A leg brace posed in Frida Kahlo’s bathroom, flocks of birds over a cemetery, a boombox carried through the mountains, delicate angel wings paired with a white silk dress, a crown of iguanas. Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico, which is at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) from February 28 to May 25, is a photography exhibition that celebrates rituals big and small, arcane and common. Fiestas in Chalma (a town sixty miles from Mexico City that is well known for its religious activities which combine indigenous culture and catholic dogma) garner the same attention and affection from Iturbide’s camera as a muxe (an indigenous transgender women from Juchitán) applying her makeup. Iturbide acknowledges the symbolism in everything, using shadows, reflections and isolated imagery to deepen the themes woven throughout her work.
For Iturbide, her fascination and drive to capture these rituals comes from within. She sees her photography, the very act of capturing and developing these powerful images, as a two part ritual on its own. The first part happens when she takes the photos, and the second part comes much later as she looks through her negatives. “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,” she explains in a quote that opens up the exhibition.
By displaying some of Iturbide’s most well known photos with their original contact sheets, NMWA is able to walk you through that second moment of discovery. Mujer Ángel, Desierto de Sonora, a truly striking image featuring a woman in a long dress walking through the desert with a boombox in her hand, is one of the few photos to get this treatment. Pairing two different sizes of this photo along with its contact sheets transports the viewer to Iturbide’s dark room. You can see her thought process in choosing one particular shot over another. In some instances, you can even see the shot she took immediately before and after the chosen final image, giving you a better sense of subject and their relationship with Iturbide.
This second dimension, which strangely feels like a manual version of Apple’s Live Photos, adds a playfulness to Iturbide’s often stark and sometimes serious portraiture. The famous Nuestra Señora de las Iguanas, in which Iturbide photographed an iguana seller on her way to the market, is an an unsmiling, yet saintlike image, but the contact sheet is filled with pictures of the seller laughing as the iguanas fall from her head. In these unpublished moments, you get a full sense of how much Iturbide engaged with and became apart of the communities she photographed, whether she’s capturing a goat sacrificing ritual in La Mixteca or a Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City.
Although, Iturbide’s photographs are just as often about her personal healing and processing as they are about chronicling the different facets of Mexico’s rituals and traditions. Her series on Mexico’s cultural relationship with death highlights sometimes dark and sometimes comedic images, while giving her the artistic space to process the loss of her young daughter. Similarly, through photos of Frida Kahlo’s bathroom (which Iturbide was commissioned to photograph after it had been locked away for fifty years), Iturbide uses Kahlo’s everyday objects (which include braces, crutches, hot water bottles and a bloodstained smock) to explore her own legacy as an artist.
In a way, stepping into Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico is like stepping into the mind of Iturbide herself. You see what she sees, you feel what she feels. Her process is your process.