of Mexico following his execution [in 1867]. Based on this image, I made photographs of the shirts of several Mexican friends and, afterwards, I shot bullet holes in the photographic prints. I wanted to make it clear that I was not shooting the object (the shirt), but its representation, its image; an image which symbolises any person, the everyman. I think of this action as a form of symbolic displacement from the historical violence that we experience in Latin America. 

Your images have always had a sense of the strange, of things slightly removed from the ordinary everyday world, but in more recent series such as ‘Tu/Mi Placer’ [your/my pleasure] you make more explicitly surreal constructions in which the integrity of an object such as a shoe or a chair, is pierced or transgressed by another object, say a table.

Every project has a particular way of being approached and elaborated. ‘Tu/Mi Placer’ was a project I worked on with my wife, Graciela De Oliveira; she wrote the texts that go with the images. This project was presented in a very public way, on advertising hoardings in a tourist and hotel district of Guatemala City. The theme we were exploring was violence against women. This is a very worrying issue in Guatemala where many women are murdered by men. I think that the images show a kind of overlapped violence; a violence that is both present and absent at the same time; unnoticed but which is nonetheless there. The images show, by means of the relation between objects, a distorted, disturbing, and subtly aggressive scenario that seeks to reflect the inner world of a woman living in fear. 

A number of your series refer to religious ideas or stories and to the paintings of artists such as Botticelli, Poussin, and Reubens. Your works in this manner tend to focus on details, such as hands. What you want to communicate through these expressive gestures?

La Anunciación Cultural [the cultural annunciation] was another project carried out in collaboration with my wife Graciela. We had the idea of focusing attention on bodily gestures taken, quite literally, from famous paintings. We presented the hands of the Virgin Mary and the hands of the angel [who gave her the message from God that she was to bear the Christ child], and in these gestures we clearly read human submission and sacred power; in this case, the submission of a woman. At the same time, we wanted to allude to the absence of men in the representation of this Catholic myth; an absence that has consequences in the social organisation of Latin-American countries characterised by an ever-present male chauvinism. Much of my work is based on a continuing dialogue with those aspects of European art history that are concerned with the representation of myths and sacred histories of Roman Catholicism. I think this is the result of my education in a Catholic school in a Catholic country loaded down with guilt.

© Luis González Palma ‘Sin título’ [untitled] 1995–2012

How do audiences relate to your work?

The artwork is made by the spectator: Marcel Duchamp [1887–1968] made this idea clear more than a century ago. The audience finishes, and gives sense to, the creative act; the artist is only a link. These responses change, depending on the context of time and place but, generally, I think people recognise themselves in my photographs; they see themselves like reflections in a mirror or like shadows.

You now live in Argentina. Do you find your work is changing?

Guatemala still lives in me, that is inevitable… but one is the sum of many things, many experiences. I live in Argentina now, having Argentinian children and engaging in a dialogue with the art produced in Argentina. I cannot live outside of those circumstances. But the childhood feelings of guilt, emptiness, and fear still remain present within me one way or another.  

What is the guilt you feel?

When I talk about guilt, I talk about a psychological construct that affects the self and determines one’s relationship with the world; a relationship largely marked by the feeling of being at fault, of failing someone. I am talking about a psychology created with the passing of the years, by the specific weight of the Roman Catholic religion that is always present in a traditional and contradictory country like Guatemala.  

In a recent body of work you present the image of a galleon afloat on a bed.

This project was made in Costa da Morte, in the region of Galicia in the north of Spain. I wanted to relate the culture of religion, which in Galicia is very much identified with the sea and the journey; to childhood as a place of dreams, desires and adventure. The project is called ‘Ara Solis (Aquí estoy ante mi)’ [the altar of the sun (here I stand before myself)]. Ara Solis is the name of a monument which has been visited by pilgrims since ancient times; here people stood and looked across the seas to the place where the sun set at dusk.

It’s an image that seems to speak both of the familiar and the questing. What are you seeking …?

I think one spends one’s whole life searching for something that one never had… that paradox is present in me. I try to find images that give meaning to me and to what I have lived, dreamed, and suffered. But every project you make, as the Irish writer Samuel Beckett [1906–1989] has said, is a little failure… and the idea of the creator is to ‘fail better’. Therein lie all the experiences that give meaning to the mystery of life.

© Luis González Palma ‘Ara Solis (Aquí estoy ante mi)’ [The Altar of the Sun (here I stand before myself)] 2010

Biographical Notes

Luis González Palma was born in Guatemala in 1957. He studied architecture and cinematography at the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala and then turned to photography. Since 1989, he has exhibited at many prestigious institutions worldwide including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Australian Centre for Photography (Sydney), the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, Taipei Art Museum, and the Palazzo Ducale di Genova, Italy; and at major festivals including Houston Fotofest, Les Rencontres d’Arles, and the biennales of Venice, São Paulo and Havana.

His work is held in many public and private collections including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum für Fotografie (Berlin), the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (Paris), the Daros Foundation (Zurich), and the Museo de Bellas Artes (Buenos Aires). His images have been widely published in a range of books including four monographs. Now living and working in Córdoba, Argentina, Luis González Palma is recognised as one of the most significant photographers from Latin America working today.

This article was first published in Chinese, in the August 2014 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. First published in English at Talking Pictures in June 2020.