Hailey Nicole Warner
A three-day trip to Buffalo, N.Y. turned to quarantine after photographer and visual artist Geandy Pavón arrived at the home of his partner, Imarra López-Boada. Not long after Pavón’s arrival in late March, shelter-in-place orders were issued and, to make matters worse, Pavón discovered that his parents had contracted the virus.
Quarantining was the safest thing, but it was also, as Pavón described it, a test of trust and ingenuity for their relationship. To cope with the situation, López-Boada and Pavón did what artists do in times of fear and uncertainty: make art.
The project that turned into 40 Days and 40 Nights in Buffalo drew on themes of classical art in a series of staged photographs that they couple posted on social media. On Dec. 1, 40 Days and 40 Nights opened at Florida's Coral Gables Museum after a month-long exhibit at the Art Museum of the Americas in Washington, D.C.
Pavón and López-Boada have won national attention for their visceral response to the fears many experienced as the pandemic took hold. Aesthetically, the project has an archetypal feel, and for the viewer, it's hard to separate the archetypal from the personal. The same was true for Pavón and López-Boada. As their project evolved, they discovered, like so many people quarantining together, that isolation became a crucible redefining their relationship.
Originally, Pavón said, he had only planned to visit for three days. Once the lockdown began, away from his studio and equipment, he gathered supplies from the businesses that had remained open, pooling them with found items from López-Boada's home. Cardboard tubes, a few rolls of duct tape, flashlights, and Pavón's 50 millimeter camera made up the production’s hardware.
In his artist statement, Pavón recalls the end of the third day becoming serious:
I wanted to reinterpret big themes my own way. It made no sense to treat this as a diary. Unless you are a photojournalist risking your life, there’s no sense in that. We have a huge bank of images, myths, history, that form our collective imagery.
Pavón drew from a classical education. He had started his career as a painter, graduating from the National School of Fine Arts in Havana before finding his “studio in the streets” as a photographer.
Although they met in the U.S., both artists grew up in Cuba. López-Boada was far more than a passive muse; she grew up in a family of musicians and performers and learned acting and theater design at Teatro García Lorca. She was a full partner in conceptualizing the series.
To interpret the thoughts and feelings that were surfacing, Pavón said that he channeled the painters who had influenced him as a young artist: Caravaggio and Goya. For the next 40 days—and 40 nights— the two artists drew on archetypal images, reimagining great works of art, religious stories, and myths.
The first photographs were posted in daily installments, in real time, a visual experience similar to a serialized narrative. This built suspense among the early audience of social media followers. For Pavón and López-Boada, the project doubled as a point of escape—a way to explore their paralleled realities of lockdown.
One reason the work is compelling is the vulnerability it demanded from both parties. Pavón said he experienced somewhat of a role reversal, a photographer doubled as subject. He was self-deprecating when he spoke about being in front of the camera: "I am over-acting all of the characters, overplaying it. Imarra was very good. I learned a lot from her. She has a great sense of how things should look aesthetically.”
When I talked to Geandy, he joked about how many people must be divorcing right now. I laughed, telling him it’s true—so many relationships are held together by absences. For the two artists, though, when the 40th night drew to a close, and escape no longer felt necessary, Pavón and López-Boada didn’t want to return to separate lives.
What a cool thing to be quarantined with someone and have it work out, to look at what sprouted up through compression cracks and think: beautiful, nice, I’ll keep it.
During the production of a photograph that posed her as Mary Magdalene and required tears, López-Boada refused to use eyedrops. Pavón sounded slightly awestruck when he talked about the shoot.
"She kept saying: no, no, I can do it. I can concentrate—I can make it real. She started crying for the shot. That’s the way it was. She really started crying.”
López-Boada’s authenticity translated to the images. Her urgency matches her tenderness as she steps between the realities of each photo. An intimacy is transmitted between the two subjects and the viewer, the byproduct of acts of vulnerability; through the couple’s expression of escape, the audience is invited into their sanctuary. We are allowed a glimpse of inner worlds that add new layers to archetypal works of art. We are made witnesses to the brave act of trusting.
The personal is also the political. Pavón said they were aware that they were channeling high emotion against the backdrop of what could be considered an American revolution. Pavón knew something about revolution, and its aftermath: his father had been a political prisoner in Cuba. After Pavón's struggle to free him, the family emigrated to the U.S. in 1996.
With the perspective of someone who had lived the reality of political repression, Pavón is looking at where the current upheaval in the U.S. might lead as old monuments are torn down and people demonstrate for racial justice on the streets of America’s cities and small towns.
“What will the new monuments look like?" he asked rhetorically. "I don’t think we’re going to get rid of idols. It’s just a part of our human nature. But I will be thinking about that.”
He's doing that thinking back in New Jersey, where the couple is living with Pavón’s parents, across the Hudson from Manhattan, where, he notes, the view of the skyline is spectacular.
Hailey Nicole Warner is a senior at San Francisco State University majoring in creative writing.
See photos from 40 Days and 40 Nights on the Journal of the Plague Year main page.
Forty Days & Forty Nights ::: Muddy Waters
Artists Only ::: Talking Heads
People Take Pictures Of Each Other ::: The Kinks
Primitive Painters ::: Felt
When I Paint My Masterpiece ::: The Band
Forty Days ::: Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks
I Paint A Design ::: Michael Hurley
The Gallery ::: Joni Mitchell
Shuffle Off To Buffalo ::: The Harry Warren Singers