5 Fast Facts: Graciela Iturbide

One of the most influential contemporary photographers of Latin America, Graciela Iturbide (b. 1942) 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.

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Iturbide, revealing how her process and pictures shed new light on other photographs on view in the museum’s collection.

A black and white self portrait of Graciela Iturbide who sits facing the camera, unsmiling with her hair wore down and parted in the middle. Her face is painted in traditional Seri marks, consisting of little white and colored dots horizontally across her cheeks and nose, and three triangle shapes on each of her cheeks.

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

1. Picturing Self

While Iturbide typically photographs others, she occasionally captures her own likeness. Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico includes four autorretratos, or self-portraits, that reveal and conceal the artist. Consider how her contemporaries Kirsten Justesen (b. 1943), Cindy Sherman (b. 1954), and Gillian Wearing (b. 1963) obfuscate their faces to redefine traditions of self-portraiture.

2. Getting to Know You

Iturbide immerses herself in the communities she photographs to gain trust and respect. She spends extended time on location, participates in cultural traditions, and even works alongside her subjects. Similarly, Esther Bubley (1921—1998) and Nikki S. Lee (b. 1970) embedded themselves in rural America for their own respective series—LadiesHome Journal’s “How America Lives” (1948—1960) and The Ohio Project (1999).

3. Recording Tradition

Iturbide’s extensive catalogue of images of the Seri, Zapotec, and Mixteca peoples show her deep respect for and desire to record indigenous Mexican cultures. This work extends a tradition practiced by Lola Álvarez Bravo (1907—1993), who simultaneously captured distinctive Mexican customs and universal human emotions.

4. Investigating Nature

Iturbide observes and pictures aspects of the natural world that typically go unseen—like a bird’s skeleton or a cactus receiving IV fluids. Similarly, Maggie Foskett (1919—2014) created cliché verres to enlarge and make transparent nature’s underlying structures. Amy Lamb (b. 1944) employs carefully controlled studio conditions, unparalleled patience, and a watchful eye to capture the fleeting moment flowers bloom or seedpods burst.

5. Celebrating Authenticity

Juchitán’s egalitarian culture embraces a third gender known as muxes, or individuals assigned male at birth who dress and behave as women. Iturbide photographed a muxe named Magnolia at her request. South African artist and visual activist Zanele Muholi (b. 1972) also pictures individuals from the LGBTQIA+ community in her native country.

—Adrienne L. Gayoso is the senior educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

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.

Photographer Graciela Iturbide: Capturing the Spirit

graciela-iturbide_fiesta

Graciela Iturbide, Fiesta de las Velas (Festival of the Candles), Juchitan, Oaxaca, Mexico, 1986; Gelatin silver print; 9 x 13 in.; Bank of America Collection

Mexican artist Graciela Iturbide is considered on of the most important and influential Latin American photographers of the past four decades. Her oeuvre is rich in dramatic and intense imagery that portrays the surreal and spiritual aspects of daily life. Iturbide’s works reveal her compassion for and dedication to her country and its people. We are fortunate to have two of her works in the exhibition Eye Wonder: Photography from the Bank of America Collection as well as one work in NMWA’s collection.

Born in 1942 in Mexico City to a wealthy, conservative Catholic family, Graciela Iturbide was the eldest of 13 children. Despite her ambitions to be a writer, family and societal pressure persuaded her to marry at the age of 20 and have three children.

In 1969, she decided to enroll at the Centro de Estudios Cinematográficos at the Universidad Nacional Autónama de México to become a film director. When she took a class with master photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo, she began concentrating her interests on photography. Bravo was greatly impressed with Iturbide’s talent and invited her to be his assistant. She worked closely with Bravo from 1970 to 1971 and was deeply influenced by his poetic style, however, Iturbide wanted to focus her efforts on what she described as “photo essays” as opposed to individual photographs as works of art.

Iturbide traveled to Europe where she met internationally renowned photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose notion of the “decisive moment” (the creative moment when the photographer decides to capture a photograph) greatly influenced her work. She returned to Mexico where she spent the 1970s working for the Instituto Naciola Indenista documenting indigenous cultures throughout the country.

Graciela Iturbide, “La Ascensión,” 1984, Bank of America Collection

In 1979, at the invitation of the painter Francisco Toledo, Iturbide began photographing the Zapotec women of Juchitán, documenting this ancient, matriarchal community.  For more than a century, the socially and politically independent women of Juchitán—located in the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico—have been viewed as symbols of national strength. Iturbide photographed the community’s marketplace, scenes of domestic-life, as well as rituals and special celebrations.

Iturbide refused to approach her work as an outsider, choosing instead to visit and interact with the communities in which she worked.  “I usually get to a town with my camera and I introduce myself as a photographer. I tell the people that I plan to stay for a while. I like it when people know that I am taking their picture. Complicity, for me, is looking at someone and discovering that they are looking back. If I don’t get that answering look, I don’t get results,” said Iturbide.

NMWA NOTE:

Graciela Iturbide standing in front of her work at NMWA

In 2007, NMWA presented 12 never-before-seen photographs by Iturbide of Frida Kahlo’s private bathroom at the Casa Azul in the exhibition Frida Kahlo: Public Image, Private Life. A Selection of Photographs and Letters.. Kahlo’s private bathroom was sealed until fifty years after her death in 1945. When the room was opened, curators discovered hundreds of articles of clothing, photographs, and decorative objects, as well as her therapeutic corsets, prosthetic leg, and other medical devices. Iturbide’s photographs offer a candid portrait of Kahlo’s hardships and recall the artist’s enduring voice in Mexican art. 

Works Cited

Kauffman, Frederick. “Graciela Iturbide”. Aperture, Winter 1995.