Crazy From the Heat

Photographer Graciela Iturbide finds small truths -- and king-size eccentricities -- in the lives of Mexican villagers.

Ten Things I Hate About You
The photographs by Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide, on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art, highlight the problem confronting all urban outsiders who attempt to capture the ethos of a rural community. In this instance, the question is whether Iturbide can chronicle indigenous Zapotec and Seri life with a simplicity consistent with the speech patterns of these indigenous Mexican communities. The answer is that she can--and the wonder is that Iturbide surmounts this hurdle with such apparent ease that it's tempting to underestimate what she has achieved here. She's like a gardener who refuses to use fertilizer, instead planting her seeds in soil so naturally rich that growth is guaranteed.

Viewing photography as an aggressive act, the 57-year-old Iturbide lives among her subjects for weeks before trying to take pictures of them. She has photographed animals being slaughtered and has scandalized viewers with images like a hungry little girl staring excitedly at a flayed goat. She's been labeled a surrealist for capturing such images, and, as further support for the claim, one could add the funeral scene in this exhibit--which features an old woman playing a portable organ, while the branch of an overhanging tree appears to create a makeshift noose.

Others see Iturbide as another in the great line of Mexican folklorists that includes Diego Rivera. Her response to those who seek explanations of her artistic philosophy is worth quoting, because its directness and lack of pretense is vividly in evidence in the CMA exhibit: "Traveling to the villages, photographing their daily life, their rites; it is always the same."

The process may be the same, but because Iturbide chooses her locations and subjects with such care, the results are unpredictable. For example, in the CMA exhibit, we see girls on the cusp of womanhood standing next to impassive old women, a somber little girl standing alone in front of a household altar, two prematurely serious eight-year-old girls watching village elders walk by in a procession.

If photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson summed up his aesthetic with the famous phrase "the decisive moment," Iturbide seems to prefer the inscrutable moment. For, although the women and children who populate most of these photographs lend the images an immediate dynamism, Iturbide has a definite grotesque streak. (How could she not? She once discussed a proposed photographic series based on vultures, explaining that she liked the way they flew down and ate garbage.) She also owes a debt to the Latin-American literary genre of magical realism. Details in portraits reflect interior conflicts or mysterious signs of cultural malaise--a portly woman sporting a black mask to the puzzlement of a little girl; a man peering out of a window holding four fish, which seem in this context to sum up an entire life concerned with survival.

This is certainly the case in "Our Lady of the Iguanas, Juchitan, Oaxaca 1979." "Our Lady" is no saint--she's a middle-aged saleswoman with a headdress consisting of live iguanas. The low angle of the shot heightens her importance, though it's unclear whether in her own eyes or those of Iturbide. These are the kinds of ambiguities artists strive for all the time, and Iturbide is good at finding them. There is no background to speak of in the shot; all the focus is on this woman who, strong though she may be, is not exactly on holiday from her demons.

Diane Arbus, the American photographer who specialized in morbidities--glazed-eyed Yberpatriots and retardates were among her specialties--probably would have relished a session with this woman. One suspects, however, that Iturbide, unlike Arbus, would not view the vendor as a grotesque specimen to be examined like a bug under a microscope. This much is suggested by the matter-of-fact postmortem Iturbide once offered about the iguanas in response to a question. She simply explained that, to keep the lizards from biting, the vendor sewed their mouths shut. As to why the woman decided to use them as a hat in the first place, either Iturbide pled the fifth or her interlocutor didn't ask the next logical question.

Another example of Iturbide's ability to wring meaning from the oddities found in daily life is the portrait of the young girl on the brink of womanhood standing next to the old woman. In "Fifteen, Juchitan, Oaxaca 1986," the girl stands at the head of a doorway and is ready to enter a space that consists of whitewashed walls. She emerges from darkness and is literally standing at the doorway of adulthood which, because of the stark dividing line between the photo's black and white spaces, also takes on the character of a precipice. Iturbide further complicates things by setting up a series of frames that emphasize the symbolic import of the image. There is the frame of the photo itself hanging on the wall; the frame created by the doorway; and, finally, all the way at the back of the dark room, the window through which two children glance.

It's back to religion and grotesquerie for "First Communion, Chalma, State of Mexico 1984." Iturbide works skulls into many of her photographs, and they appear again in "Communion," which shows a woman wearing a frilly white dress and an enormous skull-shaped death mask--which, oddly enough, carries a skeletal smile. The woman is placed in context by an elaborate gate, the vertical columns of which echo her standing form. A young girl grinning from ear to ear totes an umbrella in the background (though there are no clouds in sight). Telephone wires provide another ironic touch, as though the communication they enable is being lost on the two women in this shot who, though both are smiling in their own way, are worlds apart.

This photograph, like some others in the CMA exhibit, reminds the viewer that, in Mexico, death and festivals are often synonymous, and rituals can help people deal with their fear of death.

"Communion" isn't the only photo in the Iturbide exhibit where symbols of technological advancement appear incongruous--not just telephone wires, but racing bicycles. Indeed, the story of how technology gently insinuates itself into the lives of people who did very well without it for many years is another angle in these multifaceted photographs. In "Angel Woman, Sonoma Desert 1979," a Seri woman dressed in traditional flowing white dress negotiates the side of a rocky hill. An expanse of empty desert awaits her on the right half of the frame. A long day's trek into night seems to await her, but at least she'll have company in the form of the boom box that she carries. (Once asked about this anomalous touch, Iturbide explained that the Seris were granted special fishing rights in the Baja California area and, as a result, were better off economically than many other indigenous groups in Mexico; hence the boom box.)

A rare kinship between photographer and subject shines through such amplifications. And this kinship is amply on display in all of the nineteen Iturbide photos at the art museum. Iturbide learned her lessons well in the desert. She's a non-interventionist gardener who allows her subject matter to flower on its own, sometimes from inauspicious beginnings. In a photographic landscape that is full of directorial artists who go for the broad gesture and are little interested in the quirks and tiny fissures that make people and objects interesting, Iturbide is a shining exception.

Visions of Mexico: Photographs by Graciela Iturbide, through June 2 at the Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Boulevard, 216-421-7340.

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