Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico @MFA Boston

JTF (just the facts): A total of 125 black-and-white gelatin silver prints, made between 1969 and 2007, framed in black and mounted in a series of connected gallery spaces on the museum’s ground floor; as well as one gallery space on the museum’s third floor, the latter is part of the concurrent exhibition Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular. The exhibition further includes four vitrines with contact sheets and individual prints, as well as two videos. The photographs are installed thematically in chronological order. (Installation shots below.)

  • Early Work: 14 gelatin silver prints
  • The Seri: 14 gelatin silver prints, 1 vitrine containing 3 contact sheets
  • Juchitán: 30 gelatin silver prints, 2 vitrines each containing 2 contact sheets and 1 gelatin silver print
  • La Mitxteca: 9 gelatin silver prints
  • Fiestas: 12 gelatin silver prints
  • Death: 5 gelatin silver prints
  • Birds: 10 gelatin silver prints, 1 vitrine containing 4 contact sheets and 1 gelatin silver print
  • Plants: 12 gelatin silver prints
  • Frida’s Bathroom: 15 gelatin silver prints

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has published a companion catalogue (here, 240 pages, 135 illustrations, 9½x10 inches, $49.95, hardcover), including texts by Kristen Gresh and an essay by Guillermo Sheridan. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: For Graciela Iturbide, photography is “an excuse for learning” – about those who surround her, as well as the surroundings themselves. Her journeys have taken her across the globe. Yet, her most expansive bodies of work were made at home, in her native Mexico. Throughout the past five decades, Iturbide has traveled extensively between the country’s urban and rural landscapes. She has lived within indigenous communities and observed rituals and the bountiful manifestations of daily life. What she has found is a land of colliding histories; where people are shaped by both their pre-Hispanic roots and colonial past as much as much as their struggle with an incalculable present.

It is this multilayered vision that lies at the heart of Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico – the photographer’s first major exhibition on the East Coast of the United States. Curated by Kristen Gresh (the MFA’s Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Curator of Photographs) and organized within nine partly chronological, partly thematic sections (which include the museum’s thirty-seven recently acquired prints), the show presents a poignant survey of Iturbide’s impassioned and profound encounters with her own country. In doing so, the exhibition also takes a clear stance against Donald Trump’s incessantly racist, anti-Mexican propaganda. “This is a moment to celebrate diversity,” said Gresh, about the shows timing and focus. A country with more than 129 million people of different ethnicities and 90 indigenous languages cannot be reduced to a simplistic narrative of hate, violence, and poverty.

As with most retrospectives, Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico begins with the photographer’s early endeavors. Incidental geometries and serendipitous visual details found in Mexico City and Chiapas are hung on burnt orange walls, which make it easy to imagine the local heat and adobe architecture. From their beginning, Iturbide’s photographs speak with a simple, compositional elegance. They are sober, captured in natural light, and often with deep contrasts; and intuitively invite the comparison to modernism – if it wasn’t for their small flashes of the symbolic, and even the macabre. Such is, for instance, the case in the photograph of a seemingly headless man, firmly carrying a wooden frame as if it was the most delicate, precious object. Or the beautifully bewildering Torito [Little Bull], in which a stuffed bull’s head is mounted – with a matter-of-factness – to a bicycle, that makes you wonder whether you face an encounter with death or the metamorphosis of Zeus anticipating his rapture of Europa. While the choice of Iturbide’s motifs are not unlike those of Tina Modotti or Paul Strand at first glance, Iturbide’s actual and most significant influence is Manuel Álvarez Bravo.

Born in 1942, Iturbide found photography through the backdoor. As a young adult, dreaming of becoming a writer, she first followed the expectations of a Catholic, well-to-do family: marriage and motherhood. In her late twenties, however, Iturbide began studying cinematography. Then, after taking a photography class with Álvarez Bravo, she became his assistant, and shifted careers. It was Álvarez Bravo and his own travels that encouraged Iturbide to discover her country, of which she knew very little. His most important lessons did not only address photography, but life: his belief that the politically obvious is not literal, but embedded within the fabric of the Mexican quotidian. And his advice that everything, including a good photograph, comes with time – not force.

Focusing on Mexico’s people and indigenous cultures, it is this sense of attention and empathy – its evolution into photographic metaphors and visual symbols – that Gresh has chosen to accentuate within the exhibition’s following sections.

Both of Iturbide’s most iconic photographs resulted from projects documenting indigenous communities and have women as their subjects. Presented within the show’s second room, Mujer ángel [Angel Woman] is part of Iturbide’s work about the Seri and was commissioned by the Mexican government in 1979. Set against a low horizon and the scrubby plains of the Sonoran Desert, a woman descends a mountain path. Seen from the back, her arms are spread like wings, while her billowing dress retraces her path; her hair waving like a dark veil. It is a majestic image of an ephemeral moment. Only the boom-box she carries feels absurdly out of place (yet adds to the mystery). A previously nomadic people, the Seri, whose name translates as “Those who live in the sand”, became sedentary along the Gulf of California and the border of Arizona in the 1940s, and lived from fishing and trading crafts for money and goods with tourists.

While many of Iturbide’s Seri photographs trace the gradual clash between a traditional way of life, capitalist commerce, and modern technology, her Juchitán series reflects her fascination and decade-lasting relationship with the city and its inhabitants. As the largest part of the show, it unites Iturbide’s images of the local alligator festival, the market, a political rally, and the city’s male cross-dressers – the so-called muxe. Most significantly, though, it pays tribute the women of Juchitán, who are known for their independent societal roles. It is here, where we find Iturbide’s second iconic photograph: Nuestra Señora de las Iguanas [Our Lady of the Iguanas] – the portrait of a woman wearing a crown of living iguanas on her head. Throughout the years, the image has become a local and national symbol of Mexican pride – reproduced on the city’s road signs, posters, and postcards, as well as a life-size bronze statue, and even a mural in East LA. Iturbide took this picture of Zobeída Diaz, as the Zapotec woman made her the way to the market, carrying iguanas on her head. The contact sheets, which are exhibited in a vitrine below the print, show that it took the photographer several attempts to find her image, as the iguanas kept moving and falling off – resulting in the laughter of her subject, and, most likely, Iturbide herself.

The contacts also help reinforce one of Iturbide’s significant photographic achievements: her trusted and complicit relationships with the people she captures. “If somebody tells me ‘No’, I don’t take photographs. It would show a lack of respect,” she says in a video-interview, which is part of the exhibition (and well worth watching).

Another aspect Iturbide avoids is the exoticization of the things she sees and witnesses. She does so by awareness of – or intuition for – small, outstanding incidents and hushed gestures that go unseen to the fleeting eye. This is, for instance, why her series of marvelous photographs of Mexican fiestas never portray a large group of people, the overall noise, or obvious spectacle. Instead, they focus on details, such as the pair of small paper wings attached to a car, or the bare feet of two women, resting on the gnarly bark of a tree branch. Yet these often-tender instants can also be startling, such as in La Mixteca – a body of work documenting a regional, annual goat-slaughtering ritual, for which Spanish hacienda owners hire indigenous workers, who have created an almost biblical ceremony for the killing.

Taking photographs of rituals and considering photography a ritual itself, are two sides of Iturbide’s creative philosophy. Both can be cathartic, evoke magic, and, at times, provide healing. This becomes evident as you make your way through the last sections of the exhibition, where Iturbide’s cultural topographies morph into an emotional, more intimate territory.

Within Mexican society, death and its poly-cultural layers are omnipresent. Iturbide has captured them in solemn, periodically somber, photographs of funeral rites, ever-present skeletons, the Día de los Muertos candy, or a something as surprising as a meat vendor at a cemetery. “I always shoot what surprises me,” Iturbide says. “Generally, I photograph what I see, nothing more. But all the symbols you can see in my photos are because I found them like that. You could say that my eyes see them, and my heart shoots them.”

An equally literal and abstract invocation of this statement is found in Iturbide’s images of suffering cacti and ailing plants, taken at an ethno-botanical garden in Oaxaca. Painter and garden-founder Francisco Toledo invited her in 1998 to visit his environmental project, dedicated to Oaxaca’s cultural and ecological relationship with their plants. Iturbide’s captures the succulents as delicate organisms undergoing IV treatment, or protected by newspapers. It is the concurrence of pain and resilience that relates these strangely tender photographs to Iturbide’s most recent body of work, Frida’s Bathroom. Housed in a gallery on the third floor of the museum’s Art of the Americas wing, this series consists of intimately staged portraits of the late painter’s corsets and other medical equipment, fifty years after her husband, Diego Rivera, sealed the room. Despite the interrupting walk upstairs, the show’s unity prevails, like the echo of an epic poem.

When asked what made her choose still-photography over film, Iturbide’s replied with a literary analogy: “While film is like a novel, photography is like a poem.” This comparison is not new, but it has rarely been distilled as beautifully as in Iturbide’s photographs of birds. You can see several of them in the exhibition’s final section, most powerful when shot in flocks and from below, like explosions coming out of a tree, or a dotted, loosely woven net meshing through the sky. As any poetic symbol, verbal or visual, they contain multiple meanings. Freedom or death-turned-into-life are among those that Iturbide bestows upon them.

They summarize and exemplify Iturbide’s singular photographic vision, merging the factual with the dreamlike, the human and the spiritual. As with most photographs in this astute, carefully curated show, they prove that ‘the foreign’ is a construct of a narrow mind.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. Graciela Iturbide is represented by Throckmorton Fine Art in New York (here), where a concurrent gallery show of her work is on view (March 28, 2019 through May 18, 2019), ROSEGALLERY in Santa Monica (here), where another concurrent show of her work is on display (February 23, 2019 through May 18, 2019), Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica (here), Taka Ishii Gallery in Tokyo (here), and Galeria Emma Molina in Santa Caterina, Mexico (here). In the past decade, Iturbide’s work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets. Recent prices have ranged between roughly $1000 and $10000.

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