Urgent Museum Notice

Beyond Documentation: Graciela Iturbide and the Seri

Blog Category:  NMWA Exhibitions
A black-and-white photograph shows the back of a woman as she crests a rocky path above a vast desert landscape beneath an expansive sky. Her traditional, ethnic full skirt, long-sleeved blouse, and long, straight, dark hair contrasts with the modern portable stereo she carries.

One of the most influential contemporary photographers of Latin America, Graciela Iturbide has produced majestic and powerful images of her native Mexico for the past 50 years. Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico is the artist’s most extensive U.S. exhibition in more than two decades, comprising 140 black-and-white prints that reveal the artist’s own journey to understand her homeland and the world.

A black and white portrait of a medium-dark skinned woman cropped closely from the chest up. The woman looks directly at the camera as the wind blows her black hair and lace veil to the right. She wears a collared shirt accented with a boxed stripe design and face paint of dots and lines.
Graciela Iturbide, Angelita, Sonoran Desert, 1979; Gelatin silver print, 8 ⅛ x 12 ⅛ in.; Courtesy of the artist; © Graciela Iturbide; Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Seri are an indigenous group that lives in the Sonoran Desert of northwestern Mexico, along the Gulf of California near the U.S.–Mexico border. In 1979, with anthropologist Luis Barjau, Graciela Iturbide (b. 1942) stayed with the Seri community for more than two months, recording their lives with her camera—particularly their forced adaptation to modern life, which began in the 1940s.

Commissioned by the Mexican government, the project was initially designed to document the once-nomadic indigenous population. Yet Iturbide’s works extend beyond documentation: embracing an empathetic approach to photography, she seeks to see and learn through her subjects’ eyes. “I lived with them in their homes, so they would see me always with my camera and know that I am a photographer. In this way, we were able to become partners,” Iturbide said.

Iturbide’s time with the Seri culminated in a book, Los que viven en la arena (Those Who Live in the Sand). According to the artist, she had selected the photographs and the book was all laid out when fellow photographer and book editor Pablo Ortiz Monasterio noticed on her contact sheets the image of an ethereal woman seeming to fall into infinite space. This “discovery” would become one of Iturbide’s most famous photographs, Mujer ángel (Angel Woman) (1979).

This photograph presents a seemingly contradictory image. A woman in traditional Seri dress walks down to the empty desert plain holding her boom-box, a reminder of the technological and material influence of the United States on her indigenous culture. The title transforms the figure into a celestial being: we cannot see her face, and she appears to be floating into another realm, arms spread and hair blowing in the wind.

A black and white portrait of a light skinned woman, cropped from the chest up. She wears a collared shirt accented with a boxed stripe design. She looks directly at the camera; painted lines, one dotted, run across the bridge of her nose, and small triangles are painted on her cheeks.
Graciela Iturbide, Autorretrato como Seri (Self-Portrait as Seri), Sonoran Desert, 1979; Gelatin silver print, 6 ¾ x 6 ¾ in.; Courtesy of the artist; © Graciela Iturbide; Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Other photographs highlight daily life, the landscape, and Seri customs. In Saguaro, Sonoran Desert (1979), a large cactus becomes a pedestal for a flock of black crows; in the distance, the dry desert landscape unfolds. With no people in the photo, and no markers of the encroachment of the modern world, viewers may be left to consider this harsh climate that the Seri people call home and nature’s dominance.

In both Angelita (1979) and Autoretrato como Seri (Self-Portrait as Seri) (1979), Iturbide shows traditional Seri face painting—on both a Seri woman and herself, an outsider. This was a sign of Iturbide’s acceptance into the community, as the Seri women asked to paint her face as they did their own. Iturbide does not exoticize or mimic the practice. Instead, this self-portrait represents her own self-interrogation and integration with her role as a photographer in the indigenous community.

*Unless otherwise noted, information is adapted from Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico: Photographs, by Kristen Gresh, with an essay by Guillermo Sheridan.

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