Nearly 140 Images in Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico Portray Photographer’s Native Country through Her Eyes
BOSTON (December 20, 2018)—Throughout a five-decade-long career, photographer Graciela Iturbide (born 1942) has focused on capturing and understanding the beauty, rituals, challenges and contradictions of her native Mexico. Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico is the first major East Coast presentation of the artist’s work, featuring nearly 140 photographs that tell the visual story of her country since the late 1970s. Going beyond documentary photography, Iturbide’s work reveals Mexico’s complexities through her personal explorations. Focused on the tensions between urban and rural life, human presence and nature, and indigenous and Spanish cultures, her photographs have contributed to Mexico’s visual identity while calling attention to the rich syncretism, diversity and inequalities of Mexican society. The exhibition is drawn primarily from Iturbide’s own collection and also highlights a recent acquisition of her photographs, the first major group of works by the artist to enter the Museum’s collection—35 purchased by the MFA and two donated by Iturbide. Loans from museums and private collections throughout the U.S., Mexico and France are also included. On view from January 19 through May 12, 2019 in the Henry and Lois Foster Gallery, the exhibition features interpretation in English and Spanish, as well as a documentary video of the artist, produced by the Museum and shot at Iturbide’s studio in Mexico City. Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue produced by MFA Publications, which features more than 100 striking tritone reproductions of evocative photographs alongside essays that invite readers to share in Iturbide’s personal artistic journey. This beautiful volume with a three-piece cloth and printed binding with foil stamping teases out key ideas and visual relationships across different moments in the photographer’s storied career. The exhibition is supported by the Leigh and Stephen Braude Fund for Latin American Art, The Bruce and Laura Monrad Fund for Exhibitions, and the Diane Krane Family and Jonathan and Gina Krane Family Fund. Generous support for the publication was provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Publications Fund.
“I am thrilled to present Graciela’s groundbreaking images to our global audiences, and it has been a pleasure and honor to work closely with her in preparation for this exhibition,” said Kristen Gresh, Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Curator of Photographs. “Her work has successfully and beautifully brought to the forefront the many untold stories of Mexican culture and history—from the eyes of an insider.”
The exhibition is organized thematically into nine sections and opens with early photographs. One of her first works, Zihuatanejo, México (1969, Collection of Les and Sandy Nanberg), is a pensive portrait of a young girl that marks the beginning of Iturbide’s forays into photographing the diverse peoples of Mexico. Shot during the same year, Mexico City (1969, Collection of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser) portrays a sex worker in what appears to be a cantina or pulquería. In fact, the subject is a figure in a wax museum. The photograph’s graphic background—a mural of a large skull painted on a wall—alludes to both Mexico’s long history of muralism and the country’s fascination with death. Works such as Little Bull / Torito (1982, Collection of Galeria Lopez Quiroga) and Juchitán (1975, MFA) reveal Iturbide’s attraction to unusual urban geometries and her eye for the unexpected. Together, these early images attest to the photographer’s keen observation of Mexican contemporary culture in the 1970s and early 1980s.
The next three sections of the exhibition focus on Iturbide’s deep commitment to photographing different populations throughout Mexico. One of her early projects was to document the way of life of the Seri Indians, a formerly nomadic group of fisherfolk living in the Sonoran Desert in northwestern Mexico. In 1978, Iturbide and anthropologist Luis Barjau immersed themselves within the community, staying for a month and a half on their first trip and another month on the second. The result of their collaboration was the 1981 book Los que viven en la arena ( Those Who Live in the Sand) and a selection of additional photographs that Iturbide printed and exhibited years later. The exhibition features two prints of one of Iturbide’s most well-known works, Angel Woman / Mujer ángel (1979, Collection of Elizabeth and Michael Marcus and Collection of Galeria Lopez Quiroga ), an ethereal image that captures a woman in traditional dress carrying a boom box as she heads down to the empty desert plain. The photograph exemplifies a theme running through the series: the impact of capitalism on the Seri people’s otherwise minimalist culture. This early project confirmed Iturbide’s interests in working thematically, raising her awareness of Mexico’s diversity and building close relationships with her subjects.
Over the course of a decade beginning in 1979, Iturbide traveled regularly to Juchitán, a city in southern Oaxaca. Juchitán is home to the Zapotec culture, in which women are known for their economic, political and sexual independence. Iturbide’s iconic photograph Our Lady of the Iguanas / Nuestra Señora de las Iguanas (1979, Brooklyn Museum) portrays a woman, Zobeida Diaz, wearing a wreath of iguanas on her head as she makes her way to sell them at the market. The iguana has historical importance in Zapotec society, both as a gastronomic delicacy and as an animal believed to have healing properties. Our Lady of the Iguanas, reproduced today on everything from municipal offices to highway signs and murals, has become a symbol for the community of Juchitán and for Zapotec womanhood. Original contact sheets displayed alongside the photograph show a cinematic sequence of Diaz interacting with Iturbide as she poses for the camera. She appears to be overtaken by laughter at certain points—an indication of the artist’s empathetic way of connecting with her subjects. Yellow grease-pencil marks also reveal Iturbide’s working method and creative process, highlighting the image she had chosen to print and how she envisioned cropping it. In her final selection, the iguanas themselves appear to be posing for the camera—an idea that corresponds to Iturbide’s search for the unexpected and the symbolic.
In addition to highlighting the importance of women in Juchitán, Iturbide also captured the society’s openness to muxes—men who dress as women, sometimes referred to as a Zapotec third gender. Her photographs of a muxe named Magnolia—Magnolia with Mirror / Magnolia con espejo (1986, J. Paul Getty Museum) and Magnolia with Sombrero / Magnolia con sombrero (1986, MFA)—demonstrate her ability to connect intimately with the community. Immersing herself in Zapotec culture, Iturbide also recorded the enduring legacy of native traditions—from an annual two-day festival and pilgrimage celebrating an alligator deity to el rapto, a premarital ritual practiced by those in lower and middle classes. Her strong and poetic images of Juchitán not only gained her international recognition, but also became a point of departure for a new vision of Juchitec society that has since been integrated into Mexico’s identity.
Following the Juchitán section are Iturbide’s photographs of the annual goat-slaughtering ritual in the Oaxacan region of La Mixteca, in south-central Mexico. The tradition dates back to colonial times, when Spanish landowners contracted Mixtec workers to butcher animals for sale, and carries on today. Tens of thousands of goats are killed during the month-long festival, which involves ritualistic aspects such as saving a lone animal every year as an act of repentance before the slaughter. Iturbide’s photographs from this series also highlight the exploitation of workers in one of Mexico’s poorest regions, who have created a ritual out of their harsh working conditions as a way of coping with the violence and pain. This experience had a tremendous impact on Iturbide, marking a personal turning point. Her wrenching experience in La Mixteca became the last time she spent extended amounts of time with an indigenous community.
The next three sections focus on themes that recur throughout Iturbide’s oeuvre: fiestas, death and birds. Since the mid-1970s, Iturbide has traveled throughout the country, including Chalma, Oaxaca and Tlaxcala, to observe and record a variety of fiestas—lavish and visually stimulating celebrations, which often include elaborate costumes or disguises. Death is another dominant element of Mexican culture, and Iturbide’s photographs related to the subject reflect both a personal experience and larger cultural manifestations. Her works range from depictions of signs of mortality in everyday life, as seen in the early photograph Mexico…I want to get to know you! / México…Quiero Conocerte! (1975, MFA), to representations of surreal-like funerary rituals and celebrations like the annual Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Iturbide’s fascination with birds is intimately linked to her own emotional journey toward overcoming a personal loss. Her photographs of the subject—ranging from spectacular and sublime skies full of birds to close-up portraits of birds in trees and even self-portraits with birds—show her interest in the rites and cycles of the natural world, while also evoking the spiritual world.
In 1998, Iturbide was invited by Francisco Toledo to photograph the newly opened Ethnobotanical Garden of Oaxaca. By design, the garden tells the story of the relationship between the people of Oaxaca and their native plants, which are arranged by ecological and cultural themes. The next section of the exhibition presents these photographs, particularly of cacti undergoing therapeutic treatment. The images, published in her 2004 book Naturata, reflect the caretaking aspect of the garden. A startling view of the tops of several columnar cacti in Botanical Garden / Jardín Botánico (1998–99) shows them with bundles of newspaper padding and wooden boards as splints, all bound around the plants with rope. In another photograph, Botanical Garden / Jardín Botánico (2002) a thorny treelike plant receives an intravenous treatment as two bags of a cream-colored liquid drip into lines connected to its limbs.
The final section features the most recent series in the exhibition, El baño de Frida (Frida’s Bathroom), which will be on view from February 27, 2019 through June 16, 2019 in the Museum’s Art of the Americas Wing, alongside another MFA exhibition, Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular. In 2005, Iturbide was commissioned to photograph personal belongings in Frida Kahlo’s bathroom at the Casa Azul, which had been locked away for 50 years following the artist’s death. Iturbide’s stark images provide an emotional narrative about the intimate space within the “Blue House,” where Kahlo was born and died, and the mystery of the objects. Iturbide’s photographs focus primarily on objects related to Kahlo’s pain—from a box of Demerol, an opioid pain medication, to a prosthetic leg. In one photograph, a hospital gown—stained by blood or paint—hangs ominously against the tiled wall, serving as a reminder of Kahlo’s many operations. In another, a self-portrait that depicts Iturbide’s bare feet in Kahlo’s bathtub, the photographer puts herself in the artist’s place and evokes one of Kahlo’s famous paintings, What the Water Gave Me (1938). Iturbide’s images reveal a side of Kahlo that is dramatically different from the colorful magical realist portrayed by her clothes and paintings. In photographing Kahlo’s private space, Iturbide grapples not only with the cultural and symbolic legacy of the painter, but with her own legacy as well. The series reveals a silent dialogue between the two women, two artists of Mexico, who have seen their art as a form of therapy and escape from everyday life.
About Graciela Iturbide
Iturbide was born in 1942 in Mexico City. In 1969, at the age of 27, she enrolled at the film school Centro de Estudios Cinematográficos at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México to become a film director. However, she was soon drawn to the art of still photography as practiced by the Mexican modernist master Manuel Álvarez Bravo, who was teaching at the University. From 1970 to 1971 she worked as Bravo’s assistant, accompanying him on various photographic journeys throughout Mexico. In the early half of the 1970s, Iturbide traveled widely across Latin America—in particular to Cuba and Panama. In 1978, she was commissioned by the Ethnographic Archive of the National Indigenous Institute of Mexico to photograph Mexico’s indigenous population. Iturbide decided to document and record the way of life of the Seri people along the country’s border with Arizona. In 1979, she was invited by the artist Francisco Toledo to photograph the Juchitán people who form part of the Zapotec culture native to Oaxaca in southern Mexico. This series resulted in the publication of her book Juchitán de las Mujeres in 1989. Between 1980 and 2000, Iturbide was invited to work in Cuba, Germany, India, Madagascar, Hungary, France and the U.S., producing a number of important projects. She has enjoyed solo exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou (1982), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1990), J. Paul Getty Museum (2007), MAPFRE Foudation, Madrid (2009), Photography Museum Winterthur (2009) and Barbican Art Gallery (2012), among others. Iturbide is the recipient of the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Foundation Award (1987); the Grand Prize Mois de la Photo, Paris (1988); a Guggenheim Fellowship for the project Fiesta y Muerte (1988); the Hugo Erfurth Award, Leverkusen, Germany (1989); the International Grand Prize, Hokkaido, Japan (1990); the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie Award, Arles (1991); the Hasselblad Award (2008); the National Prize of Sciences and Arts in Mexico City (2008); an Honorary Degree in photography from Columbia College Chicago (2008); and an Honorary Doctorate of Arts from the San Francisco Art Institute (2009).
Photography at the MFA
The MFA possesses a pioneering photography collection, initiated in 1924 when Alfred Stieglitz donated 27 of his photographs to the Museum. Through purchase and by gift, the collection has grown to approximately 15,000 photographs, spanning the entire history of the medium from the 1840s to the present. Special strengths of the MFA’s holdings include daguerreotypes by Southworth and Hawes; sublime landscapes of the American West; turn-of-the-century Pictorialism; the Lane Collection (including Charles Sheeler’s entire photographic estate of nearly 2,500 works, an equal number of images by Edward Weston, more than 450 photographs by Ansel Adams and 100 works by Imogen Cunningham); European and central European photography from between the wars (including the Sonja Bullaty and Angelo Lomeo Collection of Josef Sudek Photographs); European post-war Subjective photography; sizable groups of works by Harry Callahan and Emmet Gowin; mountain photographs by Bradford Washburn; portraits of internationally known figures by Yousuf Karsh; and fashion and celebrity images by Herb Ritts. The MFA consistently displays photography from its collection in special exhibitions, sharing works with the Museum’s visitors and wider audiences beyond Boston through publications and traveling exhibitions. Following Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico, upcoming photography exhibitions at the MFA include Postwar Visions: European Photography, 1945–60 (February 9–June 23, 2019) and a presentation of more than 100 highlights from the recent acquisition of the Howard Greenberg Collection of Photographs (August 11–December 15, 2019).
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is recognized for the quality and scope of its collection, representing all cultures and time periods. The Museum has more than 140 galleries displaying its encyclopedic collection, which includes Art of the Americas; Art of Europe; Contemporary Art; Art of Asia; Art of Africa and Oceania; Art of Ancient Greece and Rome; Art of Ancient Egypt, Nubia and the Near East; Prints and Drawings; Photography; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 am–5 pm; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 am–10 pm. Admission (which includes one repeat visit within 10 days) is $25 for adults and $23 for seniors and students age 18 and older, and includes entry to all galleries and special exhibitions. Admission is free for University Members and youths age 17 and younger. Wednesday nights after 4 pm admission is by voluntary contribution (suggested donation $25), while five Open Houses offer the opportunity to visit the Museum for free. The Museum’s mobile MFA Guide is available at ticket desks and the Sharf Visitor Center for $5, members; $6, non-members; and $4, youths. The Museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The MFA is located on the Avenue of the Arts at 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115. For more information, call 617.267.9300, visit mfa.org or follow the MFA on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.