Pictures of Change

Photographer Graciela Iturbide examines what it really means to be Mexican’A woman makes her way through the dry brush of Mexico’s Sonora Desert, her long, white dress catching on the passing scrub, waist-long brown hair scattered by the elements on the open, rocky plain. In the midst of the rough, rural landscape the traditional is starkly interrupted by the modern. In her hand, she holds a portable stereo–a modern day boom-box.

Through the eyes of photographer Graciela Iturbide, Mexico is a nation in transition. The striking black and white photograph titled “Mujer Angel (Angel woman)” represents the fascinating contradiction and irony of contemporary Mexican culture. It is a merger of history, storytelling and captivating imagery that highlights the strange contrasts of cultural change in a struggling nation.

Iturbide has spent nearly three decades examining the issues that surround daily Mexican life, capturing on film the simplicity, the diversity and the profundity of Mexican culture in its continual state of alteration. Her latest collection of photographs entitled Images of the Spirit: Photographs by Graciela Iturbide is currently on display at the Glenbow Museum as part of the ¡Viva Mexico! exhibit, bringing Calgarians a new perspective on the paradox of Mexican life.

“We wanted to develop a series of exhibitions around Mexico and to explore some of the country’s diverse cultural aspects,” mentions Glenbow Museum’s Art Curator Kirstin Evenden. “However, we wanted to explore some of the lesser known aspects of Mexico.”

The collection, comprised of 80 silver gelatin prints, encompasses all of the stark contrasts that characterize Mexico. It examines contemporary Mexican culture as being sin fronteras, without borders. From the victory of Mexican culture in the barrios of East Los Angeles to the routine ceremonial practices of the Zapotec Indian, Iturbide strives to convey the idea that Mexican culture is not constrained to a single time or place.

“To Iturbide, Mexico is an idea and a sentiment not just tied to a geographical location,” points out Evenden. “She aims to document the shifting notions of Mexican identity and discover what Mexico is to the Mexican people.”

“The occupation of Mexico during the sixteenth century forever altered the cultural and religious landscape that existed prior to the arrival of the Spaniards,” says Tannis Booth, Communications Specialist for the Glenbow Museum. “And modern Mexico is inextricably bound to ideas about its mestizaje, or mixed cultural genesis. As a result [Iturbide’s work] depicts such themes as collaborative efforts and communal perseverance, the decisive role of women and the passion play of popular Catholicism.”

Born in Mexico’s capital city in 1942, Iturbide first turned to photography out of tragedy. Married at the age of 20 and mother of three children, Iturbide found herself struggling to live up to the pressures of upper middle class family life. Following the death of her six-year-old daughter, Iturbide began to examine life through new eyes. In her early artistic career, Iturbide was influenced significantly by two of the most celebrated Mexican photographers to precede her: Tina Modotti and Manuel Alvarez Bravo, both of whom are recognized as vastly important socially concerned photographers. Working as Alvarez Bravo’s assistant in the early 1970s, she began to dedicate her interest and talent to photography.

“Graciela Iturbide’s work is a mixture of history, lyricism, surrealism and portraiture,” believes Booth “[It is] influenced by the philosophical teachings of Mexico’s photographic master, Manuel Alvarez Bravo and the innovative, sensual work of Frida Kahlo.”

Following in the footsteps laid out by her mentors, Iturbide became predominantly interested in documenting Mexico’s indigenous groups and in the tumultuous events that characterized the nation’s cultural state. From political upheaval to violent demonstrations and intellectual uprisings, Iturbide immersed herself in the endless cultural dichotomy that exemplifies her county. Many of the photographs included in Images of the Spirit arose from Iturbide’s desire to illustrate the struggle between contemporary and traditional forces in recent Mexican society.

“I don’t pretend to make my photographs speak the truth of what Mexico is all about,” said Iturbide in a 1998 interview with Smithsonian Magazine. “But in its villages I can feel the way culture is changing, and it’s fascinating to live through it and try to capture it on camera.”

The diverse and contradictory nature of Mexican life was captured by Iturbide in the captivating photograph entitled “Nuestra Señora de las Iguanas (Our Lady of the Iguanas)” taken in the Oaxaca region of Mexico in 1979. The image encapsulates the daily activity of a Juchitán woman who is transporting live iguanas on her head to be sold at the local market.

“This image demonstrates how Iturbide transforms the ordinary into the surreal,” expresses Booth. “[She] represents cultural amalgamations that are not a thing of the past but a series of changes still in the making.”

”It is wonderful to have a series of exhibitions at our museum which bring some other sources of information and impressions of Mexico,” says an enthusiastic Dr. Denise Brown, a University of Calgary Professor. “Mexico ‘is an extremely diverse and stimulating place, and such exhibits provide us with the opportunity to learn more about Mexico and contemplate the complexity of such a place.”

Brown, who is also head of the Latin American studies program, believes that Mexico holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Calgarians.

“Mexico seems to provoke wonderful and vivid memories and conjure up fantastic images for many Canadians in general,” she adds. “This exhibit reaffirms the importance that Mexico has to people not only across the country but also in our own city.”

The Glenbow exhibit, including the Iturbide collection eloquently reveals the diversity of contemporary Mexican life. It captivates the viewer, drawing them into a world where transition and contradiction are commonplace and the simple, everyday aspects of life are the fuel for such profound and thoughtful art as the photography of Graciela Iturbide. Her elegant and entrancing prints beautifully highlight not only the stark contrasts that exist in the modern nation, but also the subtle nuances of Mexican culture and its traditions, enveloping Calgary in the sounds, smells, rhythms and cultural heritage of the great nation of Mexico

The Glenbow Museum is Western Canada’s largest museum and is located at 130 9 Avenue SW.

Images of the Spirit will be on display until February 17, 2003. For more information contact the Glenbow Museum at 268-4100 or visit

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