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


  1. Every nation had it's crack at ruling the world. Muslims, Romans, Russians, Mongols, Brazilians, Chinese, africans to name but a few. The common leftist inclination is there was only white empiricism, and everyone else was a poor peaceful victim of it.

    History shows Whites had several large empires, but paled in comparison to the hundreds of empires built by people of color. Whites had slavery, but people of color excelled at slavery, as they did it on a much grander scale and for much, much longer.

    I'll never be ashamed or apologies for being white. We are young pretenders compared to the bloody history of people of color on their quests for global conquest.

    1. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts @ridenar

      We should never be ashamed of who we are ... none of us! That's the whole point. Luckily we, as people living in the 21st century, are beyond 18th-19th century mindsets. We know better.

      You are right; history is full of tales of blood and violence, devastating stories of what kind of cruelness and hatred the "human race" is capable of... mostly utilized by leaders to keep the "common" people in their place. Using exclusion and discrimination always was and sadly still is the most accessible weapon of those in power to protect the status quo. I hope we have evolved to the point that we can see and know one another just as people with the same anxieties and joys in life.

    2. *apologize
      The very fact that you choose to identify as white while casting the empires of the history of the world as PoC shows that you have already adopted the white supremacist narrative (while bizarrely characterizing it as leftist). Yes, it's paradoxical that self-designated PoC are identifying themselves using the very same narrative, but it's in reaction to the system oppressing them, and they scarcely have any other frame of reference.
      The Chinese (over several incarnations), Mongols, Macedonians, Persians, Arabs, and Romans didn't have the same racial supremacist ideology that Western European empires did. Many were certainly highly chauvinist, but never to the degree of obsessing over phenotype.


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