Iturbide and Kahlo: A Conversation

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 a back brace hung on a wall.

Graciela Iturbide, El Baño de Frida (Frida’s Bathroom), Coyoacán, Ciudad de México, 2005; Gelatin silver print, 14 ⅜ x 14 ¼ in.; Courtesy of the artist; © Graciela Iturbide

In 2005, just over 50 years after Frida Kahlo’s death, Graciela Iturbide (b. 1942) was commissioned to photograph the contents of the artist’s bathroom at her home, Casa Azul, open to the public as the Frida Kahlo Museum. The room had been locked for decades after Kahlo’s mourning husband, Diego Rivera, entombed 300 of her personal belongings there and ordered the space sealed for 15 years following his own death. Iturbide’s photographs construct an intimate portrait of Kahlo’s personal life through her belongings. Stark images of corsets, crutches, painkillers, and prosthetics convey a venerated life of suffering, resilience, and determination. Yet the photographs are more than documentary. In one intimate image, Iturbide responds—and pays homage—to Kahlo’s cultural legacy, creating an artistic dialogue between the two women.

Of all the images in Iturbide’s “Frida’s Bathroom” series, there is just one self-portrait; it evokes Kahlo’s famous painting What the Water Gave Me (Lo que el agua me dio) (1938). In this photograph, Iturbide rests her feet against the side of the artist’s bathtub. This placement mimics Kahlo’s painting of her own feet partially submerged in a tub, her right foot bleeding, a collage of surreal images floating in the bathwater. By recalling the painting, Iturbide acknowledges Kahlo’s art historical precedence and the importance of this private space. Iturbide portrays her own suffering in the self-portrait by revealing, in her signature photographic style, her pained feet after a recent operation. The profound image conveys the experiences of both Kahlo and Iturbide, connected across 50 years.

Other objects in Kahlo’s bathroom included sunglasses, nail polish, shoes, political imagery, and clothing—however, Iturbide primarily focused her series on those objects that related to the artist’s pain. This choice echoes themes that have surfaced in Iturbide’s own work: death on both personal and cultural levels; illness, including a focus on ailing cacti; and ritual, including animal slaughter. Iturbide does not turn away from pain, but instead looks unflinchingly at it. In one of Iturbide’s photographs, Kahlo’s hospital gown hangs against the bathroom’s tiled wall, marked in many dark stains. In black and white, it is impossible to tell if the stains are blood, evidence of her suffering, or paint, evidence of her salvation.

Iturbide_Frida_Feet

Graciela Iturbide, El Baño de Frida (Frida’s Bathroom), Coyoacán, Ciudad de México, 2005; Gelatin silver print, 14 ½ x 14 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

Kahlo_What the Water

Frida Kahlo, Lo Que el Agua Me Dio (What the Water Gave Me), 1938; Daniel Filipacchi Collection, Paris, France

As Kahlo’s life, work, and legacy have grown to mythic status over the years, Iturbide has said that she is not a “Frida-maniac.” However, the intense experience of photographing the artist’s intimate, long-shuttered bathroom helped Iturbide learn that Kahlo “was a marvelous woman who contended with a lot of pain…I feel like I got to know her better.”

*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.

Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico: Capturing Death

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 a funerary procession in which everyone is wearing some sort of mask or disguise. Masked figures surround and support a man dressed as a skeleton. In the background, there is a baby in white.

Graciela Iturbide, Peregrinación (Procession), Chalma, 1984; Gelatin silver print, 5 ¾ x 4 ¾ 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; Courtesy of the artist; © Graciela Iturbide

In The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), renowned Mexican writer Octavio Paz reflected on Mexico’s national attitude toward death. “The Mexican frequents it, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it…he confronts it face to face with patience, disdain, or irony.” True to this sentiment, in her photographs, Graciela Iturbide (b. 1942) steadily confronts what she calls “Mexico’s death fantasy” as it appears in the street, at festivals, and in the cemetery.

Iturbide’s photographs of death’s imagery connect to her own search for ritual and meaning, as well as to her faith in the power of photography as therapy. Her images are symbolic explorations of loss and mourning that represent and relieve her own grappling with death.

Disguises, worn by the living, are a traditional part of some funerary processions in Chalma. In Peregrinación (Procession) (1984), masked figures surround and support a man dressed as a skeleton. In the background, a baby in white may represent an angel—an indication of life and hope amid the chaos of the procession. The photograph represents the somewhat comic, performative ambiance of the festivities.

In Novia Muerte (Death Bride) (1990), a man dressed as a bride wears a wig, a death mask, and holds a bouquet of flowers. This costume may also be viewed as comedic, but deeper layers of meaning proliferate. His pose, with one arm out to the side, may be an invitation or a reminder of the presence, absence, or death of a marital partner. A dark shadow covers part of the translucent veil that falls from the “bride’s” arm to the ground.

Iturbide herself is no stranger to death; she tragically lost her six-year-old daughter and subsequently became obsessed with photographing the funerals of other deceased children. While photographing one funeral in 1978, Iturbide came across a decomposing corpse on a cemetery walkway. In an interview with the Guardian, she explained, “I felt as if death had appeared and said, ‘That’s enough! Don’t keep living your suffering in this way. Stop it!’”

Iturbide_Death Bride

Graciela Iturbide, Novia Muerte (Death Bride), Chalma, 1990; Gelatin silver print, 8 ½ x 5 ¾ in.; Courtesy of the artist; © Graciela Iturbide

Iturbide_Birds on the Post

Graciela Iturbide, Pájaros en el poste, Carretera (Birds on the Post, Highway), Guanajuato, 1990; Gelatin silver print, 11 ⅝ x 17 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

That day, Iturbide also photographed Pájaros (Birds) (1978), in which birds appear to emerge from an ominous cloud above the cemetery. To Iturbide, birds represent solitude, freedom, and independence. In Pájaros en el poste, Carretera (Birds on the Post, Highway) (1990), she captures a large flock surrounding a telephone pole in the form of a cross; this photograph poetically communicates the fusion of the sacred and secular. In ¿Ojos para volar? (Eyes to Fly With?) (1991), she portrays herself holding one dead bird and one live bird. She places them with their heads in front of her eyes as a metaphor for the abilities to see, to know, to make known, to photograph, and to fly.

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

—Alicia Gregory is the assistant editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Graciela Iturbide and La Matanza: Ritual as Practice and Subject

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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Photography and its ritualistic qualities—observation, development, and selection—is a form of therapy for Graciela Iturbide. More than simply documenting moments in time, the practice offers her a way to process and understand the world. As Iturbide trained her lens on the people, cultures, and rhythms of life in Mexico, she developed an interest in capturing the rituals of others. From cultural celebrations to religious ceremonies, Iturbide’s photographs present poetic and unflinching looks at the customs people enact in search of order, comfort, and meaning.

A black and white photo of a woman gripping a knife between her teeth while her hands wrangle the legs of a goat, out of frame. Her blouse and apron are dirty/bloodstained and her hands covered in blood.

Graciela Iturbide, Carmen, La Mixteca, 1992; Gelatin silver print, 17 ½ x 12 in.; Courtesy of the artist; © Graciela Iturbide

La Matanza/The Slaughter

Iturbide’s documentation of the annual festival and goat slaughter in La Mixteca, Oaxaca, is a potent example of a cultural practice with many layers of ritual. The more than 200-year-old slaughter, which lasts for 20 days each October and kills tens of thousands of goats, was brought to the region during the Spanish conquest. La Mixteca is one of the poorest regions of Oaxaca and its people endure harsh working conditions and treatment. The slaughter represents a break from daily hardship and is significant for the Mixtec economy, as the goat meat is sold in local, national, and international markets.

Iturbide immersed herself with the Mixtec people to document the nuances of the slaughter: the human and animal sides; the violence and repentance. In La felicidad, la matanza (Happiness, the Slaughter) (1992), a young girl sits and smiles on a mat next to a dead goat, her hands kneading its back. In Carmen (1992), a woman wrangles a goat, whose legs are visible in the photograph. The expressive grip of her teeth on her well-worn knife expresses the extraordinary and painstaking physical effort of the slaughter. And each year, in a ritual of atonement for the thousands of slaughtered goats, one goat is saved. Its head is adorned with a flower crown, as shown in Iturbide’s photo La danza de la cabrita, antes de la matanza (The Little Goat’s Dance, Before the Slaughter) (1992), and the Mixtec dance around it in celebration.

Iturbide’s own photographic ritual was adapted for this project. She described using her camera as a shield from the violence. She said, “I had to enter a guiding trance to see quickly, to photograph quickly, to not interrupt their work…the trance helped me forget the pain of the goats and the pain of the Indians.” Iturbide’s stay with the Mixtec would be the last time she ever immersed herself in an indigenous community—the experience deeply affected her. However violent this ritual, though, Iturbide recognizes its profound importance for the Mixtec. She has said that rituals are “the only way we forget every day.”

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

—Alicia Gregory is the assistant editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Beyond Documentation: Graciela Iturbide and the Seri

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 a woman in traditional Seri dress walking down a mountainside to the empty desert plain holding a boom-box.

Graciela Iturbide, Mujer Ángel (Angel Woman), Sonoran Desert, 1979; Gelatin silver print, 13 x 18 ⅜ in.; Collection of Elizabeth and Michael Marcus; © Graciela Iturbide; Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Seri are an indigenous group that lives in the Sonoran Desert of northwestern Mexico, along the Gulf of California near the U.S.–Mexico border. In 1979, with anthropologist Luis Barjau, Graciela Iturbide (b. 1942) stayed with the Seri community for more than two months, recording their lives with her camera—particularly their forced adaptation to modern life, which began in the 1940s.

Commissioned by the Mexican government, the project was initially designed to document the once-nomadic indigenous population. Yet Iturbide’s works extend beyond documentation: embracing an empathetic approach to photography, she seeks to see and learn through her subjects’ eyes. “I lived with them in their homes, so they would see me always with my camera and know that I am a photographer. In this way, we were able to become partners,” Iturbide said.

Iturbide’s time with the Seri culminated in a book, Los que viven en la arena (Those Who Live in the Sand). According to the artist, she had selected the photographs and the book was all laid out when fellow photographer and book editor Pablo Ortiz Monasterio noticed on her contact sheets the image of an ethereal woman seeming to fall into infinite space. This “discovery” would become one of Iturbide’s most famous photographs, Mujer ángel (Angel Woman) (1979).

This photograph presents a seemingly contradictory image. A woman in traditional Seri dress walks down to the empty desert plain holding her boom-box—a reminder of the technological and material influence of the United States on her indigenous culture. The title transforms the figure into a celestial being: we cannot see her face, and she appears to be floating into another realm, arms spread and hair blowing in the wind.

Iturbide_Angelita Sonoran Desert

Graciela Iturbide, Angelita, Sonoran Desert, 1979; Gelatin silver print, 8 ⅛ x 12 ⅛ in.; Courtesy of the artist; © Graciela Iturbide; Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Iturbide_Self Portrait as Seri

Graciela Iturbide, Autorretrato como Seri (Self-Portrait as Seri), Sonoran Desert, 1979; Gelatin silver print, 6 ¾ x 6 ¾ in.; Courtesy of the artist; © Graciela Iturbide; Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Other photographs highlight daily life, the landscape, and Seri customs. In Saguaro, Sonoran Desert (1979), a large cactus becomes a pedestal for a flock of black crows; in the distance, the dry desert landscape unfolds. With no people in the photo, and no markers of the encroachment of the modern world, viewers may be left to consider this harsh climate that the Seri people call home and nature’s dominance.

In both Angelita (1979) and Autoretrato como Seri (Self-Portrait as Seri) (1979), Iturbide shows traditional Seri face painting—on both a Seri woman and herself, an outsider. This was a sign of Iturbide’s acceptance into the community, as the Seri women asked to paint her face as they did their own. Iturbide does not exoticize or mimic the practice. Instead, this self-portrait represents her own self-interrogation and integration with her role as a photographer in the indigenous community.

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

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.