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Graciela Iturbide, Lady of the Silences

Through mid-May, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts will showcase the work of one of Latin America’s greatest photographers.

By: Sol Astrid Giraldo E.

Photos: Courtesy of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts

 

An image by renowned photographer Graciela Iturbide (1942) features the advertising slogan: “México: I want to get to know you.” In the final analysis, this is what Iturbide always wanted, since she began her career in the 1970s. But she has not sought out the country of tourist brochures. Her photos —taken over months of living and talking with the women of Juchitán or the inhabitants of Sonora— always present surprises, a jarring of visual codes.

We imagine that we know what an indigenous woman, a bull, or a desert look like: the press, TV, documentaries, and social media photos have shown them to us ad nauseum. Our experiences have not prepared us, however, to see cow parts mounted on a bicycle, a copper Madonna crown of iguanas, or a woman walking through a stony bleakness with a boombox in hand.

Very disconcerting. We don’t know exactly what each photo is trying to tell us. Nor do we know how we should interpret it. We have to wait until the image gradually reveals itself to us, when the tension between the elements (cow legs and a tablecloth, a man wearing a woman’s skirt and a mariachi hat, a sheep gently bleeding) resolves with a click. Slow stories explode from the inside out.

La danza de la cabrita, antes de la matanza, La Mixteca, 1992. / The Little Goat’s Dance before the Slaughter. @mfaBoston

 

Iturbide’s photos form a kind of collage, bringing together seemingly unrelated objects. There may be layer upon layer of elements, in the Baroque fashion. In this case, it is not the gold in Latin American Baroque churches, but rather wings, scales, hair, or feathers; other images superimpose carnival figures on barren landscapes. Black and white. Teeming and desolate.

The objects and people portrayed are not isolated from their environment nor from history. Iturbide’s camera captures a slice of the world. The key lies precisely in the quality of this slice of the world. Her gaze seeks out the subtle landscapes that reveal themselves as a consequence of her preference for quiet corners over bustling plazas, dark kitchen nooks over façades, and paths over highways. This strategy takes her to a land of sunshine and deep shadows where everything is possible.

It is a land where the most interesting characters are generally ordinary ones who do not necessarily make the news: anonymous people in Oaxaca and India —she has traveled a great deal during her 50-year career— goats, chickens, cacti, carrousels, cardboard angels, open-mouthed skulls in murals, and migrants. They are nobodies, as Eduardo Galeano would say, figures that are hard to picture and who are considered to be of less significance than the cameras themselves. In Iturbide’s world, however, these figures do not hide behind doors, but plant themselves in the middle of the scene; they look straight ahead, gain nobility, and show us how their skins, impregnated with ancestral myths, elevate them beyond their poverty and dispossession.

Pájaros en el poste, carretera Guanajuato / Birds on the Post, Guanajuato Highway, México, 1990. @mfaBoston

 

Her subjects rebel against the violence of the Colonialist gaze and assert themselves as they shift between dust and magic, cruelty and divinity, death and celebration. Here are bodies that intertwine with animals: the bull woman, the snake woman, and the snail woman.

They defend themselves against death by staring into the bulging eyes of a sacrificed goat or creating delicate flower arrangements for the dead during the nine days of mourning.

We are unerringly led into this world by our lady of the silences, of tranquil astonishment, by a lady who lets things happen at their own pace and in their own key, without magnifying, correcting, or deflecting what she sees: Frida’s prosthesis against a shadowed wall, a giant comb tangled in a long, shiny mane of hair, a man’s jacket hanging from a dry branch on an Indian afternoon. This is a woman who listens to the cries of iguanas and the whispers of the desert, one who understands birds, speaks before she looks, and always treads softly. She conspires with the profound México she has been seeking and has, indeed, found. She conferred upon us fresh eyes that give us new ways of inhabiting the world.

Casa de la muerte. / House of Death, Mexico City, 1975.@mfaBoston