Graciela Iturbide: Images of the Spirit

at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, through August 29

By Janina A. Ciezadlo

A muscular young man is partly visible behind a curtain formed by what seem to be angel wings. Apparently impersonating a god, he wears a crown of thorns twisted from ocotillo cactus–a ubiquitous plant in Mexico–but looks very human: his wounds are clearly painted on and he’s squinting. In two other photographs, both entitled Magnolia, a man impersonates a woman, posing gracefully, his features blurred by makeup. He doesn’t appear to be in the midst of a ritual, as many of the subjects in this show do–instead he’s stepped aside for the photograph, momentarily leaving the flow of events that defines his mysterious role.

Christo (1990) and the two Magnolias (1986) are part of a rich retrospective of the work of Graciela Iturbide now showing at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum. These black-and-white photographs were taken in Mexico, Latin America, and Los Angeles between the 70s and the early 90s. As the show’s curators put it, this Mexican photographer aims “to investigate and articulate the ways in which ‘Mexico’ is meaningful only when understood as an intricate combination of histories and practices.” Iturbide does not document the complex rituals of Mexico’s multilayered cultures as an outsider displaying the poor or the exotic, however, but transforms the formalist approach she inherited from social realist Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Henri Cartier-Bresson into a vehicle for the definition of both nation and self.

Of course our culture is fascinated by angels and other New Age religious manifestations. But “Images of the Spirit” shows that Iturbide is a materialist: she documents mystery and magic as they appear in the world using that most empirical of means, the camera. Furthermore, while pop culture in the United States encourages passive reception of objects and ideas–buying angels in gift shops or reading about them–in Mexico objects are made by hand in rural areas for the rites surrounding such passages as marriage and death. Angelito mexicano (“Mexican Cherub,” 1984) shows a small boy in Chalma, in the state of Mexico, standing against a wall, as do many of Iturbide’s subjects. He’s dressed as an angel for a pageant, wearing wings of cardboard or plywood carefully painted with the quills and barbs of feathers. Still, the painted wings have a curious flatness in contrast to the complex tones in the rest of the photograph: the boy’s satin robe alone contributes a beautiful range of highlights and grays. In his hand he holds a bough, which like his wings and gown has been made by a member of the community. The boy, who’s stepped aside from some spectacle, is somber, almost frowning–how different his grave interpretation of his role is from European cherubs, fertility symbols who also straddle the territory between the sacred and the profane but are always portrayed as smiling and playful. This boy seems not just a child impersonating an angel in a passion play but some grave angel of history.

Another angel–and it’s useful to remember that “Jesus,” “Angel,” “Angelita,” and “Seraphina,” among others, are common names in Mexico–is a longhaired woman in a voluminous skirt carrying a boom box along a ridge overlooking the Sonoran desert. In the compelling Mujer angel (“Angel Woman,” 1979), Iturbide captures the conjunction of the desert’s limitless geological time; the European period in Mexican history that began in the 15th century, represented by the woman’s dress; and our own postmodern era, signaled by the boom box. The woman’s long, straight hair seems to represent indigenous cultures and as such another kind of time, the cyclical rotations of an agricultural community. Perhaps the magic realism of recent Latin American literature is the result of different cultures colliding, which disrupts our sense of linear time and makes images seem magical: our sense of logic and causality is dependent on context. In this sense Iturbide captures a “decisive moment”–Cartier-Bresson’s term for an eloquent photographic exposure–that’s simultaneously revelatory and ordinary, something she does over and over in her work.

Working within a syncretic culture, Iturbide has formulated a syncretic style, layering the codes and directions of 20th-century modernism guided by a distinctive feminine perspective and an interest in the nature of religion and the spiritual: perhaps somewhat belatedly, Iturbide is working on the stylistic, philosophical, and material questions of modernism. Like the people in the communities she captures, she’s not hurtling into the postmodern world but tracing everyday matters detail by empirical detail. Yet the formalist aesthetic she learned from Manuel Alvarez Bravo, with its strict emphasis on composition and the characteristics of the photographic medium, still informs her work.

One hallmark of modernism is reflexivity. And in several photographs here Iturbide seems to question the nature of photography. In La Veronica patrona de la fotografia (“Veronica, Patron Saint of Photography,” 1982), she suggests that Veronica, who wiped the brow of Christ with her veil when he stumbled carrying the cross, was the first photographer: supposedly the image of Christ was transferred to the veil, later revered as a religious relic, as material evidence of Christ’s historical existence. Visible evidence of the spirit is at the center of Iturbide’s inquiry, but she seeks not anything transcendent but the human interactions and labor that produce the spiritual. In this photograph, the sober woman impersonating Veronica walks in a procession flanked by two Ecuadoran sisters in white habits; shot from a low angle, the photo clearly reveals a hand-painted image of Christ’s face on the banner she carries.

The fabled distrust of photography in Native American cultures has its parallel in contemporary concerns that anthropological photographs are intrusive and exploitative, commodities in the postmodern image market. The best modernist documentary photographers, however, have consciously negotiated and redefined the web of gazes among subjects, photographer, and audience. When Iturbide travels to a Mexican town, she gets to know the people who live and work there, and her photographs reflect the relationship of trust she establishes. Often aware they’re being photographed, her subjects seem to present themselves as they want to appear, giving Iturbide’s work a theatrical quality resonant with layers of impersonation.

Her approach, which she calls “complicity,” is clearest in a group of photos she took in 1986 of a cholo family in East Los Angeles. Like Bruce Davidson, who’s photographed people in New York, she’s been invited into her subjects’ lives: Davidson has said of his work, “I entered a life-style, and like the people who lived on the block, I love it and hate it and keep going back.” True, Davidson and Iturbide might seem aloof when compared to someone like Nan Goldin, who photographs her friends, but this distance is one of their formal tools. In one shot, the chola girls appear in a formal tableau they seem to have designated. Tough and beautiful, they’re extravagantly made-up and dressed, proudly posturing against a wall under paintings of Mexican heroes. One of the girls holds a baby, and the others give gang signs. Another photograph shows two girls applying makeup. The composition is a complex triangle formed by the girls sitting on one side of a bed, a baby lying on his back looking at the photographer upside down, and a man lying on his side looking at the girls. More than an intimate family portrait in eloquent available light, this is a meditation on windows, mirrors, gazes, and masks–for like so many of Iturbide’s subjects in rural Mexico, these urban girls are putting on stylized masks that will reveal a powerful ethnic and group identity while concealing and protecting other parts of the self.

Octavio Paz devotes a whole chapter of his 1961 classic The Labyrinth of Solitude to the role of masks in the Mexican character, gracefully adumbrating the parts they’ve played in personal dissimulation, establishing a revolutionary character, defending a macho identity, and maintaining a courteous facade–all of which contribute to an existential sense of loneliness. As I looked at Iturbide’s work, I often felt that she was elaborating on Paz’s ideas, reinterpreting them and rendering them visible. He makes a lot of observations in the same book on the place of women in Mexican culture, describing La Malinché–the woman who collaborated with the conquistadors–and offering such enigmatic (and now outdated) statements as “Woman is a living symbol of the strangeness of the universe and its radical heterogeneity.”

Much time has passed since Paz wrote his book, however, and many Mexican and Mexican-American women before and after him have contributed to a complex, evolving process of self-definition. The Aztecs had their own traditions of ceremonial impersonation, of course. And 17th-century poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz–the first woman poet on the continent, celebrated with other Mexican women every fall with a festival at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum–illuminates two disturbing images Iturbide made of a woman wearing a communion dress or wedding gown and a death mask. At first, like Andre Breton misreading the work of Frida Kahlo, we might think this conjunction of death and the maiden was surrealistic. But the trope–like images of angels–goes back to classical epithalamiums (wedding poems) and medieval memento mori. Sor Juana writes in the sonnet “On Her Portrait” that the flesh is a clever deception of the senses, a mask covering the skeleton, dust, shadow, nothing. She offers a timeless reminder that the flesh that attracts us–usually depicted in literature and the visual arts as feminine–is an ephemeral illusion. This very powerful, very old idea also pertains to literary and theatrical masks: “persona” is a Latin word meaning mask.

Iturbide is a woman photographing women, and she pictures them in action, not at rest; often the context is work, although in her preindustrial settings the line between work and other forms of social interaction is not well-defined. Often their work involves animals: in a series of photographs of slaughtering goats for food and skins, Iturbide reminds us of biblical sacrifices of animals. She captures other women in epiphanic Bressonian moments conquering the natural world: her signature image shows a woman of stature and presence carrying iguanas on her head, and there’s also a photograph of women standing in a circle cleaning chickens and others of women smiling as they display fish or a crab. Indeed, all of Iturbide’s photographs, not just those of obviously religious subjects, reveal the sacramentalism of the material details of these women’s lives.

These rural Mexican women are in many ways distant from our culture, but they appeal to us because of the strength, dignity, and grace they derive from their work. Iturbide seems to play with a postmodern subversion of the modernist focus on progress: her general avoidance of the contemporary world seems studied. She offers instead a vision of the vitality of traditional life; in her view this is not a reactionary alternative but the path to a viable future. In Iturbide’s vibrant photographs, appearances are theatrical, festive, subversive, carnival-esque–never oppressive. Her women seem not to have internalized or been consumed by their roles; the misogynist, outwardly imposed masks of history and progress have not damaged their spirits.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Graciela Iturbide.