Multichromatic History

Mexichrome: Photography and Color in Mexico is the first exhibition to present the rich history of multi-chromatic image-making in the country. Many will be aware of lens-based artists working in black and white, such as Tina Modotti and Graciela Iturbide. However, works in colour have gained far less attention. Before the 1980s, the high costs associated with this style discouraged local lens-based practitioners. Fine artists and photojournalists were also reluctant to explore this approach because many believed that essential truths could only be conveyed in monochrome. Now, the Museum of the Palace of Fine Arts and Fundación Televisa enrich our understanding of Mexican photographic history through a comprehensive survey of 180 prints from the last century. The show is organised into eight themes: the landscape; the prehispanic past; the painted walls; anthropology; modern architecture; anxiety and violence; markets and trade and religion and ceremony. It follows technical evolutions and highlights key instances where colour plays an essential role in telling the story of an image. It is the result of a three-year long research project led by art scholar and curator James Oles. Mexichrome invites us to witness rare and important work produced since the invention of Kodak’s first colour film more than eight decades ago.

The exhibition opens with a famous Mexican photograph. Two women emerge from the right corner of the frame. Their hands extend towards the soldier in the centre. One hand grasps the strap around his shoulder whilst another grips his throat. The image, taken by photojournalist Pedro Valtierra (b. 1955), is titled Women ofX’oyep, Acteal, Chiapas, January 3 1998. It shows Indigenous women resisting Mexican soldiers in the aftermath of the Acteal massacre on 22 December 1997. Enabled by the government, the paramilitary group Máscara Roja murdered 45 members of the pacifist group Las Abejas as they were attending a prayer meeting. In the gallery, we see the monochromatic version of Valtierra’s shot which covered front pages of the newspaper la Jornada. Colour serves as not only a reminder that these events are recent history, but contributes to the overall poignancy of this photograph. The central figure is dressed in varying shades of green that match the gun at his hip. His helmet corresponds with many others in the background. The women wear clothes in blue, red and white. There are only a few of them in a scene dominated by green, which only highlights their bravery in the face of violent oppression.

Valtierra’s is an example of the exhibition’s aim to spotlight instances where colour plays an integral role. In a virtual tour, Oles told AIPAD: “I wanted to find photographs in which colour was an essential part of the image and tells an additional story.” Another instance can be found in a shot captured by the late National Geographic editor W. E. Garrit (1930-2016). Here, a field appears to be a vibrant shade of orange when viewed from the right side of the frame. The unusual colour is due to the profusion of marigolds grown here in preparation for Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), an annual celebration to remember loved ones who have passed away. The bright blooms are known as “the flower of the dead.” Families decorate alters with them and their strong smell and hue are believed to guide spirits home. In Garrit’s striking photograph, stripes of green that cut in from the left. Farmers look tiny as they lead these horizontal lines. The dramatic shift shows the gradual progression of marigold harvesting on an enormous scale.

The photograph fits within the “Landscape” section of the exhibition. Its amongst work by Armando Salas Portugal, Eliot Porter, Richard Misrach and more. Early examples of landscape photography tend to show vistas untouched by humans. As times went by, however, photographers turned their attention to buildings, agriculture and industry. Elsewhere, Allan Sekula shares another perspective in Twentieth Century Fox Set for Titanic,Popotla, Baja California from “Dead Letter Office”(1996-1997). The set becomes an imposing presence looming over the natural environment. Artists across the show include Yolanda Andrade, Nan Goldin, Joel Meyerwitz, Lourdes Almeida, Ruben Ortiz Torres and more. Mexichrome brings work from archival depths to the surface. It adds a layer of detail to key facets of Mexican history and culture. In the words of Meyerwitz, who visited the country in 1962: “If we accept the idea that a photograph is basically a description of things, then a colour photograph is a broader description.”

Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexichrome: Photography and Color in Mexico | Until 3 March

Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh

Image Credits:

  1. Luis Barragan, Los Clubes (1966-68). Cuadra San Cristóbal. Mexico City, Mexico. 1969. © Fondation René Burri / Magnum Photos.
  2. Lourdes Grobet, Sin título (Nopal azul), de la serie Paisajes pintados (1982). Colección particular. © Archivo Lourdes Grobet.
  3. Alfredo De Stefano, La columna, de la serie Habitar el vacío (2000). Impresión cromogénica. Cortesía Alfredo De Stefano.