Mauricio Toro Goya, Soy Una Mujer

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by 1621 Editores (no website). Softcover, unpaginated, with 28 black-and-white photographic reproductions, 11.25 x 7.9 inches. Includes Spanish text fragments by María Sabina (1894-1985) and an essay by Andrea Jösch Krotki. Design by Claudia Guerra Pino, edited by Andrea Jösch Krotki. In an edition of 500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The wall of the living room was once painted white. Time has turned it into alabaster, or something closer to eggshell. And like an eggshell, the paint is cracking in the upper corner, alluding to but not quite revealing what lies below. This is the place in which I look at images, the spot in which I write. Why do I tell you this? Because, to me, this small detail relates to the photographs of Mauricio Toro Goya’s Soy Una Mujer (I Am a Woman). They too, like the paint, invoke a sense of domesticity, but resist domestication.

I have looked at Toro Goya’s book for a few weeks now. Every time, I begin by tracing the open spine, like a piece of coarse fabric; I feel the weight of its lean pages, the texture of the revolutionary red cover. Each time, it is a different set of images, a different set of text fragments, that I spent more time with than others. There are moments in which they both share the space of a double-page spread, and others in which they each claim the space to themselves. Neither text nor images are abstract, yet I can never fully decipher them. Why?

Like a cosmos or a myth, they are at once self-contained and open-ended. It is the text that sets the tone:

I am a woman from a place that is sacred, bewitched.

I am a woman made of dust and watery wine.

I am a woman who sees in the dark.

I am a woman who dreams, while a man knocks her down.

I am a woman who hides pistols and riffles in the creases of my neck.

I am a woman condemned to death.

I am a woman who keeps afloat.

I am a woman of love.

Born in the same place as the echo.

The woman, who speaks in each of these lines, is made of multiples. She is a hunter and a healer, a mother and a warrior. Asserting the metaphysical realm she is rooted in as much as the realities she is condemned to, she conjures the indigenous notions and archetypal narratives of womanhood.

The interpretation and embodiment of these storylines are at the heart of Toro Goya’s photographs. Soy Una Mujer unites three kinds of images: some show landscapes of thick forests, at times populated by boulders and architectural ruins, totems and burial grounds; others are photographs of women, single figures, sitting or standing within these woody environments. I am tempted to call them portraits, but this would be inaccurate, for most of these women partly cover their faces with hoods and bandannas, as if daring and protecting themselves from appropriating eyes. But we still get a sense of whom they are. What defines them is their own gaze, at times avoiding, at times engaging the camera; and the animals and objects that accompany them: a horse, a statue, a wooden gun. Like characters of a long-forgotten tale, they reveal just enough to breach familiar appearances. Even more evocative (and often quite spooky) are the photographs in which these women are joined by other women, children, or men, wearing skull or animal masks, performing rites and rituals that are difficult to describe, but ripe with intuition.

In each photograph there is also a specific tension between light and darkness, a twilight that recalls the nights of a full moon, where backgrounds flatten and contours fuse or cut like a knife. It is the light in which humans strike and defend like animals, where attacks are planned and revenge is taken. It is an old light, of magic, demons, and spirits. A light that resists time, like saints and revolutionaries.

Toro Goya’s photographs are ambrotypes, that is, unique positive photographs on glass plates, as used in the mid-19th century. This is important not only for the pictures’ aesthetic, but also for Toro Goya’s understanding of his artistic mission. Born and raised in Chile during the time of the Pinochet dictatorship, he grew up sensitive to the abuse of power and social injustices.  When he was ten, his mother taught him how to use a camera. Over the years the medium became a tool to channel and express his thinking and political beliefs. In 2001, about two decades after Chile’s adoption of the free-market system and the successive replacement of the military junta with a democratic government, Toro Goya began to investigate alternative photographic processes. Weary of the illusions of the country’s neoliberal model, he was searching for a way that would allow him to take photographs without depending on, what he calls, “the market”, meaning digital photography.

“I always felt that digital photography was the icing on the cake of the neoliberal model, and my beliefs, both political and philosophical, oppose this model, which has plunged my country into a deep crisis. It was contradictory that my work, which criticized this model, would use the digital format. Therefore, the only technique to satisfy these questions and explore them aesthetically was the ambrotype, since I could to everything with my hands without depending on what the digital photography industry dictated.”

Since then, Toro Goya’s work has been defined by the use of the ambrotype, and another, idiosyncratic constant: the staging of allegorical scenes, or tableaux vivants – to use a painterly term that challenge and criticize the interstices of Latin American history and tradition, economy and mass culture, religion and myth.

What I find compelling in Toro Goya’s revisionist vocation in regards to Soy Una Mujer, is his commitment to overlooked chapters of Latin American indigenous history, his obsession with the continent’s visual and cultural identity, that are all grounded in a personal story.

Doing community work in the Mapuche territory in Southern Chile as an adolescent, Toro Goya fell sick and was taken to a Machi, a local curandera (meaning native healer and shaman). While he was also hoping to take her photograph, which she denied, the Machi cured him through rituals and medicines. Twenty-two years later, during Toro Goya’s first visit to Chiapas, Mexico, he saw a t-shirt with a portrait of a woman similar to the healer he had met years before. This was María Sabina, who he learned was a famed Mazatec healer and shaman herself, and was also known for her poem-like chants performed during healing rituals. Following years of research on María Sabina, whose text excerpts provide the fundamental structure of Toro Goya’s book, he decided to dedicate this project to indigenous women both in Mexico and southern Chile, where they have been fighting for several generations (beginning with the Spanish colonizers to the current governments) for their environment, as well as their social, political, and cultural rights.

Soy Una Mujer is a collaborative project, in which women from both indigenous communities interpret a chosen verse of María Sabina in concert with their, or their ancestors’, personal histories. To find these women, Toro Goya worked with two female mediators in Mexico and Chile, who connected him with his subjects. Together they toured the women’s ancestral lands, discussed the project, for which each sitter created and enacted her own story of resistance, wearing traditional garments and deciding the location and their attributes. Toro Goya’s visual intervention, apart from taking the photograph, included the option for the sitters to wear a bandanna or hood, which most women did to protect their identities from political repercussions.

One should not underestimate the violence of these repercussions, nor the risk these women (and, to some extent, the photographer) take and took. On a recent evening in New York, Toro Goya spoke about the project, and one woman in particular. You will find her towards the end of the book. Dressed in a simple turtleneck and overalls, she wears her hair in braids and embellished with a floral bandana. Her face is wide, open, and calm; her features sculpture-like. There is kindness and determination in the way she observes something outside of the frame. It is among my favorite pictures, precisely because I can see her face. She wanted it to be seen, as “there is no reason for shame in one’s beliefs, when they are just.” A few weeks later, her grandson was murdered.

Sometime later that evening, I happened to speak to another attendee, who was critical about the book: about its white male perspective framing indigenous women’s stories, and the too literal relationship of text and image. I thought about this comment a lot, and I still disagree with it. Not because it is wrong, but because it overlooks something else.

I can only guess why Toro Goya is drawn to these stories and these women. Yet in the way he took their photographs and edited the book (with Andrea Jösch Krotki, who also contributed a beautiful essay), it becomes clear that his gaze is neither chauvinist nor patronizing. And while their names and stories remain hidden, you can tell that he regarded them with empathy and admiration.

When I look at Soy Una Mujer in its parts and as a whole, I see women but also symbolic beings. Their photographs merge the iconographies of historic and modern protesters, of revolutionary posters, and images of saints. I think of Delacroix’s barricades, Francisco de Goya’s terrors, and recent photographs from Hong Kong, or of female Peshmerga fighters. The connections are endless and you will make your own. The result is always unsettling: there is lingering violence, pain, and further defeats to suffer. At the same time, there is also a stinging sense of hope: the one of ancient tales and passed-on songs, silently persevering between the known and the imagined.

Collector’s POV: Mauricio Toro Goya does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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