by NATHANIEL NELSON
In a few weeks’ time, Winona residents will have the chance to take a trip halfway across the world and experience a new –– and widely unknown –– culture, thanks to an upcoming photography exhibition at Public Launch. Local artist Edward Hoffman will unveil his new collection, titled “La Gomera: The Island Lost In Time” on September 13, and provide a peek into the culture of a small island off the coast of Africa.
“It’s hard to say all these things in photos and a couple of text panels, but to me, it’s an interesting place because [the Canary Islands are] this isolated –– though somewhat heavily touristed –– archipelago where everything from insects to plant life, birds to food, and culture to music has grown independently on these islands,” Hoffman said. “Each island and each village has its own unique things going on.”
Hoffman grew up in Winona and, after high school, spent some time traveling across the country –– and overseas to Spain –– living everywhere from Seattle to Minneapolis to the Virgin Islands, but kept returning to Winona as a home base.
“I grew up in a family that didn’t travel at all, and we didn’t haven’t a lot of money growing up,” Hoffman said. “When I was 19, I fixed up this old car and took a six-month trip around the country, and got bit by the travel bug. Travel was something that was really important to me.”
Four years ago, Hoffman made a resolution to get out of Winona for the winter and planned on traveling to Spain, where he studied during college. He found a cheap ticket to Tenerife, an island in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, but the tourist-y vacation vibe of the place wasn’t what he was looking for. After some digging, he found a small neighboring island an hour and a half ferry ride away, called La Gomera, and rented a small apartment for the winter.
For the next two years, he kept coming back, having made multiple friends and finding a new community on the island. While there, he met a German photographer named Fabian Ploppa who helped teach him the ropes of photography.
“I’d been taking photos mostly just with my phone and posting on Instagram, and they generated a lot of comments and likes,” Hoffman explained, adding that someone mentioned that he should put on a show of the photos. “Last year, I bought a nice and compact camera and took it a bit more seriously this time around.”
In March, Hoffman was awarded an advancing artist grant from the Southeast Minnesota Arts Council to produce the exhibition. The founder of local art-bar Ed’s (No Name) Bar, Hoffman has been an established local artist for years. While he had worked with photography before, and even included pieces in past exhibitions, this will be the first time a Hoffman show contains no paintings whatsoever.
“I’ve been having exhibitions for pastel drawing and paintings for the last 20 years,” Hoffman said. “I’ve spent a lot of time this year working on paintings of La Gomera, but I wanted to challenge myself with something new and wanted to show La Gomera to people in Winona, and I thought photography is the best way to capture it.”
“It’s more photo-journalism than fine-art photography, but I’m happy with many of the images,” he added. “I was a history major in college, and I really want to bring a historic element the show, too.”
The show is divided into three parts, he explained. The first section consists of photos from a traditional festival in San Sebastian del La Gomera, a popular traditional festival that has been a part of the island’s history for generations. He described the section as street photography of not only the citizens of La Gomera, but also those from the other Canary Islands who take a pilgrimage to La Gomera for the festival.
The second part, he added, consists of multiple landscapes and abandoned locations across the isle. “La Gomera went through a serious period of depopulation in the middle of the last century until the ‘90s, and the island kind of feels part full sometimes,” he explained. “There are a lot of small settlements and enclaves deep in the mountains that have been completely abandoned, and can only be reached by footpath.”
During the depopulation period, families and residents left their homes and traveled by foot to other places on the island or off La Gomera entirely and, oftentimes, they left all their possessions instead of carrying them across mountains. This lends a uniquely eerie feeling to some of the locations, Hoffman said.
“The third section is what La Gomera is like now, and the population is climbing again,” Hoffman said. “It’s changing a lot. It’s embracing tourism to a lot of extent.”
In a way, the exhibition is in part based on current events and the rampant problems spawned by climate change across the globe. For instance, the top of the island has a million-year-old cloud forest, which was designated as a protected biosphere by the United Nations in the late 20th century. However, a big chunk of the forest burned in 2013, which is something the island has never experienced in recorded history.
“Coastal areas have been left abandoned or destroyed over the years from large storm surges that had never been seen before,” Hoffman said. “There’s a little bit of a cautionary tale in the story of La Gomera, but the island –– the culture, the food, their unique whistling language –– have persisted despite the major changes beyond.”
Yet, the exhibition is not a political one, he explained. His number-one priority is to showcase the world of La Gomera for people in Winona, and give them a peek behind the curtain into what island life is really like.
“I wanted to tell –– as best I could –– this history of La Gomera,” he added. “It’s such an interesting and beautiful place.”
The opening of “La Gomera: The Island Lost In Time” will occur on Friday, September 13, at 7 p.m. at Public Launch Gallery, 119 East Third Street in Winona. The exhibit will run through October 12. For more information, contact Public Launch at email@example.com.