In Cartagena, A Chance Encounter On the Street Inspires a Powerful Portrait Series

Apr 20, 2017 5:35PM

It seemed a day like any other when two Colombian women crossed paths in the street in Cartagena de Indias. Ruby Rumié, an artist, was walking, and Dominga Torres Tehran, a vendor, was selling fish.

There was nothing particularly unusual about the encounter. Both women were going about their daily routines: Rumié was born and raised in Cartagena, then went to art school there, and later dedicated herself to the study and documentation of daily life in the historic neighborhood of Getsemaní. And Torres Tehran, with her standard load of fresh fish, was doing the same thing she’s been doing for more than 45 years. She’s one of the thousands of ambulant vendors working in the streets of Cartagena.

But on that seemingly ordinary day, Torres Tehran (or simply “Dominga,” as the artist now refers to her) caught Rumié’s eye. The vendor’s unique beauty, in Rumié’s view, would be the perfect subject for a portrait. Rather than photographing her in the street, the artist invited Dominga into the studio. The resulting image was the jumping-off point for a series of photographs of Cartagena’s women vendors—not only Dominga, but also Antonia and Brigida, Evangelina and Rosalinda, Trinidad and Fanny and Flor and a dozen others.

These individual portraits, along with several group portraits, and a related video and poster, are the basis of “Tejiendo Calles (Weaving Streets),” Rumié’s new exhibition at Nohra Haime Gallery in New York.

All of the portraits are different, but in certain ways, they’re all the same. Each piece features a female subject wearing a traditional white dress, seated at an angle, her eyes looking directly into the camera. There’s little ornamentation. The backgrounds are plain, the women are unsmiling, their hair cropped short, and the chairs they’re sitting on are concealed by the draping fabric of their full skirts.

But elements of the subjects’ individual personalities shine through. Petrona, as seen in “Petrona,” wears golden rings on all her fingers, while Aminta wears a hairnet; Elena Copia’s shoulders squarely face the viewer, while Vilma’s sideways gaze feels vaguely ominous.

These small but perceptible variations point to something else, composition aside, that Rumié’s portraits have common. They’re portraits of people who usually go unnoticed. All of the subjects are middle-aged or elderly women—what some scholars refer to as the “invisible demographic”—not to mention that, in this case, they’re women working in the thankless profession of selling goods in the street.

A woman who sells fish to passerby is accustomed to being rejected and ignored. By bringing her to the front and center, Rumié challenges that social norm. “Problems such as gender violence, gentrification, social barriers and discrimination constitute a constant concern which I attempt to uncover through my work,” the artist said. “[My photographs] suggest the enigma of social stratification.”

Indeed, with “Weaving Streets,” Rumié's focus isn't only on the daily experience of specific women in a specific context. Her work spans broader territory, zooming out to consider the daily experiences of women in general. In her selection of Dominga as a subject, the artist raises powerful questions about what beauty is, where we might find it, and who, exactly, is worthy of sitting for a portrait.

—Bridget Gleeson

Ruby Rumié: Weaving Streets” is on view at Nohra Haime Gallery, New York, Apr 21st – Jun 10th.

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