Wednesday, July 18, 2018

From Colonial America to MAGA the Subtle "Art" of Upholding White Supremacy

All photos are by the author unless specified,
Painted in Mexico 1700-1790: Pinxit Mexici, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
While art museums are clamoring for more attention and visitors, the Met missed an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the relevance of museums regarding current events with an exhibition that is closing this weekend. Painted in Mexico 1700-1790: Pinxit Mexici is an exhibit that everyone should see and preferably with their conservative uncle or neighbor who voted for the candidate that called all Mexicans criminals, all Muslims terrorists while defining Neo-Nazis as 'fine people.' Identity politics is coming to define this strange time we are living in. From the Muslim Ban to the separation of families seeking asylum, the criminalization and use of unnecessary force towards African Americans are all being justified and sustained by playing into people’s fear of 'the other.' 'The other' in these scenarios is unruly, dangerous and a threat to what is being described as 'our values' and 'our society.'

Painted in Mexico 1700-1790: Pinxit Mexici
If we were to scratch to see what is underneath the concepts of 'their values' and 'their society' we would find a world where the white conservative Christians dominated the land and all the people inhabiting it. It was always this way from the foundation of the United States, and yet it is not so anymore. In a society of immigrants composed of races and ethnicities from all over the world and the percentage of multiracial children increasing tenfold in the past four decades, how can the conservative white Christians continue to remain supreme? The answer is simple - by systemic exclusion according to race, religion, and ethnicity. There is hope for that conservative uncle or neighbor, and Met’s Painted in Mexico exhibit provides a page out of history with a visual manifestation of the tools used to protect the status quo of white supremacy from the time when America, the country, was still in its infancy - that page is illustrated with casta paintings.

Manuel de Arellano,
Rendering of a Mulatta, 1711
Unknown artist,
Morisca Woman and Albino Girl, ca. 1750

Casta paintings are a genre of art from 18th century colonial Mexico, that is both horrific and extraordinary for their reflection of a régime that tried to control and codify its population based on race. These works of art depict what systemic white supremacy looked like in the 18th century. 

Due to their multi-religious population of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, the 16th century Spanish were obsessed with the purity of blood, pureza de sangre, indicating no Jewish or Muslim lineage, which translated in the colonies as no native or slave blood. This was the justification for the discriminatory and segregation laws implemented against those individuals who 'lacked' the moral and physical purity of the gente de casta limpia (people of pure caste). The Spanish accepted the Indians to be of 'pure caste' as well, but they were considered to be gente sin razón, (people without reason) while the black subjects were referred to as infames por derecho (legally debased) due to their slave status or origins. 

Miguel Cabrera
6. From Spaniard and Morisco, Albino Girl, 1763
Official policies for segregation that determined people’s political, economic and social positions according to their race in New Spain were easier said than done. This was a complex society with a multiracial population that had been living together, forming unions and creating multiracial generations for more than a century. Beginning to sound familiar?

Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz, IX. From Spaniard and Albino Woman, Return Backwards, ca. 1760
But the Viceroyalties of the Spanish Empire were up to the task and created a hierarchical system of race classifications that were condensed to categories which resemble mathematical equations that included more than thirty different combinations:
Españoles (Spaniards); Peninsulares (Spaniards or other Europeans born in Europe); Criollos (Spaniards or other Europeans born in the Americas); Indios (Native Americans or Amerindians); Mestizos (mix of Amerindian and European), Castizos (mix or European and Mestizo); Cholos (mix of Amerindian and Mestizo); Pardos (mixed European, African and Amerindian); Mulatos (African and European); Zambos (Amerindian and African); Negros (Africans) 

Attributed to Jose de Ibarra, From Spaniard and Mulatta, Morisca, ca. 1730
Women of African origin wore a distinct overblouse, called a manga. According to a contemporaneous author
"Unabe to wear Spanish-style dress... and disdainful of the clothing worn by Indian women, [these women] move about the city dressed so extravagantly, wearing a skirt draped over their shoulders, as if it were a mantle."*

Although their original intent is still a bit ambiguous, the casta paintings can be interpreted as the visual manifestations of the caste system determined by the administrators of New Spain which were needed to control a heterogeneous population with fluid boundaries.

Anonymous, Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlán, Mexico, Public Domain
Produced as a series of sixteen paintings or as a single canvas with sixteen vignettes, the first in the series is always the union of a Spaniard male and an Amerindian female with their offspring called a mestizo. A Spaniard and mestiza produce a castizo, and the list progressed all the way down to mixed races such as No te entiendo (I-Don’t-Understand-You) and an Amerindian producing Torna atrás (Return-Backwards). While the numbered and textually inscribed paintings created the impression of a hierarchically constructed, highly ordered society, the names given to the inter-ethnic, biracial individuals revealed the anxieties related to the mixed-race unions.

Juan Patricio Morelte Ruiz,
X. From Spaniard and Return Backwards, Hold Yourself Suspended in Midair, ca. 1760
The casta paintings situated the individual's station in society according to their different values, trades, and environments. The Europeans, Españoles or the Peninsulares, are depicted in high social positions, inhabiting pleasant interiors, wearing fine clothing, and displaying elegant, restrained manners while the darker subjects tended to be set in public spaces sometimes wearing torn or little clothing with undisciplined and passionate gestures. The racial traits depicted were visual markers of the assumed difference between the 'civilized' and the 'uncivilized' people and a vital tool of exclusion that determined where they belonged socially, and legally in society. 

Attributed to José de Ibarra
Mexican Indians, ca. 1730
The woman in the humble family group wears a hupil (native blouse) over a striped petticoat.*

Attributed to José de Ibarra
Barbarian Indians, ca. 1730
Stereotype of the indigenous population who did not convert to Christianity was depicted as wild and dangerous.*
 White identity politics using racial stereotypes, to discriminate and exclude 'the other' have been upholding the status quo for centuries, not only in America but globally. Even though we use the word 'race' all the different variants of religion, ethnicity and culture have been confluenced with race to create the racist narratives of today's populist politicians. Ironically, concurrently with the rise in racist and exclusionary politics, scientists are arguing that the concept of race is a social construct and it should not be used as agents of genetic diversity.  So how is the supremacy of the white race to be substantiated if it does not even exist? Also, if they do decide to Make America Great (White) Again by keeping 'the others' out, how will they determine who has the 'purity of blood'? A simple DNA test may reveal that the cantankerous uncle or the racist neighbor may be more closely related to the unwanted 'other' for comfort.  These are the things to consider before deciding to create hierarchies of color, ethnicity, and religion in today's societies. For those who are still not convinced, I want to share a contemporary work that talks back to white identity politics in the most wonderfully concise way - The Humanae Project.

Angélica Dass, Humanae Project
Angélica Dass is a Brazilian photographer whose work, Humanae Project, is a subversive response to the idea of categorizing people according to their color, and for the sake of my argument, casta paintings.  In her ongoing project, Dass photographed more than 3000 people of a kaleidoscope of colors from 14 different countries. She matches each person to a Pantone Color and takes a photo of their face that demonstrates how unique each individual is. When asked why she chose the face as opposed to another body part, she replies that the face changes color according to our health, what we consume or even the climate. She asks:
Why do we continue discussing the color of 'the other' if our own color changes?
I don't think I need to say anymore. Dass' work does not require any prior knowledge or interpretation - it speaks for itself.

Angélica Dass, the Politics of Color
* Gallery Label, Painted in Mexico 1700-1790: Pinxit Mexici, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Mexico 1900 -1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Jóse Clemente Orozco, and the Avant-Garde" at the Dallas Museum of Art

Diego Rivera, Río Juchitán / Juchitán River, 1953-55
(Museo Nacional de Arte, INBA, Mexico City)
Part of a transportable mural, Río Juchitán, is a Costumbrista scene, depicting the local and daily life of the indigenous population of the Tehuantepec Isthmus in southern Mexico.

 The orgy of colors and array of avant-garde works on display at the special exhibition on Mexican Art from 1900 -1950 at the Dallas Museum of Art can arouse a sense of wonder even in the uninitiated. The exhibition "Mexico 1900 -1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Jóse Clemente Orozco, and the Avant-Garde” is a show of more than 200 or so works including painting, sculpture, drawings, photography, and film display the prolific Mexican School of Painting from the first half of the twentieth century. The impressive exhibition tells the story of a people not only well-versed in the different art movements from around the world but more importantly who created a visual language that tells the story of their cultural heritage.

Tiburcio Sánchez de la Barquera, Portrait of the Escandón Arango Family (Retrato de la familia Escandón Arango), 1867
Upon entering the first part of the exhition, the visitor is greeted by a 19th century portrait of the Escandón Arango Family painted in the traditional style of European aristocratic family portraits. The  idealized group of fair skinned and blond children in fashionable clothing in the style of those worn in the French court depicted in the park of their family estate with neoclassical architecture and European sculpture is invaluable for seeing and comparing the evolution of Mexican art as well as the sociopolitical history of the country. Those with European ancestry had always been at the top of the social hierarchy of Colonial Mexico and this particular painting made during the reign of Maximillian I, who gained political power through the aid of Napoleon III, shows the influence of France on the ruling elite of Mexican society.

Jean Charlot, Dance of the Malinches, 1926
After the Mexican Revolution which began in 1910, a nation in search of itself utilized art in the formation of a cohesive Mexican identity that priviledged the cultural heritage of the country's Pre-Columbian past.  José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera were the artists of the revolution who worked on major mural projects for the government to create a visual nationalist message. The exhition "Mexico 1900- 1950" focuses mainly on easel paintings which also use the same subject matter as murals, portraying Costumbrista scenes depicting local and regional daily life with the archtypes of the indigenous society as the main protagonists. The brown skin of the local population that was seen as inferior for so long became the ideal that was celebrated in the work of the artists of the time. Everything from the traditional clothing, accessories and hairstyles to the daily activities and even poses recalling Pre-Columbian sculpture which became the elements of the visual language of Mexican art contributes to the excitement of this exhibition. 

Alfredo Ramos Martínez, Mexican Adam and Eve (Adán y Eva mexicanos), 1933
(Private Collection, Dallas, TX)
Although the exhibition is organized thematically, displaying the correlation and influence of Mexican Modernism to different art movements taking place in Europe and the United States, there is a very singular character to the art works on display. While Frida Kahlo is one of the big names that has top billing in the show with The Two Fridas the most popular with art lovers and photo takers alike, this exhibit was particularly impressive for the amount of women artists as well as the representation of women included. Besides the wonderfully creativite and thought-provoking works on display, I was especially excited to note one of my theories regarding cultural heritage proven right - No matter how severely those in control try to superimpose a different religion or a culture on a society, the authentic culture of the land will always survive and appear in the rituals, traditions and the art of the people.  Please join me in a tour of one of the most exhilarating exhibitions in America today... the way I experienced it.

Diego Rivera, Río Juchitán / Juchitán River, 1953-55

Francisco Zúñiga, Group of Women, 1974
(Museo Nacional de Arte, INBA, Mexico City)

Roberto Montenegro, People from Tehuantepec, 1932
(San Antonio Museum of Art)
Head of the rain god Tlaloc and Two frogs, Mixtec culture,
Late Postclassical period, c. A.D. 1300-1500
(Dallas Museum of Art)


Ramón Cano Manilla, Indian Woman from Oaxaca (India oaxaqueña), 1928
(Museo Nacional de Arte, INBA, Mexico City)

Abraham Ángel, The Indian Woman (La india) 1923
(Museo Nacional de Arte, INBA, Mexico City)
Mardonio Magaña, Man in Serape and Hat (Hombre con sarape y sombrero) c. 1935
(Museo Nacional de Arte, INBA, Mexico City)

Alberto Garduño, The Red Serape (El sarape rojo) c. 1918
(Andrés Blaisten Collection)
Diego Rivera, The Pinole Seller
(Vendedora de pinole) 1924
Francisco Díaz de León, Indian Women on Market Day (Indias en dia de mercado), 1922
(Andrés Blaisten Collection)

Diego Rivera, Woman Grinding Maze (La molendera) 1924


José Clemente Orozco, The Women Soldiers (Las soldaderas), 1926
(Museo de Arte Moderno, INBA, Mexico City)

José Clemente Orozco, Zapatistas (Desfile zapatista), c. 1930
(Private Collection)


Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas (Los dos Fridas), 1939
(Museo de Arte Moderno, INBA, Mexico)
The largest canvas painted by Kahlo, The Two Fridas, painted after her divorce from Diego Rivera is one of the show's most populat attractions. A picture of duality, the painting has been interpreted as representing her resilience due to the connection between the Frida holding Diego's miniature portrait as a child with a vein running through to the Frida whose heart has been ripped open yet clamps down with a hemostat to stop the bleeding from her vein.

Double Portrait of Diego and Me
(Doble retrato Diego y yo)
, 1944
(Private Collection)
Self-Portrait, Very Ugly
(Autorretrato muy fea)
(Private Collection)
Portrait of Lucha Maria, a Tehuana Girl or Sun and Moon (Niña tehuacana, Lucha María o Sol y luna), 1942
(Pérez Simón Collection, Mexico)
Sun and Life (Sol y vida) 1947


Rosa Rolanda, Self-Portrait (Autorretrato)
María Izquierdo, Self-Portrait (Autorretrato) 1946
(Private Collection)
Nahui Olin, Nahui and Lizardo before the Bay of Acapulco
(Nahui y Lizardo frente a la bahía de Acapulco),
(Museo de Arte Moderno, INBA, Mexico City)
Nahui Olin, Self-Portrait as Schoolgirl in Paris 
(Autorretrato como colegiala en Paris)
(Drexel Gallery)


David Alfaro Siqueiros, Portrait of Maria Asúnsolo Descending a Staircase
(Retrato de Maria  Asúnsolo bajando la escalera), 1935
Maria Asúnsolo, the figure portrayed in this painting was a very important patron of the arts and a collector who bequethed most of her collection to public instutions. 
Ramón Alva de la Canal, Nobody's Cafe (El café de nadie) 1930
Germán Cueto, Head (Cabeza) 1924
(Ysabel Galón Collection)
David Alforo Siqueiros, Fire (Fuego) 1939
Head on Back Paper (Cabeza sabre papel negro) c. 1939
"One cannot play revolutionary music on  a church organ."
Roberto Montenegro, Portrait of Gabriel Fernández Ledesma, 1921 

Diego Rivera, Calla Lily Vendor (Vendedora de alcatraces) 1942
(Banco Nacional de México, S.A.)

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Let's Celebrate Spring and Rebirth with the Impressionists

Claude Monet, Jeanne-Marguerite Lecadre in the Garden, 1866
(Hermitage Museum, St. Peterburg)
After months of freezing cold and rain of biblical proportions, spring seems to have arrived. Looking out the window and seeing bright sunshine, being able to finally put away my dark, heavy coat and seeing flowers bloom everywhere gives me the little kid going out to play kind of happiness. I can hardly sit still. There is a bigger, a deeper reason for recognizing the beauty of the weather, the flowers, and the birds and the bees. We are living through such dark and unhappy times that we need to get any kind of joy wherever we can get it. I am sick of being the victim of political opportunism at every turn, war, death and a world that lacks concern for the whole of humanity. So, enough of all of that. Let’s enjoy this very moment when the sun is shining bright and the birds are singing so loud you would think there was a competition to who can announce, “Spring is here!” the best and the loudest. Spring is the time of rebirth and on a day when the Christians are celebrating the resurrection, and a major referendum can determine the future of secular, democratic Turkish Republic, I just want to be able to hope for a better tomorrow.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Promenade, 1876
(The Getty Museum)
I am no singer or artist but merely an observer of life. On my more fanciful days, I like to think of myself as a flâneuse… one who strolls the city to observe. Not getting involved but merely seeing and taking note of all the happenings in the urban environment of modernity. Spring always puts me in the mind of the Impressionists. It may be due to the weather allowing me the opportunity to stroll along city streets and observe the interactions of humanity with their urban environment, or it may simply be the colors and the light that was the trademark of the impressionists. No matter what it is, I am in the mind of a flâneur and want to stroll the internet to visualize the season in terms of Impressionist paintings.

Camille Pissarro, Boulevard Montmartre Spring, 1897
(Private Collection) 
The Impressionist paintings were a visual manifestation of modern life. They captured instantaneous moments of modernity with staccoto brushstrokes and a variety of subjects that captured the effects of industrialization in France and especially Paris. The invention of portable tubes for oil paints, allowed them to paint en plen air, and produce paintings that told the story of and would appeal to the emerging bourgeoisie class. The Industrial revolution beget factories that created a new working class and advances in technology such as trains, which effected the way people could travel. The concept of leisure time as well as how and where one spent that time emerged along with the visibility of the working classes in some type of leisurely pursuit. These elements of modernity contributed to the subjects of Impressionist paintings.

Claude Monet, Women in the Garden, 1866
(Musee d'Orsay)
Impressionists painted nature and light, how light touched upon different surfaces and changed,  producing a variety of colors, as the sun made its progression from morning to night. Fashionably dressed men and women displayed in gardens, fields and conservatories became another one of their favorite subjects. La mode (fashion) as a harbinger of modernity due to the birth of department stores and ready-made fashions as well as the elegant Parissiene could be seen as the main protagonists of paintings by Monet, Renoir and Manet.  

Édouard Manet, Jeanne (Spring), 1881
(The Getty Museum)
I must add the two female Impressionists, Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morissot, who produced a large body of work that also included parent and child themes. Mary Cassatt posed her family members, and children in their natural habitat doing their daily pursuits. There are mother and child paintings with women sewing, reading or bathing their children, and even titled, Woman and Child in the  Driving Seat. It is interesting to note the perspective of a woman on a woman's pursuits and spaces as opposed to the more romanticized, sexualized or oppressed male versions. 

Mary Cassatt, Auguste Reading to her Daughter, 1910
(Private Collection)

Berthe Morisot has a special place in my heart for reversing the traditional mother-child genre by painting her daughter with her husband Eugene Manet. These women were part of the Impressionists due to their use of color and paint techniques but their point of view in regards to the people and places of modernity differed revealing a more insightful picture. 

Berthe Morisot, Eugene and his Daughter in the Garden, 1883
(Private Collection)
These were not the only subject matters that the Impressionists limited themselves to but they are the first ones that come to my mind on this beautiful spring morning. As I listen to the birds sing and look out at the budding tree full of green leaves of promise outside my window, I visualize the world in terms of Impressionist paintings and for just this moment forget the darkness and the chaos that is consuming our world.

I will borrow from the 17th century English poet, Robert Herrick and for today, will interpet them to suit my purpose and say…
Gather your rose buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

Enjoy life, enjoy spring, enjoy the sunshine while you have it.  

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