The catalogue to the exhibition Pioneros de la Antropología, Memoria Visual, 1936-1950 features seventy reproductions of photographs taken by Colombian anthropologists from 1936 to 1950. These images form part of the archive of the Instituto Colombiano de Antropología and of the personal archive of anthropologist Gregorio Hernández de Alba (1906-1988). This exhibition and publication was based on the model of the Banco de la República’s Memoria Visual. It enjoyed the support of the Instituto Colombiano de Antropología, an institution with a longstanding tradition in social research. The catalogue is the fruit of an inter-institutional project that took place in the framework of the relationship between science, art, and a nationalist ideology that defined modernity in terms of the recovery of a lost social and visual memory.
To understand how the field of anthropology took shape in Colombia and its ties with the field of art, it is necessary to understand the sociopolitical period known as the República Liberal. The first archeological exhibition in Colombia took place in 1938 at the Museo Nacional. That event demonstrated the influence of political processes to which Colombian educational and artistic institutions were crucial. It also entailed the participation of foreign scientists. The relationship between anthropology and photography is also vital to an analysis of this document. Starting in the 19th century, anthropologists had begun to make functional and supposedly objective use of photography; they did not acknowledge that they were in fact creating a specific canon.
Initially, anthropological photography was patently ethnocentric. It produced images that represented a foreign and exotic “other” who needed to be classified, measured, and described. In this sense, photography in Colombia took part in building stereotypes of human groups. Over time, however, that canon underwent changes and photography became an instrument for recording and observing cultural phenomena. The images in this catalogue evidence that process of transition. Local scientists were using photographs to register the unknown world of their ancestors, creating a network of visual symbols essential to understanding modernity.