At the start of 2020, Mexico became one of only three countries in the world to adopt a feminist foreign policy, which puts gender equality and the rights of women and traditionally marginalized groups at the heart of all levers of power in government, from trade to humanitarian aid to defense.
Yet barely two months later, tens of thousands of women took part in nationwide strikes throughout Mexico to protest the alarming rates of violence against women — and the government’s lack of action to address it. Schools, stores, buses and offices emptied out as women took to the streets to call attention to the fact that 10 women are killed every single day in Mexico.
It was a sobering reminder that even as women make significant strides around the world, tradition and discrimination continue to hold them back, sometimes with deadly results.
The dueling narratives recently seen in Mexico reflect the country’s complex tapestry of politics and culture, one that is often oversimplified by the media — and Americans. It also lends even more credence and urgency to “Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico,” the current exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA).
For 50 years, Iturbide has been one of Latin America’s most acclaimed contemporary photographers, producing visceral, haunting images that paint a nuanced picture of her homeland — and the women in it — in all their rich complexity.
“She’s a great example of the core mission of the museum, having continued advocacy for exceptional women artists,” said Orin Zahra, assistant curator for the NMWA. “We’re really honored that Graciela could come to D.C. and particularly to NMWA.”
Over 140 of Iturbide’s signature black-and-white gelatin silver prints are on display in this survey organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Spanning a period from 1969 and 2007, these photographs depict indigenous and urban women, symbolism in nature, rituals and even eerie snapshots of personal items left behind after the death of iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
They offer a personal look inside lesser-known sides of Mexico through the eyes of Iturbide, who prides herself on immersing herself in the community she is photographing, capturing both its daily life and deeper soul.
“Photography for me is a ritual,” Iturbide once said. “To go out with the camera, to observe, to photograph the most mythological aspects of people, then to go into the darkness, to develop, to select the most symbolic images.”
The exhibition at the NMWA (she’s been featured in five other shows at the museum since 1999) is divided into nine sections that illustrate Mexico’s diverse mix of cultures, social inequalities and the coexistence — and conflict — between the traditional and the modern.
While Iturbide’s early work focused heavily on underrepresented indigenous people, she herself was born into a wealthy, conservative Catholic family — the oldest of 13 children — in Mexico City. She married young, had a daughter by age 23 and initially studied filmmaking, seemingly on the path to a traditional upper-class life. But after an illness led to the death of her 6-year-old daughter, Iturbide became drawn to photography, honing her skills as an assistant to well-known photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo in the early 1970s.
“Bravo’s poetic style influenced Iturbide, but she ultimately chose to focus on what she described as ‘photo essays’ as opposed to individual photographs,” according to the NMWA.
After traveling widely throughout Mexico, Iturbide was commissioned in 1978 to photograph the country’s indigenous populations.
Iturbide’s fascination with — and reverence for — underrepresented indigenous societies plays a prominent role in the exhibition, with three sections devoted to her photographs of Juchitán, home of the matriarchal society of the Zapotec people; the Sonoran Desert, where the Seri, a once-nomadic group of fishermen, navigate a changing culture; and La Mixteca, where she documents the Oaxacan herding community’s annual goat slaughter festival.
In one striking image, we see a slender woman wearing an embroidered sweater and skirt dirtied by blood from the goat she is killing, her knife clenched between her teeth as she grips the goat’s ankles. It’s a jarring juxtaposition but one that Iturbide renders with sensitivity as she observes the important ritual slaughter.
We also see Iturbide’s “Nuestra Señora de las Iguanas (Our Lady of the Iguanas), her portrait of a woman donning a wreath of large, protruding iguanas on her head — a powerful image of Zapotec life that was replicated by numerous other artists.
“I think people will come in thinking they’ll see a bunch of black-and-white photos [but] when they leave, they are going to be very emotionally moved and impacted by the work,” Zahra said.
“What I love about Graciela’s approach to photography is her ability to connect with her subjects,” Zahra added. “If you walk through the exhibit, you see she’s not just connecting to the various indigenous communities, but plants and animals too. Plants and plant life have a huge significance, particularly cactus in Mexican culture.”
Regarded as a national symbol, cacti are routinely used by Mexicans for food, alcohol and medicine. In Iturbide’s work, they are living, breathing entities treated with the same respect she gives to people.
Cultural symbols and the cycles of life — including death — are omnipresent in the section “Fiestas, Death and Birds,” where we see Mexico’s proud tradition of lavish ceremonies and rituals, including the famed Day of the Dead. “Novia Muerte (Death Bride)” is one of the most arresting and eerie visuals in the exhibition. The “bride” is in fact a man wearing a death mask, his veil-covered hand outstretched as if it were wrapped around someone’s shoulder, but no one is there, a void that hints at loss and death.
Iturbide has said she photographs the deaths of others as a way of dealing with her own grief over the death of her daughter.
Iturbide is even able to imbue inanimate objects with life — and mortality. In 2005, Iturbide was commissioned to photograph Frida Kahlo’s belongings in the bathroom at Casa Azul, the home where the painter was born and died.
The resulting “Frida’s Bathroom” series uses a strange panoply of objects — a blood-stained gown, medical supplies, crutches and other contraptions — to dramatically illustrate artist’s lifelong struggle with debilitating pain and hardship. The photographs create a sense of kinship between the two Mexican women artists, who both wrestled with tragedy in their personal lives.
Iturbide has an innate “ability to really connect with anything that appears in front of her camera,” Zahra said. “I think that is significant about her work and what makes it relatable to the viewer, no matter where they are in the world.”
While Zahra said Iturbide prefers not to be outwardly political, her work has become part of the current national conversation.
“In the very act of showing the 140 photos of the often-forgotten communities and glimpses of cultures we don’t normally see, it humanizes the place that has become so mythic and dehumanized through media and pop culture,” Zahra said. “I think it provides exposure to a place that’s our neighbor and I think it will particularly affect the D.C. community.”
Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico Through May 25
National Museum of Women in the Arts
1250 New York Ave., NW
(202) 783-5000 | www.nmwa.org
About the Authors
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat. Kate Oczypok (@OczyKate) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.