Later this summer, West Dean College will be excited to welcome the Mexican photographer Emma Viggiano Gutierrez as part of its Artist-in-Residence programme. As a lifelong resident of the town of Xilitla, in the state of San Luis Potosí, México, Emma’s first visit to the College signals another link between the town and the Edward James Foundation – both synonymous with the creative activities associated with the College’s founder. The residency will forge links between the visual history of Xilitla, Edward James’ architectural structures and garden at ‘Las Pozas’, his various writings both published and unpublished.
Emma Viggiano has been taking photographs since she was 14 years old, a passion inherited from her Italian great-grandfather, Don Francisco Viggiano, known as ‘Don Pancho’ by the locals, as well as the first photographer in Xilitla. His work has served to document the history of the town and many of its inhabitants, particularly in the early years of the 20th century. Much of Don Pancho’s photographs were taken with a Kodak A3 camera, using silver gelatin, between 1900 and 1918.
In 2010, Emma published Xilitla: Rostros y Lugares [‘Xilitla: Faces and Places’], a book collecting over a hundred of Don Pancho’s photographs of the town and its population, soon to be reissued in a revised edition. She has also recently presented the exhibition “El ex-convento de San Agustín: dos miradas al convento agustino de Xilitla” [The former convent of Saint Augustine: two views of Augustinian Xilitla], combining monochromatic images by both herself and Don Pancho of the oldest such building in the state of San Luis Potosi, built by the Augustinians between 1550 and 1557.
Emma has been collecting images of Edward James’s extraordinary architectural structures since she was a teenager. She has long been fascinated by the reinforced concrete buildings, built in collaboration with Plutarco Gastellum and a team of dedicated craftsmen, which form a unique, complex world conceived, designed and built in some of the wildest jungle of the Huasteca. Emma’s residency will give her the opportunity not only to connect with documentary materials relating to James’ time in Xilitla, but also allow her to connect and collaborate with the community at West Dean. As well as sharing photographic images, there are also recordings of interviews she has made with James’ former employees, many of whom worked for and with him since he arrived at ‘La Conchita’ ranch, initially to raise orchids.
The chance to engage with materials housed in the Edward James Archive will allow Emma to consult diverse materials, including books published by James’ own imprint, unpublished poetry and prose, culturally significant correspondence, as well as numerous other books and artworks. Her aim of developing a new publication incorporating new and old photographs in combination with selected documentary research, will also serve to tell a new story about James’ life and work in Mexico, specifically in the context of historical and contemporary communities in Xilitla, West Dean and beyond.