Race, visual and affective memory in ‘Mestiza’ by Citlali Fabián siguiente

Cristina Elena Pardo

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Beyond the color of my skin, my blood is mestiza, my way of thinking, the way I look, and the way people looks at me… the condition that others pointed out in me, that today I take for mine.

Citlali Fabián

The indexical, spectral and durable nature of photography and its related optical disciplines were constituted from its beginning as instruments of the Eurocentric and hegemonic power, capable of classifying and fixing the subjects and objects of its practices. With the arrival of  photosensitive chemistry to America, along with the camera obscura and daguerreotype techniques, and inseparable from travel writing and naturalism, the discipline quickly acquired a scientific, industrial and commercial character that endowed it with an exotic and racializing power over its ‘new’ subject-objects of their practice (indigenous peoples, slaves, etc.), making possible a no longer textual, but visual affirmation of the positivist, rational and scientific discourses of civilizing and national processes around the Conquer. This new technology was also responsible for cataloging citizens and criminals, establishing itself as the most popular control and surveillance apparatus of the 19th century. Anthropometry and phrenology at the end of the 19th century or, on the other hand, staged studio photography and the colonial carte de visite, into the 20th, then became the new “scopic regimes” (Martin Jay) of power and control in America.

Anthropologist Deborah Poole, in her well-known study Vision, Race and Modernity (1997), analyzes ethnographic photography in this colonial context and points out that the visual discovery of America was organized around principles of typification, comparability and equivalence, where race as a “cultural identity” even came to be constituted as a fact that was not only visual, but biological and material (p. 24); which means it was visible and palpable in the photographed bodies. Since then, photography has established itself as one of the main indicators of the visible differences in the body of the ‘other’. Along these lines, American theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff has highlighted throughout his career the scarcity of studies that analyze this problematic relationship between the history of visuality in America and ethnicity and race.

How do we represent racialized bodies without perpetuating the othering desires and racist impulses of the past? How do we make visible what transcends the bodies in their representation in the images or, in other words, how do we make visible an index that has remained (or have been made) invisible to our eyes? Mirzoeff has pointed out that contemporary photographers have the critical and formal tools to make the indexicality of images incoherent to the point of failure. He proposes that countering the index in photography is the only possible way to critically rethink the visuality of the race and to produce images that are “counter-visual”[^1] to the scopic regimes of power and control imposed on subordinate bodies throughout history. The academic Mariana Ortega has already reflected on these issues presented in Mirzoeff’s studies. In her studies of contemporary Latin American photographers and Afro-Mexican racialized bodies, she concludes that certain formal processes —such as color or framing— and meaning structures —such as irony or humor— reverse the dynamics that have perpetuated race as a spectacle and difference, making visible new critical discourses on the race-index relationship in photographic images.  

[^1] In response to the initial, colonial and imperialist regimes of vision, Nicholas Mirzoeff, in The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality (2011), suggests “counter-visuality” as a new process of gaze, as a practice or horizon of thought that has the main goal to challenge those objectives of visuality and to propose new discourses and bodies, now agents and sighted, who exercise their 'right to look' not only on, but also from their own discourses and bodies.

No matter how indexical an image is, there are always political, cultural, historical and affective mediations that prevent us from seeing it as a simple residue of the thing itself. However, it is not so evident that identity, emotions, memory, race or gender are indexical in these images. What we see and what transcends it are, in short, in contact, and this is what emotionally challenges not only those who look, but those who photograph and everyone else who actively participates in the photographic event.[^2]

[^2] Ariella Azoulay, in “What is a photograph? What is photography?”, understands photography as a complex event of vision —social, political and ethical— that is not conditioned by the simple act of producing an image. She insists that the event of photography is always an encounter —among gazes and people— that implies plurality, citizenship and (affective) exchange.

Following Poole and Mirzoeff, in this brief article I propose a reflection that parallels Ortega’s. Without losing sight of, as she points out, the ambiguity and fluidity of the meaning of the image and the instability of the relation index-race of racialized bodies in photographs, I will think about the series Mestiza (2017) —started in 2014— of Oaxacan photographer Citlali Fabián (Mexico, 1988). From a deeply moving and original work, Fabián will propose the mestizaje as a gesture of resistance and as an active process of gaze: “Mestiza is my way of thinking (…), the way I look, and the way people look at me”.

Mestiza (2017). Citlali Fabián

With Mestiza, Citlali Fabián begins a collective reflection on the Zapotec traditions of her indigenous heritage, photographing her own affective network of women: her friends, aunts, nieces, sisters and mother. As I will analyze below, the photographer seeks to review the relationship between the visible and the invisible associated with the representation of racialized bodies, in order to rethink certain already established ideas (skin color as stigma, for example) around these bodies and, furthermore, to rethink the mestizo cultural legacy of the community which she belongs to: an invisible legacy not only in the context of the (post)colonial and racist violence of policies associated with the marginalization and discrimination of indigenous and mestizo communities in Mexico today, but throughout history.

The photographer gives the women she photographs the possibility of engaging in a new process of gaze with the contemporary viewer of their bodies. We will see how this is carried out through a fundamentally formal rupture with the hegemonic visual discourses and with the aforementioned scopic regimes of power and control inherited from the past. Likewise, through the use of certain symbolic elements and through a specific staging, the artist enables a new visibility of her own genealogy, which not only challenges those who observe the portraits, but also actively questions such violence and oppression exerted on her own community.

Mestiza is made up of fourteen close-up and large-format portraits. Not only in this series, but in several projects, Citlali Fabián uses protophotographic techniques from the 19th century: daguerreotypes (a technique that, in the past, did not allow the reproduction of the same image) and the wet-collodion process (that did allow reproduction, but under a complex chemical method and infrastructure of glass plates). Specifically, Mestiza was made under the latter, but with a clear evocation of daguerreotype aesthetics. The scenes that Citlali Fabián builds include concrete elements, curated very carefully, and which are part of a symbology that accounts for what mestizaje means as a hybridization of races in America. We see elements of the pre-Hispanic and indigenous cultures, such as necklaces made with plants, face painting, maguey leaves, ears of corn and skeletons; and many others from the Catholic imagery of the Conquest, such as veils, fabrics, lace and beaded necklaces. Although some of these framings suggest the woman as the Virgin Mary, their representations in the photos also reveal the simultaneous presence of an indigenous goddess or matriarch. This is how the photographer visually insinuates two of the pillars of her genealogy: fertility and femininity. In this sense, the pose adopted by these women go hand in hand, undoubtedly, with the aforementioned symbolic elements. In the majority of these portraits, we see the hands of these women gesturing around their faces, while in others they appear with their naked torsos, showing themselves “as divine as they are fragile”, in the words of Fabián. However, it is the gaze of these women that stand out in the portraits: the viewer is challenged by brilliant pupils that even come out of the frame, to meet ours.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries in America, daguerreotypes and its other related methods were very expensive and restricted to the use of few professionals. As I have already mentioned, indigenous people, mestizos and slaves were only photographed for strictly ethnographic, medical and legal reasons, while some of the most powerful families enjoyed the luxury of having a nice daguerreotype or calotype with the portrait of their loved ones or a personal carte de visite, as these were the favorite techniques for the affirmation of bourgeois identity. What is involved in Fabián’s formal choice is more than evident: she seeks to revise —to the point of failure— the elitist function that these 19th techniques had when photographing this specific group of mestizo women using the wet-collodion process. Likewise, the regulatory, positivist, and othering function of the technology also becomes nullified. In the portraits we no longer see subordinate or stigmatized bodies due to their skin color, but protagonists, agents, and bodies who can also look back at us.

The photographer thus proposes a confrontation: the formal technique associated with the scopic regimes of power and control —evoking the aesthetics of the daguerreotype and the use of the wet-collodion process; color and framing— is now visually confronted with the symbolism of her own mestizo heritage —fabrics, plants, necklaces, etc.—, in order to destabilize the colonial memory from the artistic practice in the present time. In this way, Citlali Fabián’s project is presented to the viewer as a profoundly counter-visual practice —following Mirzoeff’s definition— as it invites to a more extensive reflection of what ‘gazing’ means when we look at certain subjects and communities, and their cultural, political and emotional histories. From this concrete representation of bodies and faces, and of gazes, Fabián denounces the violence, discrimination, stigma and racism that led to that first colonial gaze and confronts it, in the present, with a critical artistic practice with those visual oppressive processes of the past.

Mestiza rethinks the problematic index-race relationship throughout the history of ethnographic photography in America. She does it not only by questioning the use of certain formal techniques inherited from Europe, such as the daguerreotype or wet-collodion process, but by activating a new way of thinking about affective genealogy and visual memory —through symbolism— on certain racial processes associated with the bodies we see and how these have come to be seen over time. In short, Fabián interrogates not only the formal techniques of the past, but also the type of gaze —European, colonial, hegemonic— that was inherited.

Art historian Ernst Van Alphen, in his studies on portraiture, explains how painters and photographers provide portrayed subjects with something they previously did not have, that is being able to see and recognize themselves in their own images. Citlali Fabián has pointed out that in Mestiza she has been trying to create a new form, critical and decolonial, of resistance that visually reaffirms her indigenous heritage, the cultural legacy and the affective memory of her own mestizo community, observing and being observed —she and the women photographed— in a “new way”. I can affirm, thus, that Fabián understands the photographic event depicted on her project in the same way that Ariella Azoulay does in The Civil Contract of Photography (2008). Azoulay proposes photography no longer as a regulatory and organizing technology of what is visible and accessible to our eyes, but as an active and plural encounter and exchange of gazes. In this event, the photographed subject exercises her rights over the representation and the represented, activating her gaze as agency and, ultimately, calling the viewer to take part of the event. These mestizo women, thanks to the photographer, have acquired the unprecedented possibility of engaging in a process of gaze with those who look and are challenged, also in a new way, by their faces in the images.

Through the photo essay Mestiza, Fabián presents gazing, the gaze, to be aesthetically formed from a critical response to the visual memory —social and cultural— of the communities to which we belong, thus concluding that all gazes are, ultimately, political and affective. What defines the body of the other —of the she-other, in this case— is not simply the moment of the shot, but the link between the different systems of visual and affective exchange associated with how we look at these bodies and how they look back at us. The accomplice gaze that calls (us) from these faces is now a gesture of visual integrity before that other visuality —violent, oppressive, discriminatory, racist— that has been imposed on the subordinate bodies —mestizo, in this case— throughout history. Therefore, the photographic practice of Citlali Fabián calls for a more extensive reflection that enriches the debate on the social, cultural, ethical, affective, and political function of contemporary visual practices in Latin America.


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AZOULAY, Ariella (2008), The civil contract of photography. The MIT Press, Massachusetts.

— (2010), “What is a photograph? What is photography?” in Philosophy of Photography, vol. 1, No 1, Bristol, pp. 9-13.

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MIRZOEFF, Nicholas (2011), The Right to Look. A Counterhistory of Visuality, Duke University Press, North Carolina.

ORTEGA, Mariana (2013), “Photographic Representation of Racialized Bodies Afro-Mexican, the Visible, and the Invisible” in Critical Philosophy of Race, vol. 1, No. 2, Pennsylvania, pp.163-189.

POOLE, Deborah (1997), Vision, Race and Modernity. A Visual Economy of the Andean World. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

SEKULA, Allan (1989), “The Body and the Archive” The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. Richard Bolton ed. The MIT Press, Massachusetts, pp. 343-388.

How to cite:
PARDO, Cristina Elena, “Race, visual and affective memory in ‘Mestiza’ by Citlali Fabián”, LUR, 11th April of 2020, https://e-lur.net/investigacion/race-visual-and-affective-memory-in-mestiza-by-citlali-fabian

Cristina Elena Pardo (Caracas, Venezuela, 1993) is PhD candidate at The Graduate Center – The City University of New York. Her research focuses on the interaction between words and images in Hispanic literatures and on the history of gaze in Latin America from the perspective of visual culture studies and affect theory. She is also an editor, poet and photographer.

Translation by Cristina Elena Pardo and Erin Duffy