Graciela Iturbide

by Tate Dillow

Desert and jungle. Lizards and birds. Fiestas and funerals. Sex and slaughter. Light and dark. Mexico is a distinctly multifaceted place, with a culture built by combining unlikely elements into a strange beauty resistant to apprehension. That hasn’t stopped photographer Graciela Iturbide from trying. She’s spent her career trying to understand her homeland in all its complexity and richness, producing work that elevates the quotidian to the level of myth, and embracing the unusual, the marginal, and the over- looked. Taken together, her images present a full-bodied portrait of her home country, shining light on a land under constant transformation. 

In a new retrospective of her photographs from Mexico at The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Boston, titled Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico, and in an accompanying book of the same name published by MFA Boston, the breadth and depth of Iturbide’s career is on full display. It feels like an education. As exhibition curator Kristen Gresh states, “Iturbide’s photographs go well beyond the role of bearing witness and provide a poetic vision of contemporary culture informed by a sense of life’s surprises and mysteries. They also go against what we hear about Mexico in the media and remind us how art can, and should, rise above politics. Iturbide’s photographs remind us that instead of building walls, we should be building bridges.” 

The survey marks the largest East Coast presentation of her work to date, with approximately 125 works spanning nearly five decades on view. Beginning with her early photographs, the exhibition then moves through three series “focused on three of Mexico’s many indigenous cultures: Juchitán captures the essential role of women in Zapotec culture; Los que viven en la arena (Those Who Live in the Sand) concentrates on the Seri people living in the Sonoran Desert; and La Mixteca documents elaborate goat-slaughtering rituals in Oaxaca.” The survey continues in a series of “thematic groupings” that examine particular aspects of Mexican culture—fiestas, death, and the special symbolic importance of birds—before considering her more recent work, including a series on desert plants and a project exploring the influence of Frida Kahlo by examining the artist’s intimate personal objects. 

The accompanying book presents stunning reproduced black-and-white photographs along with intimate essays that offer insight into Iturbide’s journey as a photographer. With text by curator Kristen Gresh and Guillermo Sheridan, the project portrays Iturbide as an interrogator of her own environment, fueled by the desire to, in Iturbide’s words, “explore and articulate the ways in which a vocable such as ‘Mexico’ is meaningful only when understood as an intricate combination of histories and practices.” It achieves what Gresh set out to do as she began curating the show, over three years ago: “My point of view from the beginning has been that Iturbide, long unrecognized in most of the United States, should be better represented to the general public... I hope that her powerful and provocative photographs will inspire visitors to learn more about and better understand our Mexican neighbors.” 

Photos courtesy of Graciela Iturbide and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Issue 164
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