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“It changed me to know that other worlds exist, very far from and, at the same time, very near to us…Maybe I learned a little how to see with their eyes.” – Graciela Iturbide
by Elin Spring
“Maybe I learned a little how to see with their eyes.” Isn’t this the very definition of empathy? With a passionate belief in our fundamental commonalities, even for the most foreign of Mexican subcultures, photographer Graciela Iturbide has crafted a layered and mystical vision of her paradoxical native land. Making the alien personal – especially in light of polarization over building “the wall” to separate us from our neighbors – Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico could hardly be more timely or powerful, on view at the MFA, Boston through May 12th, 2019.
Graciela Iturbide has become a legend in her own time, and for good reason. Starting in the late 1970’s, her unique vision eschewed the prevailing Anglo- and Eurocentric views of Mexico that sensationalized its people and practices as exotic. Even the images by her famous mentor, the Mexican modernist Manuel Álvarez Bravo, who worked to capture cultural pride and nationalism, suggested a surrealist vision. Iturbide has focused instead on the daily lives, rituals and symbols of indigenous communities – numbering more than 26 million and speaking over 90 native languages – poetically redefining the rich and colorful tapestry of Mexican culture.
Iturbide possesses an uncanny ability to symbolize the many contrasts of indigenous Mexican cultures in photographs that exude mystery and spirituality. She developed a dedicated approach of living within a community and getting to know its citizens, pacing herself to their routines, slipping through their marketplaces with a handheld camera and choosing the expressive capabilities of B&W film. Iturbide describes her process as both ritual and therapy, a mindful way of living and seeing that allows her to understand the complex world she inhabits.
One of the special delights of this exhibit is the inclusion of several of Iturbide’s working contact sheets, negative-sized images of her entire roll of film, printed on a single sheet. Accompanying her final print, they provide a window into both the artist’s photographic practice and her editing and printing decisions. Iturbide has said that a staple of her creative process is the joy of discovery, a feeling of readiness for the unexpected, and that this occurs twice for her: first when she captures an image and again when she develops her contact sheets and sees anew the artistic possibilities.
Iturbide’s sensitive photographs of indigenous people reflect their adaptations to the historic transitions that have confronted Mexico. From the conquering Catholic Spaniards in 1521 to the invasive influences of today’s western culture, traces of conflicting forces appear in Iturbide’s images. Her first book grew out of a Mexican government commission to document Seri Indians, the formerly nomadic fisherman living in the Sonoran Desert along the Gulf of California. Iturbide expresses the impact of modern trade on the Seri’s fishing and barter culture both individually and allegorically, personally and passionately. Her iconic “Angel Woman” appears like an ethereal vision, floating over an expansive desert plain with arms spread and hair flowing, carrying a boom box. Poetry.
In keeping with Iturbide’s organic approach to a wide range of subjects over a five-decade career, Kristen Gresh, Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Curator of Photographs, has arranged the exhibit thematically. Its nine parts in two galleries include subjects ranging from the legendary Mexican preoccupation with death to a variety of rituals and festivals that echo the hardships and mysticism of their lives (beware the gallery with the Mixteca annual goat slaughter). In another section, Iturbide’s personal epiphanies are visualized in her richly symbolic photographs of birds, as both the harbingers of death and conveyers of spiritual freedom.
More recently, Iturbide brings the same metaphorical lyricism to photographs she was commissioned to make of the Ethnobotanical Garden of Oaxaca and Frida Kahlo’s Bathroom. Although her images of the garden feature injured and rehabilitating cacti (a national symbol on the Mexican flag) and those of Frida’s bathroom focus on the medical relics the painter used to manage pain, both underscore the qualities of fragility, suffering and resilience. These recurring themes are hallmarks of the photographer’s impassioned career, making the alien personal, making Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico a story of humankind.
For more information about this exhibit and associated events, go to: https://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/graciela-iturbides-mexico