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.