Graciela Iturbide at Taka Ishii Gallery Photography / Film

In an exhibition titled “Graciela Iturbide  1969–1990” at Taka Ishii Gallery’s dedicated photography and film space in Tokyo, 19 works by prolific Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide are currently on view providing an introduction to Iturbide’s extensive body of work photographing marginalized indigenous communities in Mexico. The exhibition marks the first appearance of her photographs at Taka Ishii Gallery and apart from her participation in the 2013 Chobi Mela VII International Festival of Photography in Dhaka, where she was endowed the Lifetime Achievement Award, Iturbide’s works have rarely received exposure in Asia.

Born in Mexico City in 1942, Iturbide grew up in a large conservative family of 12 siblings. As a child, she found a love for poetry and began looking for it everywhere as she grew up; be it in music, literature or films such as those by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. In 1969, Iturbide enrolled in cinematography at the Universitario de Estudios Cinematograficos of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, to pursue her dream of becoming a film director. It was during this period that two incidents occurred in her life that would eventually make a profound contribution to her career in photography: first was the death of her daughter at the age of six in an accident in 1970 just as Iturbide had begun experimenting in photography; second, around the same time, was her recognition by Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Iturbide was a student of Bravo when he recognized her talent—she was soon made the senior’s assistant and would go on, for the next two years, to travel with him to areas inhabited by Mexico’s indigenous people.

GRACIELA ITURBIDE, Mujer, Seri desierto de Sonora, 1979, gelatin silver print, 22.5 × 19 cm. © Graciela Iturbide / Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery Photography / Film, Tokyo. 

GRACIELA ITURBIDE, Convento de Hidalgo, 1981, gelatin silver print, 17.5 × 26 cm. © Graciela Iturbide / Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery Photography / Film, Tokyo

Iturbide’s first major photography project came when she received a commission from the National Indigenous Institute of Mexico (INI) to create a series of photographs on an indigenous group of her own choosing and, working in collaboration with a writer, produce a book on the subject. Iturbide selected the Seri, a group of some 500 seminomadic people living in the Sonoran desert in the northwestern part of Mexico. The project culminated in the extraordinary book “Los que viven en la arena (Those Who Live in the Sand)(1981), with anthropologist Luis Barjau as the writer.

At first glance, the book seems like a perfect anthropological study of the Seri; heightened by the use of black and white in all of the images, it seems to fit seamlessly into the documentary genre. However, Iturbide’s images are not a literal description of the Seri’s way of life nor was it an attempt to expose some hidden truth about this group. Instead the body of work reveals a deeply personal and intuitive way of recording the subjects in front of her lens, often metaphorical and poetic, to an extent that some of the portraits appear almost mystical. The work appeals on an emotional level and at the same time, raises questions about the society and culture of her subjects. It particularly sheds light on the growing division between an ancestral past and the new customs brought on by modernization. Much of these social tensions were repeated and became more evident in Iturbide’s subsequent photographic studies on indigenous Mexican people.

In 1979, Iturbide began visiting the Zapotec Indian community in Juchitan, in the southern state of Oaxaca, upon an invitation by the Mexican painter Francisco Toledo, who was born in Juchitan himself. For the next ten years, Iturbide traveled regularly to this part of the country and even lived among some of the women she photographed, whom she described as strong and independent. She took great inspiration from discovering that here, it was the women who were in charge of family, religion and business matters; a world apart from the rest of the country which prides itself on a culture of machismo. As she neared the completion of this series, Iturbide aptly titled it “Juchitan de las Mujeres (Juchitan, A Town of Women)” (1989). Among some of the more significant portraits in this series are: Nuestra señora de las iguanas (Our Lady of the Iguanas) (1979), a head shot of a heavyset, middle-aged woman looking proud and completely unfazed by the six iguanas writhing directly on top of her head; Magnolia (1986), an intriguing portrait of a transvestite whom Iturbide befriended; and El Rapto (The Abduction) (1986), which depicts a young girl lying in bed, her coverings adorned with flowers. El Rapto (The Abduction) provides a rare glimpse into one of the unusual customs practiced by some of the indigenous people in Mexico, whereby a boy would abduct the girl he intends to marry as a prelude to a formal marriage vow, all planned and consented by both parties and their families.

GRACIELA ITURBIDE, Alcaravan, Juchitan, 1985, gelatin silver print, 20.5 × 30.5 cm. © Graciela Iturbide / Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery Photography / Film, Tokyo

Iturbide has won may accolades, among them the prestigious Hasselblad Foundation Photography Award (2008) and the Cornell Capa Lifetime Achievement Award (2015). She has held solo exhibitions at prestigious venues such as the Tate Modern (2013) and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1990), among others. Interestingly, in 2005, Iturbide was also the first photographer to be allowed to enter and photograph the bathroom of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, which her husband Diego Rivera had shuttered for more than 50 years following her death in 1954. 

In essence, throughout Iturbide’s body of work spanning over four decades, her portraits remain to be some of the finest on a personal level. It shows the subjects in all their uniqueness, revealing a strong individual spirit within the context of its rich religious and cultural symbolism, and by doing so, she transcends the simple description of a given people and conveys the range of emotions common to all humanity.

GRACIELA ITURBIDE, Graciela Iturbide “Graciela Iturbide 1969 – 1990″, installation view at Taka Ishii Gallery Photography / Film, Apr 2 – May 14, 2016, Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery Photography / Film, Tokyo / Photo: Kenji Takahashi

Billy Kung is photo editor at ArtAsiaPacific.