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Rites of passage

Penrose Library hosts Guatemalan photo exhibit


One of the candle rituals depicted in Sterling Tranthams - photo exhibit, Reverence.
  • One of the candle rituals depicted in Sterling Tranthams photo exhibit, Reverence.

As part of its World Multi-Cultural Visual and Performing Arts Series, the Pikes Peak Library District is hosting "Reverence: Faith in the Guatemalan Highlands," a collection of black-and-white photography by Sterling Trantham. The photo display, which will be at the downtown Penrose Library during January, documents the western highlands community of Zunil's Mayan religious ceremonies. These ceremonies, fusing ancient Mayan practice, Catholicism and curanderismo, provide an intriguing look into the spirituality of a region and people.

On display are images of strange customs and respectfully somber events ranging from elaborate candle ceremonies to funerals and religious iconic adornment. In one shot, a rooster is held over a little girl's head in ritual; another captures a large man spitting a shower of liquid into the face of another man. Many of the images are up-close portraits -- one of particular note shows an old man framed in the rearview mirror of a bus next to a Jesus sign. His gaze is piercing and revealing of many aspects of his culture. Trantham's work is sharp in contrast and intimate with its subject matter.

Curanderismo is a Mexican-American system of medicine, which bases itself out of humoral medicine (relating to the bodily fluids and related humors), Native American tradition, popular culture and charismatic Christianity. Curanderismo recognizes the traditional European system (possibly with an older Asian source) of medicine focused on the four humors: blood/sanguine, phlegm/phlegmatic, yellow bile/melancholic, and black bile/choleric. Practitioners of curanderismo are not limited to the highland Guatemalans, but may be found throughout the southwestern United States and Texas, in particular.

Much of what Trantham documents in his photography highlights the art involved in traditional folk healing. From the curanderismo influence, we view the battle between good and evil, as fought between the curanderos (healers) and brujos (witches) regarding mal puesto (witchcraft based illness). Susto (loss of spirit) is at stake, and the material, spiritual and mental levels are the battlegrounds. Underlying these practices is an assumption that the physical symptoms ultimately have roots in the supernatural. Many of the images caught by Trantham hint at this mystical belief structure and its implications on the practicing societies.

Trantham will be at Penrose Library on Wednesday, Jan. 26, at 7 p.m. to discuss his work. He teaches photojournalism and has served with the photographic division of National Geographic. Trantham's documentation of Central American indigenous ceremony has earned him many awards and wide publication throughout the world. His focus on Guatemala in particular happened almost by accident as his early plans were thwarted by a meager $600 shoestring budget.

The photographic result of Trantham's journey extends far beyond its minimal financing and haphazard approach; the pictures are gorgeous.

-- Matthew Schniper


"Reverence: Faith in the Guatemalan Highlands," a black-and-white photography exhibit by Sterling Trantham.

Sponsored by Pikes Peak Library Special Collections

Penrose Public Library, 20 N.Cascade Ave.

Jan. 6 - 26, Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday: 1-5 p.m.; Sterling Trantham speaking on his work, Jan. 26, 7 p.m.

Call 531-6333 or visit for more information on this exhibit and the rest of the Multi-Cultural Visual Arts Series

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