As part of his work as The Block’s 2022-23 graduate interdisciplinary fellow, Felipe Gutiérrez, a PhD student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, helped curate The Block’s Fall 2023 exhibition Rosalie Favell: Indigenous Artists Facing the Camera. Following the end of his fellowship at The Block and the opening of Favell’s exhibition, Gutiérrez shares his experience and reflects on the unique perspectives his academic background brought to the work.
Could you tell me about your scholarship and how your work with the Rosalie Favell exhibition relates to it?
I am a PhD candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. I’m in my fifth year now. I’m working on my dissertation and my research sits at the intersections of literary studies, material and visual culture, and museum and heritage studies. So basically, my research is about finding how literature and visual arts intervene in heritage and repatriation conflicts.
I specifically study some gold treasures currently in dispute between several actors, mostly Columbia and Spain. So, the interaction and relationship between the global south and the global north through heritage disputes is very much at the center of what I do. And Rosalie Favell’s work is, to a certain extent, also about reclaiming heritage through image-making and photography. I think there is a connection between what I find in my work and the coming together of this exhibition around how certain communities and artists reclaim a stolen heritage through photographic and artistic practice.
What complexities do you bring as a scholar to curating a body of work like Facing the Camera?
Being a literary scholar, I have been working mostly with texts and mostly as a researcher and academic. Even though I study museums from the perspective of a scholar, the complexity was in trying to engage with museums more actively and see what they do regularly as a professional practice, which is somewhat different from research. It was a learning process. When I started, I didn’t really know what to do. I had a general idea of what a curator does and what an exhibition is, but being there in the flesh, in spirit, working with the artist, working with another curator, and getting to know the museum community from within was an exciting challenge. I was engaging with objects and images from an entirely different perspective.
This work ultimately nurtured my own perspective as a scholar, for sure. That was the main challenge, trying to bring another persona professionally and personally to a role that I knew about from my research that I have never done before.
The exhibition Facing the Camera includes a selection of about 120 photographs from a body of work that includes more than 500 images. How did you think about representing the series through a smaller selection from the group?
Well, following up on this topic of challenges, I think this was another! Facing the Camera is all about visualizing a very large community and trying to do justice to every single one of the sitters and portraits. So, the selection was a major question, and we had to be constantly in touch with Rosalie to see what her perspective was and to see which portraits should definitely be included. Block curator Janet Dees was also a very important support for the selection. She had already done some research on the people that were behind the series – who were they, what were the practices that they sustained, which ones of them were still active artists? Through conversation with Rosalie, Janet, and Academic Curator Corinne Granof, we started making a selection. We kept in mind that it was all about conveying the idea of multiplicity and the extension of a shared identity. It wasn’t only about individual portraits but also the community behind them.
For the first time, this exhibition includes video documentation of Rosalie’s interactions with portrait sitters. How did you decide to include these contextual videos, and what impact do you think they have on the experience of seeing the still photographs?
The video portraits were a wonderful surprise because we initially weren’t expecting them, nor did we know of their existence. We kept regular meetings with Rosalie; in one of them, she mentioned that she was working on a documentary about the making of the series. As part of that project she had an archive of little fragments of video that she recorded when she was interacting with each one or many of the sitters. These videos beautifully document the relationship she establishes with the people who are standing in front of her. This moment of vulnerability is so important. Rosalie makes an effort as an artist to make that experience as gentle and fulfilling, and funny as possible for the sitter, allowing them to feel safe and comfortable and happy about having their image taken.
It’s a very short exchange, that speaks strongly to the general context of Facing the Camera, an intimate moment between the photographer and the sitter that will eventually materialize in the portrait. So it was wonderful. It brings to life the portraits themselves and that very intimate, vulnerable, and beautiful moment.
What was your experience working alongside Rosalie as you curated the show?
Well, it was my first time working at a museum, but also with an artist. I’ve met several artists throughout my life, but working with one is entirely different. I think Rosalie made that path as easy and profound as possible. She was very easy to work with, willing to accommodate, and straightforward with what she was thinking about the show. She was really open to making the exhibition a collective work. In that sense, it was very fulfilling to see how someone who has been working in exhibitions in this context for so long and has become an important figure is making this space for people like me to contribute to the project, suggest ideas, and participate in the conversation. I’m extremely grateful for that. I learned a lot from her practice, but I also learned from a human being who’s very warm, wise, and generous.
As part of the Facing the Camera project, Rosalie continued the series with Chicagoland artists and professionals – could you speak to facilitating that expansion and what it means for the show and body of work?
The residency during the spring here in Chicago was one of the keystones of the project. In the planning of the exhibition, there was the awareness that Chicago and its surrounding areas are a rich territory of ancestral and Native American heritage, which hadn’t had the opportunity to feature in the series. The residency was part of a larger effort at The Block Museum to engage with Indigenous knowledge, practices, heritage, and communities around the area.
There’s also Woven Being, a 2025 project focusing on the arts and the identities and the shared experiences of a very present Indigenous community in the Midwest and Chicago. I think Rosalie’s residency was beautifully orbiting around those conversations. The residency itself was a very celebratory and warm space. It was essentially a social gathering in which people wanted to share with one another, discover one another, make connections, and make social bonds through the experience of photography. It felt like a party that was arranged around celebrating a shared identity, celebrating the community, and celebrating the artistic practice of Rosalie Favell.
What do you feel you’ve taken away from the experience of curating Rosalie Favell: Indigenous Artists Facing the Camera and how might it impact your scholarship going forward?
Well, it was a very rich and wonderful experience for me. I am going to remember this moment forever. Honestly, The Block is a wonderful place to work. It’s a place where you can find beautiful people willing to give their best to make you feel part of the community. In relation to my career, I discovered the possibility of taking the object of my research and the things that I read about and interacting with them more actively. And that is the path that I would like to keep exploring in the future.
I’m an academic, I’m a scholar, and I am building an academic career. But here, I found the possibility of connecting two realms that are oftentimes very much related but also often completely disjointed and separated. Wonderful things can happen when you combine different efforts from distinct fields to a shared final goal. I don’t know if I will eventually have the opportunity to curate an exhibition again, but I will definitely be working whenever I can with museums and art institutions. There is so much for academic spaces to learn from museums. I also think scholars can contribute a great deal to the discussions inside museums, unearthing new perspectives, and contributing to wonderful shows.
Header image: Corinne Granof, Rosalie Favell, and Felipe Gutiérrez take a selfie during exhibition opening