October 6, 2011 - October 30, 2011
Carl Bower’s black-and-white series “Chica Barbie” documents the complicated world of Colombian beauty pageants. Set against a backdrop of poverty, crime, and decades of armed conflict, nowhere are such contests more ubiquitous and revered than in Colombia. In these carefully scripted shows of fantasy, beauty as a concept, commodity, and singular goal is stripped to its raw elements.
The queens are celebrities: many of the roughly 400 contests a year can shut down a small town for days as thousands jam plazas and parade routes for a glimpse of them. Many of them seem familiar, stirring recollections of the same perfect features seen elsewhere, along with the identical flirtatious laughter, mock surprise and relentless optimism. In their quest for adoration, they erase nearly all traces of individuality.
The millions who pack stadiums and follow dozens of national contests on live television often have a vicarious relationship with the queens, clinging to a fantasy of magically transcending poverty. The popularity of the pageants ebbs and flows with the level of violence in the country. The contests project an image of normalcy and vitality in the face of social upheaval and fear, a refusal to be defined by the violence or to live as if besieged. In a country rife with conflict, the pageants are a form of both denial and defiance.
Artist Carl Bower spent 15 years as a photojournalist for Newhouse News Service, the Times-Picayune, Helsingin Sanomat, and The Providence Journal. His photographs have appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, TIME, and Newsweek. “Diane’s Story,” his project on one woman’s struggle with breast cancer, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography. “Chica Barbie” was previously exhibited at the Farmani Gallery in NewYork in the show Select Gender and at the Photo Center NW in Seattle in the exhibition Exposed: Critical Mass. It was also a finalist for the Book Award at the New York Photo Festival. Bower lives in Denver, Colorado.