A Shadow Born of Earth: New Photography in Mexico

June 5–September 15, 1996

Since the early part of this century, photography in Mexico has been dominated by a style closely associated with such artists as Tina Modotti and Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Reminiscent of a photojournalistic sensibility, this style of straight black-and-white photography arose in the mid-1920s and proved instrumental in the stylistic development of the medium in Mexico for the next sixty years. In the last decade, however, experimental approaches have contributed tremendously to the evolution of photography in that country. Not only are younger photographers investigating diverse, nontraditional means of creating and presenting imagery, but also, those committed to straight photography are imbuing their images with new meaning, as both kinds of photographers aim to create work relevant to the complex culture in which they live.

Whether working in traditional or experimental modes, contemporary Mexican photographers are frequently linked by similar iconography and concerns. Foremost among these is a keen awareness of their country’s remarkable cultural legacy and the powerful impact it has long had in forming a national identity. This cultural legacy includes the traditions of sophisticated pre-Hispanic cultures; the impact of colonization, Spanish culture, and Catholicism; a revolution early in this century that decisively altered the nation’s political, economic, and social frameworks; and the continuing presence of indigenous people—a constant reminder of the country’s rootedness to the past. Young Mexican photographers draw freely from their rich history, exploring issues of identity, spirituality, and the current state of Mexican society. Artistic movements and cultural philosophies that have arisen abroad, including feminism, conceptualism, and postmodernism, have also played a role in the work of the photographers represented here. Unlike their international counterparts, these artists also continually refer to broader issues: the need for greater social equality, the dignity of the individual, and the value of the natural world.

The Contemporary Social Document

Alicia Ahumada, Yolanda Andrade, Lourdes Grobet, and Eniac Martinez work with nonmanipulated photography. The work of Ruben Ortiz and Carlos Somonte is partially staged but closely based on reality. These photographers span two generations; while their work constitutes no school, movement, or style—they have different working methods, record a range of subject matter, and possess disparate aesthetic points of view—it is linked by the artists’ commitment to interpreting the character of life in contemporary Mexico. These photographers express the enormous economic, political, social, and spiritual problems that Mexico currently faces.

The Corporal Image: The Body as Metaphor

The theme of the human body—an integral and often controversial subject within mainstream contemporary art of the late 1980s and 90’s also occupied a central position in recent Mexican art. Like artists elsewhere, those in Mexico use their own or others’ bodies to explore issues such as gender, sexuality, politics, and societal norms. In Latin America, however, the body as subject conveys the concept of a fragmented identity. The great majority of Latin Americans today are mestizos, a people born from colonization, rupture, and suppression. Especially when depicted in fragments or with exposed organs, the body becomes a metaphorical wound and, concomitantly, a vehicle by which personal and cultural identity can be explored most potently. The representation of the body likewise conveys the quest for spirituality.

Marks of Faith: Images of Spirituality

The spiritual dimension of Mexican life is markedly greater than in the United States, or for that matter, any First World country. Specifically what that spirituality encompasses, however, is widely variable and open to interpretation. Since colonial times, the Mexican people have had a deep relation with Catholicism, and in some indigenous rural communities Christian beliefs are mixed with native influences to varying degrees. For example, in the state of Chiapas, the rituals carried out in ostensibly Catholic churches, can, to the outsider, only be peripherally associated with orthodox practice. Among intellectuals, spirituality is typically a highly personal quest, often connected to creative pursuits and to social activism. Although conducted outside the institutionalized church, such forms of spiritual exploration have ends similar to those of more conventional believers—to understand one’s place in the world and find solace and meaning where poverty and social conflict have long been close at hand. Many of the artists in this exhibition could rightly be included in this section; those assembled here, however, express some of the most prevalent themes related to spirituality in Mexico. In the cases of Germán Herrera and Gerardo Suter, the spiritual quest has meant looking back to Mexico’s ancient cultures and to their profound dependency both on the natural world and on a panoply of gods. Pablo Ortiz Monasterio and Adolfo Patio, in contrast, have each developed symbolic vocabularies to express the formative elements in their personal and artistic identities, including family, cultural icons, and artistic heroes.

Nature and Invention

In contrast to the United States or Europe, Mexico did not develop a strong tradition in landscape photography. This belies the fact that even before the Mexican Revolution, which was in large measure instigated by the needs of the masses of rural peasants and for agrarian land reform policies, the land has functioned as an emotional emblem of nationhood fraught with social, political, cultural, and spiritual significance. The importance of landscape photography has been overshadowed by the great tradition of photographic social documentation until a new generation of photographers and other artists began experimenting with ideas, media, and subject matter relating to the natural world. Many photographers, notably Jesus Sanchez Uribe and Salvador Lutteroth in his work of the 1980s, use elements of nature in constructed images as a way of commenting on aspects of traditional Mexican culture. In her ritualistic performances and subsequent photographic documentation, Eugenia Vargas has used earth and water as metaphors for Mexico’s acute environmental crisis and to explore humanity’s physical and spiritual dependency on the earth. Both Jan Hendrix and Laura Cohen use nature in their formal investigations; yet Cohen’s precisely arranged mise-en-scènes also allude to varied psychological states.

The exhibition is organized and circulated by the American Federation of Arts. It is sponsored by a generous grant from Professional Imaging, Eastman Kodak Company. Additional support has been provided by the Benefactors Circle of the AFA.

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