The cyclical nature of the world is becoming increasingly prominent as we begin the fall season: leaves drop from trees, animals go into hibernation and students return to school, like every year, a process constantly repeating.
Desmal Purcell, a college professor at East Georgia State College, is especially aware of these changing seasons. Like us students, Purcell is dominated by a natural clock that is on a constant repeat.
Unlike most students, however, the artist in Purcell thinks a bit more deeply about this conundrum of time, what it means and how it can be translated into a visual space.
Purcell’s work is currently on display in the Memorial Union Gallery as part of “Taking Issue,” a juried art exhibition. Artists from around the world and nation submitted artwork themed around contemporary social issues. Purcell chose to focus on immigration, specifically in the Oaxaca region of Mexico.
“With the two images included in this exhibition, the work reflects on my experiences during the Oaxaca, Mexico uprisings of 2006,” Purcell explained. “My father and I were traveling throughout the state during the unrest.”
Purcell saw graffiti, murals and posters displaying visually the thoughts of the people of Oaxaca.
He began to photograph what he saw, documenting the thoughts, concerns and beliefs of those fighting against the corruption and violence in Mexico at the time.
“We passed through the barricade, by walls sprawled with red graffiti that read ‘touristas go home,’” Purcell remembered. “The sacred became very real at the moment. As we made our way through the city and then the surrounding countryside, an element of the uprising that seemed to resonate with me was the amount of politically motivated graffiti.”
The images in “Taking Issue” are two of the photographs from his trip: “rebelión” in bright red paint against a white wall and a collage of posters, the most prominent one featuring an upturned American flag with the words “Un día sin migra” headlining at the top.
Unlike most protest photographers, Purcell’s work is void of people.
“I was in an area surrounded by people, and I made a good deal of images of people,” he said. “But in the images I chose to share, they are absent.”
This lack of humans is a trend throughout his artwork.
“I travel to large cities (Paris, Washington D.C., Cusco, Oaxaca) and National Parks and then spend a good deal of time sitting in a spot waiting for a brief instant where the composition is void of others,” he said. “There’s a lot of time and energy tied up in that process, and in a certain sense there is an untruthfulness in that image. That nanosecond of emptiness frozen in time and then printed and put forth as a representation and interpretation of that space.”
Other similarities between Purcell’s usual natural artwork and the work he featured in “Taking Issue” include the exploration of time.
Oaxaca was a moment in time, a period of civil unrest captured in the photographs he took of the people bucking the system with their posters and graffiti.
“Walls rise and fall as do forests and mountains,” Purcell mused. “The only difference seems to be the length of time between significant changes.”
The artist is fascinated by and travels to places of significance, whether they are significant now or were at one point in time. Historical buildings, religious sites and battlefields mark a specific moment in time. Purcell, like many tourists, is drawn to these places in observance of what was, and now what is.
“This idea of space becoming greater than itself due to the narrative of events that transpired there is a beautiful thing and something that I tend to dwell on in my work,” Purcell said.
Purcell admits his work puts plenty of emphasis on time and space.
Time is cyclical, constantly folding back on itself: buildings rising and falling, walls being painted, graffiti and manifestos layering on top only to be torn down or whitewashed away.
Sacred space, not only for what it holds now, but what it was in its past.
His background is a great factor in his viewpoints of time and space — Purcell is the 7th generation to live on his family farm in Stillmore, Georgia.
“When we walk the woods, the roads, when we eat from an old stand of pecan trees, there is a lineage that not only influences my work but also my life,” he explained. “To look out across a horizon that generations before you have looked out on, whose hands have tilled that soil and whose sweat built the home you stand in — there is something powerful in that.”
Purcell’s “Alzamiento” and “Un día sin migra,” along with the other artists’ works featured in “Taking Issue,” will be in the Memorial Union Gallery until Sept. 30.