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Jardín Botánico de Oaxaca
Graciela Iturbide
Artwork 1998–99
Installation photograph that shows Graciela Iturbide’s framed monochrome photograph ‘Jardín Botánico de Oaxaca’ mounted on a white wall.
Artwork: Graciela Iturbide, Jardín Botánico de Oaxaca (1998–99). Silver gelatin print. 50.8 x 61 cm. Private collection, Mexico City.
Artist Graciela Iturbide Title Jardín Botánico de Oaxaca Date 1998–99 Materials Silver gelatin print Dimensions 50.8 x 61 cm Credit Private collection, Mexico City

When asked by the curator Francisco Berzunza to participate in You to Me, Me to You at A4, Graciela Iturbide declared that her work had nothing to do with love. The curator persisted to disagree, seeing in her plant works “botanical gardens as symbols of care, and building society…what you at A4 would call an ‘arts ecology’, and what I refer to as the public space.” Many of these plants had been brought by different communities in Oaxaca, donated, says Berzunza, by these communities, as exemplars of what it means to heal. Seeing these propped-up cactuses – domesticated into narrowness, necessitating falsework to thrive – Berzunza finds evidence of the structures we can use to support one another: “Love can be helping each other to grow,” he says.

Graciela Iturbide navigates layers of Mexican culture through poetically composed black-and-white photography. In 1978, Iturbide was commissioned by the National Indigenous Institute of Mexico to document the cultural practices of the Seri communities in the Sonoran Desert. She has continued to engage the cultural landscape of indigenous and marginalised communities – many of whom have been subject to the violences of Catholicism or other religious doctrines as a colonising force: the Zapotec and Mixtec, the cholo communities of East Los Angeles, trans communities in India, and the refugees of political and drug violence in Mexico and Panama.

By the time Iturbide enrolled in a film-making programme at the Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográfico, later assisting photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo (whose work was also included in the exhibition You to Me, Me to You at A4), she had suffered profound loss. Her daughter died at the age of six after a short illness. Iturbide became estranged from her family after her divorce (brought up as a devout Catholic, she had married aged nineteen) and subsequent decision to enrol in film school. The artist’s earliest photographic series documented ‘angelitos’ – children who have died and whose spirits soar into the sky according to Mexican folklore. Though she has since moved on from photographing the dead, her work continues to contain allegories towards death and trauma as symbolised by the wounded plants and injured objects that are her chosen subject matter. “Ultimately, I think photography is a ritual for me. To go off with my camera, observe, capture the most mythical part of man, then go into darkness, develop, choose the symbolism.”