Portraying Gender in Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico

One of the most influential contemporary photographers of Latin America, Graciela Iturbide has produced majestic and powerful images of her native Mexico for the past 50 years. Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico is the artist’s most extensive U.S. exhibition in more than two decades, comprising 140 black-and-white prints that reveal the artist’s own journey to understand her homeland and the world.

A black and white photo of four women outside on the side of a bright building in traditional embroidered tops, lace skirts, and flower head pieces move in a semi circle in various stages of dance.

Graciela Iturbide, Baile (Dance), Juchitán, 1986; Gelatin silver print, 8 x 12 in.; Courtesy of the artist; © Graciela Iturbide

In 1979, Graciela Iturbide (b. 1942) traveled to Juchitán, a small town in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, to photograph the Zapotec indigenous group. For nearly a decade, she immersed herself in the community during a series of visits, spending long periods with Zapotec women and cultivating friendships. Rather than merely document the people from an outsider’s perspective, Iturbide photographed her own interactions and encounters with the community. “I need to be close to the people…I need their complicity,” Iturbide has said. Her photographs are a conversation with the people of Juchitán, who convey their social structures and cultural practices to the artist on their own terms.

Iturbide’s Juchitán photographs highlight the culture’s powerful women and muxes, men who identify as women, a third gender that has been acknowledged and celebrated since pre-Hispanic times. In Juchitec society, women hold significant political, economic, and spiritual power. Muxes are similarly revered in Zapotec culture—they are believed to have special intellectual and artistic gifts. Iturbide’s photographs do not objectify or exoticize; instead, they depict respectful, poetic interactions.

Our Lady of the Iguanas

Our Lady of the Iguanas (Nuestra Señora de las Iguanas), Juchitán (1979) expresses the independence of the community’s women and their complex identities. This famous photograph depicts Zobeida Díaz on her way to the market, carrying the iguanas she will sell on her head. Iturbide photographs Díaz from below to create a sense of authority; at this angle, Díaz becomes larger than life. Iturbide frames her in a dignified pose within an archway. The iguanas, an important cultural symbol of the Zapotec, encircle her head like a halo. It is an image of reverence for Zapotec women. “The photographer’s job is to synthesize, to make strong and poetic work from daily life,” said Iturbide. This image captures both the strong and the poetic, while celebrating the diverse cultural heritage of Zapotec women.

Iturbide_Our Lady of the Iguanas

Graciela Iturbide, Nuestra Señora de las Iguanas (Our Lady of the Iguanas), Juchitán, 1979; Gelatin silver print, 10 x 8 in.; Collection of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser; © Graciela Iturbide; Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Iturbide_Magnolia with Sombrero

Graciela Iturbide, Magnolia con sombrero (Magnolia with Sombrero), Juchitán, 1986; Gelatin silver print, 12 x 8 in.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum purchase with funds donated by John and Cynthia Reed, Charles H. Bayley Picture and Painting Fund, Barbara M. Marshall Fund, Lucy Dalbiac Luard Fund, Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Fund for Photography, Francis Welch Fund, and Jane M. Rabb Fund for Film and Photography; © Graciela Iturbide; Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Magnolia with Sombrero

As she does in other portraits, Iturbide photographs muxes on their own terms. Magnolia con sombrero (Magnolia with Sombrero), Juchitán (1986), and additional images of Magnolia, were taken at her request. She holds out her dress for Iturbide’s camera and smiles as she displays the lace detail. Magnolia is at ease as she proudly poses; Iturbide’s presence is not an intrusion. The image conveys Magnolia’s personality and confidence, rather than exoticizing her societal position.

In her images from Juchitán, Iturbide reveals her subjects’ full and complex humanity. These photographs celebrate and acknowledge the rich culture of the Zapotec through an empathetic lens.

*Unless otherwise noted, information is adapted from Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico: Photographs, by Kristen Gresh, with an essay by Guillermo Sheridan.

—Hannah Southern was the fall 2019 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts; Alicia Gregory is the assistant editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts

Cultural Symbols in Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico

One of the most influential contemporary photographers of Latin America, Graciela Iturbide has produced majestic and powerful images of her native Mexico for the past 50 years. Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico is the artist’s most extensive U.S. exhibition in more than two decades, comprising 140 black-and-white prints that reveal the artist’s own journey to understand her homeland and the world.

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The photographs of Graciela Iturbide (b. 1942) feature social, religious, and natural symbols that define Mexican cultural and national identities in all of their complexity. By juxtaposing the country’s indigenous and European influences, Iturbide’s photographs capture the hybridity of the Mexican people. As Iturbide seeks to understand her country and its distinct communities, she captures symbols that link past to present and guide the artist—and viewer—in navigating Mexico’s layered history.

A black and white photograph of a woman seated at a cantina table with both of her elbows resting on the table, a cigarette in one hand, a clear shot glass close to it. She wears her hair up and dangling earrings and a tired expression. Behind her, a mural on the wall depicts a large skull in which the eye and nose cavities frame images of a hotel room, hospital beds, and a cemetery.

Graciela Iturbide, Mexico City, 1969–72; Gelatin silver print, 6 ¾ x 10 ¼ in.; Collection of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser; © Graciela Iturbide; Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A Prostitute, a Cantina, a Mural

In Mexico City (1969), Iturbide evokes the harshness of life in the metropolis. This photograph portrays a tired-looking sex worker seated in what appears to be a cantina; a mural is painted on the wall behind her. The scene depicts a large skull in which the eye and nose cavities frame images of a hotel room, hospital beds, and a cemetery. These scenes allude to Mexico’s history of muralism and the country’s fascination with death. And, in fact, the prostitute is not a real woman, but instead a sculptural figure in the city’s wax museum. This early experiment highlights Iturbide’s interest in the photographic limits of fiction and reality.

Fiestas for Every Occasion

Mexico’s spirited, colorful, ritualistic celebrations fascinate Iturbide. Fiestas evoke Mexico’s cultural hybrid of indigenous and Spanish heritage. In Janus (1980), a young man wears two masks. Iturbide’s title and the man’s costume evoke Janus, the two-faced Roman god who sees both the past and the future. He represents duality, the passing of time, and transitions. The young man’s masks and party clothes embrace multiple identities at once. He is a reflection of Mexican cultural hybridity as his multiple identities imply indigenous heritage, Spanish imperialism, and contemporary globalization.

The (Absent) Virgin of Guadalupe

Iturbide frequently photographs religious symbols as another marker of the complexities of Mexican identity. The prevalence of Catholicism in Mexico is a direct result of European colonization. Yet, many converted societies incorporated elements of their traditional indigenous celebrations and practices into Christian festivities. Vírgen de Guadalupe (Virgin of Guadalupe) (2007), named for Mexico’s most important religious figure, is a symbolically rich photograph, highlighting both religious and natural symbols. The photo shows a painted backdrop of an empty mandorla prepared for a parade in Chalma, a famous site of both indigenous and Christian pilgrimage. The backdrop is designed to frame a statue or a woman dressed as the Virgin of Guadalupe. The Virgin’s absence emphasizes the botanical and yonic shape of the mandorla; its rays echo the spiny leaves of the native agave plants that bookend the backdrop. The mandorla’s painted sky and landscape mimic the real natural world, blurring the lines between what is real and what is fake.

*Unless otherwise noted, information is adapted from Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico: Photographs, by Kristen Gresh, with an essay by Guillermo Sheridan.

—Hannah Southern was the fall 2019 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts; Alicia Gregory is the assistant editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts

Opening This Week: Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico

A black and white photo of two women's legs and feet standing in the grooves of an ancient tree. The photograph was taken at the popular pilgrimage site of Chalma in Mexico and evokes a religious experience.

Graciela Iturbide, Ascensión (Ascension), Chalma, 1984; Gelatin silver print, 12 ⅜ x 8 ¼ in.; Courtesy of the artist; © Graciela Iturbide

For the past 50 years, Graciela Iturbide (b. 1942, Mexico City) has produced majestic, powerful, and sometimes visceral images of her native Mexico. One of the most influential contemporary photographers of Latin America, Iturbide elevates ordinary observation into personal and lyrical art. Her signature black-and-white gelatin silver prints present nuanced insights into the communities she photographs, revealing her own journey to understand her homeland and the world.

Opening at NMWA on February 28, Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico is the artist’s most extensive U.S. exhibition in more than two decades. The monumental survey is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and comprises 140 poetic photographs bearing witness to the rich and complex culture of the artist’s homeland. Including images from 1969 through 2007, the exhibition encompasses compelling portrayals of indigenous and urban women, explorations of symbolism in nature and rituals, and haunting photographs of personal items left after the death of Frida Kahlo.

Exhibition Themes

The exhibition is organized into nine sections that illustrate Mexico as a rich tapestry of cultures, through daily rituals, social inequalities, and the coexistence of tradition and modernity. In Early Work, Iturbide’s attraction to unusual urban geometries and her eye for the unexpected is apparent. Three sections focus on her photographs of indigenous societies: Juchitán, home to the matriarchal society of the Zapotec people; the Seri, who live in a transitioning culture in the Sonoran Desert in northwestern Mexico; and La Mixteca, chronicling the Oaxacan herding community’s annual goat slaughter festival.

The Fiestas, Death, and Birds sections further demonstrate the artist’s deep awareness of cultural symbols. Beginning in the 1970s, Iturbide traveled throughout Mexico recording a variety of lavish fiestas, which incorporate elaborate costumes, ceremonies, and spectacles. Early in her career, following the tragic loss of her six-year-old daughter, Iturbide described her need to photograph the deaths of others as a way to come to terms with her own pain. Birds, too, became a vehicle for her spiritual and emotional journey.

In Mexico, cacti are incredibly important and used on a daily basis for food, alcohol, medicine, and as a national symbol. This photograph, taken from a low angle, shows several columnar cacti in the Oaxaca Ethnobotanical Gardens affixed with bundles of newspaper padding and wooden boards as splints, all bound to the plant with rope. This is a caretaking practice in the garden.

Graciela Iturbide, Jardín botaníco (Botanical Garden), Oaxaca, 1998–99; Gelatin silver print, 14 ⅝ x 14 ½ in.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum purchase with funds donated by John and Cynthia Reed, Charles H. Bayley Picture and Painting Fund, Barbara M. Marshall Fund, Lucy Dalbiac Luard Fund, Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Fund for Photography, Francis Welch Fund, and Jane M. Rabb Fund for Film and Photography; © Graciela Iturbide; Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In the Botanical Garden section, Iturbide’s photographs of Mexican flora and fauna are rendered with as much as sensitivity as her images of people. In 1998, Iturbide photographed the Ethnobotanical Garden of Oaxaca, which tells the story of the relationship between the people of Oaxaca and the region’s native plant life—the cactus, in particular. In Mexico, cacti are used on a daily basis for food, alcohol and medicine, as well as being a national symbol.

The final section, Frida’s Bathroom, refers to Iturbide’s 2005 commission to photograph Frida Kahlo’s belongings in the painter’s bathroom at Casa Azul, where Kahlo was born and died. Iturbide’s stark photographs provide an emotional narrative of the intimate space. Her images focus on objects that underscored Kahlo’s chronic illness and physical pain. Iturbide relates to Kahlo personally, as a fellow Mexican woman artist who has used her art to grapple with the hardships and tragedies of life.

Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico is on view through May 25, 2020.

Women Artists of the DMV: Maria Verónica San Martín’s “In Their Memory”

DMV Color presents artists’ books, graphic novels, photobooks, and zines by women of African American, Asian American, and Latina heritage with ties to the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia—known locally as the DMV. The works on view depict intimacies of family life, legacies of enslavement, dislocation tied to immigration, changes resulting from rampant development, and more. On view in NMWA’s Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center (LRC) through March 4, 2020.

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Originally from Santiago, Chile, Maria Verónica San Martín (b. 1981) is a New York-based printmaker, sculptor, performance artist, and bookmaker who attended the former Corcoran School of the Arts & Design in Washington, D.C. Her evocative artist’s book In Their Memory (2012) is featured in DMV Color. San Martín’s work functions as a tactile form of resistance—it critically examines power structures and the sanitization of historical atrocities.

Maria Verónica San Martín holds up her artist's book In Their Memory

Maria Verónica San Martín holds up her artist’s book In Their Memory; Photo courtesy of the artist

San Martín’s work draws upon Chile’s fraught political history. In Their Memory memorializes the Chilean citizens who were tortured and disappeared under General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973–1990). As a result, thousands of Chileans sought asylum in Canada, Sweden, and the U.S., including the DMV area. The full scope of the human rights injustices committed by the regime remains under investigation to this day.

In an interview, San Martín explained her activist approach. “As a second-generation witness of the regime’s atrocities and a first-generation artist experiencing the legacy of the dictatorship on the collective body…my practice rejects the idea of a progressive history with a fixed past.”

In Their Memory invites viewers to grapple with the erasure of the era’s violent political history. Wherever the work travels, it honors and preserves the identities of missing people, along with the resilience of their families. Through archival practices, printmaking, and bookmaking, San Martín also explores the role of collective memory. The flag book structure is both a sculpture and a book immortalizing, through black-and-white portraits and lists of names, the victims of the Pinochet regime.

The process of etching and printing images onto the book’s surface embodies the painful erasure and reappearance of those missing—literally and from the Chilean people’s collective memory. An image of Chile’s presidential palace, La Moneda, is printed onto the back. Images of missing Chilean citizens juxtaposed against the government’s seat of power further embodies issues of unjust institutions.

In Their Memory-21

Maria Verónica San Martín, In Their Memory, 2012

In Their Memory-9 (1)

Maria Verónica San Martín, In Their Memory, 2012

Today, the people of Chile have taken to the streets to protest social inequality. As the country’s economic model was put in place under Pinochet, the dictator’s legacy still looms. In an interview with the LRC, San Martín identified the spike in political engagement among Chileans, especially the youth, as important to transforming economic and social structures that favor the rich and discard the middle class and poor. “When this social crisis arose, there was a [collective] conscious[ness] happening.” In Their Memory is an important vehicle of activism and social justice, connecting Chile’s past to this contemporary moment.

Elizabeth Chung was the fall 2019 Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Judy Chicago—The End: Extinction

The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, the newest body of work by iconic feminist artist Judy Chicago, continues the artist’s practice of tackling taboo subjects. In these works, she offers a bold reflection on mortality and the destruction of entire species. Visually striking and emotionally charged, the exhibition comprises more than 35 paintings on black glass and porcelain, as well as two large-scale bronze reliefs. On view September 19, 2019–January 20, 2020.

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When asked if it was hard to confront the topic of death—one most people try to avoid—in her latest body of work, Judy Chicago revealed that the process of addressing her own mortality brought her to a place of acceptance. Harder, however, was her work on the “Extinction” section of The End, which she described creating through two “excruciating” years of intense painting. Chicago does not mince words: “To be faced every day with what we are doing to other creatures and the planet was to enter the kingdom of hell.”

Judy Chicago - Collected

Judy Chicago, Collected, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2015–16; Kiln-fired glass paint on black glass, 12 x 18 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

Judy Chicago - Smuggled

Judy Chicago, Smuggled, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2016; Kiln-fired glass paint on black glass, 12 x 18 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

Judy Chicago - Vulnerable

Judy Chicago, Vulnerable, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2015–16; Kiln-fired glass paint on black glass, 12 x 18 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

Judy Chicago - Bleached

Judy Chicago, Bleached, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2017; Kiln-fired glass paint on black glass, 12 x 18 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

Judy Chicago - Smothered

Judy Chicago, Smothered, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2016; Kiln-fired glass paint on black glass, 12 x 18 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

Chicago expresses a collective sense of anxiety and sadness in the 15 “Extinction” panels, which depict, often in graphic detail, groups of animals, fish, birds, and flora that have been irrevocably harmed by humans. Her titles for these works directly name the violence enacted on innocent life forms: Smothered, Battered, Bleached, Finned, Harvested, Slit Open, Targeted, Silenced, Poached, Vulnerable.

From polar bears displaced by melting Artic ice to trees flayed of their bark for medicinal purposes, Chicago offers her lament for each of her subjects. Chicago’s handwriting, which has long been part of her artistic practice, appears here as it does in each section of The End. While the artist frequently employs writing in her work to communicate or narrate, the writing in the “Extinction” panels also becomes an integral part of the composition. Chicago emphasizes significant words and phrases with different text sizes, often in capitalized block letters.

A bronze relief sculpture of the faces of a bear, gorilla, and sea turtle; a shark body; and birds. The bear centers the piece with its four claws prominent, the other animals appear to be in the body of the bear.

Judy Chicago, Extinction Relief, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2018; Patinated bronze, 53 1/2 x 30 1/2 x 14 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

Chicago includes a large bronze relief sculpture in “Extinction”—an assemblage of the likenesses of creatures threatened with extinction. The material is notable for its prevalence in monumental statuary and its use throughout history in high art and ceremonial vessels; Chicago honors the animals that once lived. However, the work also evokes the visual language of mounted hunting trophies, calling into question the ethics of killing purely for sport or luxury, and presenting a haunting image of suffering.

For Chicago, the physical stamina needed to execute these works was compounded by the grief she felt for her subjects. Recalling a similar emotional toll while working on the Holocaust Project (1985–93), Chicago says, “That was hard but this was worse,” adding that the Holocaust Project dealt with events in the past while there is no end in sight to the extinction of countless species.

Xaviera Simmons: “How might our entire history have been different…?”

Xaviera Simmons (b. 1974) staged herself among a towering thicket of reeds in her photograph One Day and Back Then (Standing) (2007), currently on view in NMWA’s exhibition Live Dangerously. Simmons wears a black trench coat, black tights and boots, black face makeup, and bright red lipstick—a presentation that starkly juxtaposes her form against the landscape.

Xaviera Simmons (b. 1974) staged herself among a towering thicket of yellow reeds in her photograph One Day and Back Then (Standing) (2007). Simmons wears a black trench coat, black tights and boots, black face makeup, and bright red lipstick—a presentation that starkly juxtaposes her form against the landscape.

Xaviera Simmons, One Day and Back Then (Standing), 2007; Chromira c-print, 30 x 40 in.; Collection of Darryl Atwell; © Xaviera Simmons, Courtesy David Castillo Gallery

In her writing on racial and social justice for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Art Newspaper, Simmons has expressed a desire to understand what it takes to shift political systems. Her art works to shift our notions of race, history, and collective narratives.

She says of One Day and Back Then (Standing), “The image asks complicated questions of the viewer: Who is this subject and what are her intentions? What is the meaning of blackface in this context and where might this subject be? Who, historically and traditionally, gets to exist in the sublime with regards to landscape photography and landscape painting? How might our entire history have been different had America fulfilled its emancipatory promises to its freed slaves and their descendants instead of commemorating its defeated Confederate planters?”

“Black American men and women, particularly those who descend from American slavery, have been in a constant state of migration, distress, and unsettle since the formation of the United States in and on the landscape of their centuries of forced toil,” explained the artist. Simmons herself is the daughter of a sharecropper from Georgia and can trace her ancestors back nearly four centuries in the U.S. The artist states that her “entire lineage on all sides is all some kind of mixed ‘race’ group built by Southern American slavery.”

After graduating from Bard College with her BFA in 2004, Simmons simultaneously trained as an actor at the Maggie Flanigan Studio and completed the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program in Studio Art. She uses wide-ranging forms of art and writing in her work, including photography, performance, installation, and sound.

In her feature for MoMA, Simmons contemplates white supremacy and systemic racism in her social groups, her home town of New York City, and the country. “America doesn’t know people as daughters of sharecroppers or as descendants of American slavery…if there are descendants of slavery then there are descendants of planters and plantation owners.…Our collective narrative doesn’t really account for the white people, their children, and so on across the country who oppressed negros for centuries, like till right now.” Simmons wants us to properly acknowledge and take responsibility for our national history of oppression. “It would be radical if we were once again abolitionists; these times demand the usage of that word…”

—Hannah Southern was the fall 2019 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

In Her Own Hand: Judy Chicago’s Use of Text in “The End”

The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, the newest body of work by iconic feminist artist Judy Chicago, continues the artist’s practice of tackling taboo subjects. In these works, she offers a bold reflection on mortality and the destruction of entire species. Visually striking and emotionally charged, the exhibition comprises more than 35 paintings on black glass and porcelain, as well as two large-scale bronze reliefs. On view September 19, 2019–January 20, 2020.

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Judy Chicago has a long history of incorporating handwritten text into her bold and colorful artworks. Whether embroidered into cloth or painted in watercolor, Chicago uses words within a visual language that invites viewers to reflect on—or challenge—the status quo. In her most recent body of work, The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, the sections titled “Extinction” and “Mortality” are no different. In these works, made of kiln-fired glass paint on black glass, the artist’s soft, cursive handwriting appears juxtaposed with the difficult and urgent subject matter it communicates. Through words and images, Chicago addresses a culture that averts its eyes from the inevitable and from destruction: aging, death, and extinction.

An image that is part of Judy Chicago's "Mortality" series, depicting the artist's reclined body, her crying husband holding her, and the text "Will I die in my husband's arms?" floating above the image.

Judy Chicago, How Will I Die? #8, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2015; Kiln-fired glass paint on black glass, 9 x 12 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

The panels in both series carry the intimacy of a diary in scale, at just 9 by 12 inches each (“Mortality”) or 12 by 18 (“Extinction”). Her distinctive, swirling letters resemble a decorative motif and embrace femininity, sentimentality, and sincere personal reflection. In the “Mortality” works, Chicago imagines various ways she might die and renders these scenarios in striking imagery framed by ruminating text. “Will I die in my husband’s arms?” hovers over an image of the artist’s reclined body, her crying husband holding her.

In “Extinction,” Chicago expresses compassion for the natural world by addressing human greed through factual, heart-wrenching descriptions. These works highlight her meticulous handwriting and commitment to research, presenting urgent information. Text in this series commands moral authority. In Declining (2016), Chicago paints three frogs perched on a cliff facing a distant horizon. Underneath the illustration, she writes:

Frog populations have been declining worldwide and nearly one-third are threatened with extinction. Frogs have survived in their current form for 250 million years and should serve as an alarm call that something is dramatically wrong with the environment. Frogs are considered accurate indicators of environmental stress. Pollution, global warming and habitat destruction have already taken a toll.

In Declining (2016), Chicago paints three frogs perched on a cliff facing a distant horizon. Underneath the illustration, she writes: Frog populations have been declining worldwide and nearly one-third are threatened with extinction. Frogs have survived in their current form for 250 million years and should serve as an alarm call that something is dramatically wrong with the environment. Frogs are considered accurate indicators of environmental stress. Pollution, global warming and habitat destruction have already taken a toll.

Judy Chicago, Declining, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2016; Kiln-fired glass paint on black glass, 12 x 18 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

Though small in scale, works in “Extinction” are striking and emotional. They urge viewers to question consumption and destruction and advocate for change. In a recent interview, Chicago stated, “I wanted [the artwork] to be in my own hand because I wished to demonstrate that art does not have to be huge in order to be important or moving.”

When artists include language as a technique, they liberate their artwork from its formal properties. Words have the power to control, influence, and inspire—often more directly than images alone. Chicago’s use of her own handwriting welcomes interpretation and introspection, inviting us to reflect on how we spend our time here on Earth.

—Christina Papanicolaou was the summer 2019 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Visualizing Extinction in Judy Chicago’s “The End”

The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, the newest body of work by iconic feminist artist Judy Chicago, continues the artist’s practice of tackling taboo subjects. In these works, she offers a bold reflection on mortality and the destruction of entire species. Visually striking and emotionally charged, the exhibition comprises more than 35 paintings on black glass and porcelain, as well as two large-scale bronze reliefs. On view September 19, 2019–January 20, 2020.

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In a piece for the New Yorker this summer about a polar bear that was sighted far from its usual terrain, Michele Moses wrote, “The story of climate change has been told, in part, through pictures of polar bears. And no wonder: in their glittering icy habitat, they reflect the otherworldly beauty that rising temperatures threaten to destroy.” Polar bears, dependent on a habitat of sea ice to hunt for food and raise their young, were the first species to be declared threatened or endangered due to climate change. Little has been done to end this destruction, and greenhouse gases continue to shrink the extent of Arctic ice.

Judy Chicago, Stranded, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2016; Kiln-fired glass paint on black glass, 12 x 18 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

Judy Chicago (b. 1939) captures that otherworldly beauty—and human-caused destruction—in Stranded, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction (2016). In kiln-fired glass paint on black glass, Chicago depicts a polar bear looking out toward the viewer as it seems to drift backward on an ice floe. Luminous colors evoke the vibrant blues of the Arctic ocean and the reflected light from water and ice.

As artists contend with the urgency of climate change, some portray nature’s stunning grandeur to inspire viewers into protecting the planet; others show human-caused damage that provokes shock and anguish. In combining those approaches, Chicago delivers a painful message through beautiful and delicate works. She has said that this body of work was “personally excruciating to create. To be faced every day with what we are doing to other creatures and the planet was to enter the kingdom of hell.”

Separate sections of The End show the artist grappling with grief and with her own mortality. Stranded is part of the “Extinction” series, a group of works that each depict the plights of individual animals or plants—birds, sea turtles, elephants, frogs, coral, and orchids appear, among others. Chicago uses written text throughout her work to describe the threats that imperil each creature and to issue a plea for compassion. The handwritten text within Stranded underscores the importance and centrality of the polar bear, and it includes a quote from environmental activist Derrick Jensen: “Every creature on the planet must be hoping that…our time of awakening comes soon.”

 —Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Women Artists of the DMV: Malaka Gharib’s “I Was Their American Dream”

DMV Color presents artists’ books, graphic novels, photobooks, and zines by women of African American, Asian American, and Latina heritage with ties to the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia—known locally as the DMV. The works on view depict intimacies of family life, legacies of enslavement, dislocation tied to immigration, changes resulting from rampant development, and more. On view in NMWA’s Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center through March 4, 2020.

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A head shot of author/artist Malaka Gharib. She smiles and wears a red button-up short sleeved shirt and has hear hair braided over her left shoulder.

Malaka Gharib photo by Ben de la Cruz

Washington, D.C., resident Malaka Gharib (b. 1986) is an editor at NPR, co-founder of the D.C. Art Book Fair, and zine artist. Her graphic memoir I Was Their American Dream (Clarkson Potter, 2019), chronicles her multicultural upbringing as the daughter of a Filipino Catholic mother and an Egyptian Muslim father. From her multiethnic hometown in suburban Los Angeles to the majority white upstate New York town where she attended college, Gharib constantly negotiated between her Filipino and Egyptian heritage—and the ideals of white America. “What are you?” is a question the artist explores with heartfelt insight and humor in this joyous tribute to her immigrant family.

The intricacies of family life and cultural tensions are major themes throughout DMV Color, and Gharib addresses them with nuance and authenticity. In playful red, white, and blue illustrations, Gharib depicts navigating clashing familial relationships, cultural values, religion, and food. Even within her high school’s diverse cultural pool, Gharib’s own ethnic ambiguity and fascination with white people in popular culture earned her a label of “white-washed” and treatment as a misfit. To be “normal” was to be white, according to teenage Gharib. Eventually, she found her stride as part of a motley, punk-loving, creative crew. She also learned to blend her family’s distinct cultures together, creating an identity all her own. Reading like a conversation with a close friend, this is the story all children of immigrants might have wished they had growing up.

Interior detail from "I Was Their American Dream" which depicts, in cartoon format, the author's Microaggressions Bingo interactive spread.

Interior detail from I Was Their American Dream; Copyright © 2019 by Malaka Gharib; Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

Gharib’s memoir is delightfully designed, featuring interactive elements including a family recipe for the Filipino soup monggo, a cheeky-yet-pointed bingo chart of microaggressions, and a paper doll of the author with various outfits that highlight her code-switching in college. Her simple and unique character designs reject racial caricaturing, reimagining race with a refreshing lens. In one section, Gharib’s renderings of her high school classmates’ yearbook pictures represent the diversity of her school without relying on stereotypical depictions. The artist flatly rejects monolithic narratives and depictions of immigrants and their families.

In an interview with the Asian Journal, Gharib explained how the negative, one-dimensional, anti-immigrant rhetoric of 2016 catalyzed her to write the memoir. “I thought about my dad who liked gardening and loved the movie Forrest Gump. He’s totally harmless. I wanted to correct the narrative that I was seeing.” In I Was Their American Dream, Gharib invites readers on a journey into her colorful world and leaves us with renewed empathy and understanding.

Elizabeth Chung is the fall 2019 Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Judy Chicago—The End: Mortality

The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, the newest body of work by iconic feminist artist Judy Chicago, continues the artist’s practice of tackling taboo subjects. In these works, she offers a bold reflection on mortality and the destruction of entire species. Visually striking and emotionally charged, the exhibition comprises more than 35 paintings on black glass and porcelain, as well as two large-scale bronze reliefs. On view September 19, 2019–January 20, 2020.

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On a black background, a nude female figure painted in cool, translucent colors lays on a multicolored block with her hands folded over her chest. Atop her the sentence "Everyone hopes to die peacefully" is painted in cursive print.

Judy Chicago, How Will I Die? #1, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2015; Kiln-fired glass paint and luster on black glass, 9 x 12 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

When Judy Chicago (b. 1939) first began her research on the topic of death and its representation in art, the artist was struck by societies that have acknowledged life’s inevitable end with awareness and acceptance. Ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and many American Indian cultures believed that the spirits of the dead continued on—death was merely a change in existence. The Mexican Día de los Muertos tradition can be traced back to Aztec feasts where family members honored their dead and supported their spiritual journey. The Korowai people of Indonesia speak of themselves as being in the process of dying in everyday conversation. Hyolmo Buddhists in Nepal regard dying “as an intricate art to be learned…to ensure a smooth passage into the next life as well as a successful rebirth.” Chicago embarked on The End as a personal exercise in coming to terms with her own fear of death.

In the “Mortality” section, Chicago explores her own death across 20 black glass panels. The figure in each work has the artist’s shock of bright curls and presents a vivid vision of her eventual demise. Chicago, who says she has always been aware of her own mortality, became even more cognizant after a health scare in 2012. The works in this section are rendered in kiln-fired glass paint, an extremely time-consuming and laborious process, with multiple firings needed to achieve the artist’s desired effect. Chicago chose black glass, which is both strong and fragile, because “it seems a perfect metaphor for life.”

Judy Chicago - Sweet Prospect

Judy Chicago, Sweet Prospect, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2015; Kiln-fired glass paint on black glass, 9 x 12 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

Judy Chicago - How Will I Die _9 _A_

Judy Chicago, How Will I Die? #9, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2015; Kiln-fired glass paint, Liquid Bright, and oil paint on black glass, 9 x 12 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

Judy Chicago - How Will I Die _7

Judy Chicago, How Will I Die? #7, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2015; Kiln-fired glass paint on black glass, 9 x 12 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

Judy Chicago - Title Panel Mortality

Judy Chicago, Title Panel: Mortality, from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2015; Kiln-fired glass paint on black glass, 9 x 12 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

Handwritten text is an integral element in The End. In “Mortality,” Chicago uses writing to both comfort and question. The artist incorporates musings on death from a number of celebrated thinkers including Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, and Socrates, who once said, “If death is simply the end of our sense, then it is like a long dreamless sleep, and therefore, a sweet prospect.” In startling works that envision possible scenarios surrounding her own death, Chicago asks pointed questions: “Will I die embracing the light?” “Will I die screaming in pain?” Another panel presents synonyms and metaphors for death—demise, release, oblivion, be no more—an exercise in sorting through meaning around this amorphous, unknown, universal experience.

In The End, Chicago intentionally addressed the one subject that most people in Western societies work diligently to avoid: their own impermanence. “As difficult as it was to confront my own mortality, it brought me to a place of acceptance,” Chicago said. “I hope that I will be able to face my end with courage, grace, and humor.”