Non Plus Ultra Salitre: Human Struggles within the Pillars of Hercules

Yesterday while looking for two exhibitions at PHotoESPAÑA 17, I stumbled across the exhibition El borde de una herida: Migración, exilio y colonialidad en el Estrecho (“The edge of a wound: Immigration, exile and coloniality in the Strait of Gibraltar) curated by Juan Guardiola at CentroCentro Cibeles.

This strait between Spain and Africa was famous in antiquity as the marker for the limits of the known world, where Hercules had to travel to in order to fetch the cattle of Geryon and where lay the mythical island of Altantis. Yet today it is the scene of another struggle: that of immigrants who make the journey to Europe from the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa. The exhibition is split into three parts A: Before; Between A and B: During and After E: After:

The middle journey is the most expansive section as it also most closely recalls the ancient anxieties of the Pillars of Hercules a dangerous unknown. It is in this small stretch of water that the particularly human struggle of finding a place in the world has become a matter of life and death, as seen in these works by Raúl Valerio and Joan Fontcuberta:

But the work that struck home to me this journey was in the final (E) section: the 12 volume photobook Salitre by Juan Valbuena.

It is a collaboration with 12 Senegalese immigrants who all used to live together in house on Calle Salitre, a street in Lavapiés here in Madrid. I first encountered this project a few years ago while living in this barrio (and where I am now writing this) known for its large immigrant population. (I distinctly recall seeing the boo in the bookshop of La Fabrica, the central hub of each year’s PHotoESPAÑA). As the word salitre also means a saline substance on walls as well as the mixture of sweat and salt that sticks to the skin while sailing, this project about the immigrant experience in Madrid also contains traces of the journey it took to get here. Each of the books was made by one of the immigrants and not only documented their life in Madrid, in both handwritten text and photographs, but also their memories of their homeland, with the inclusion of the photographs they brought with them.

This experience of rediscovering Salitre at this exhibition made me realize that every place contains the story of all the people who live there, not only of that place, but also of where they have come from and how they reached there. As Trump brings the stay on his Muslim Ban to the Supreme Court, we have to remember this more than ever.

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