Contemporary Casta Portraiture: Nuestra "Calidad"

Artist Statement

As a Chicana artist, my own personal quest in image-making is the discovery and articulation of Chicano culture, and the icons which elucidate the dense history of Aztlán. My artistic vision is an autobiographical exploration, but one that has far- reaching implications for my community and the preservation of its unique history. As a Chicana artist, my work, interpreted as an alternative to the mainstream, stands as a personal statement that evokes an identity. I aspire to originate the artist's voice. My work, however, is more than a personal statement, for it is rooted in and informed by history.

Contemporary Casta Portraiture: Nuestra “Calidad” is an investigation of cultural and biological forms of “hybridity.” Looking at this as a signifier of colonialism, the photographic portraits mimic the aesthetic and cultural markers suggested by the casta paintings of the eighteenth century in present-day familial settings of New World multicultural communities. The idea is to witness the resonance of colonialism as a substructure of our contemporary society that was constructed by an imposition of sovereignty. According to Reinhardt this is a "wholly optic affair":

…the optical unconscious can alert us to complexities and perplexities often overlooked in analyses of certain important features of politics and visual culture.

One of these features is “race,” a visual artifact carrying a singularly powerful charge. Whether as ideology, institution, or lived experience, race is of course not made only by visual means, but its inequities and indignities remain tightly bound to ways of seeing human difference and organizing the perceptual field. To the rich critical tradition arising from that insight, [Walter] Benjamin’s optical unconscious offers at once a contribution and a potentially destabilizing challenge. On the one hand, stressing the unseen elements in visual experience may broaden our sense of how race is constructed. On the other, it poses the puzzle of how the invisible can be part of “visual construction.” 1

Sovereignty relies on orchestrating gazes for the display of power (from imperial spectacles to televised political addresses to walls erected at national borders) that ultimately promotes a collective body. Yet through the "optical unconscious"2 subtle intransigent discourses can be detected. Colonial discourse produces the colonized social reality as one that is never fixed into an era, but instead that reality passes on in time as appropriated, translated, re-historicized and read as new signifiers. Clearly this process riddles through the colonial casta painting tradition as well as the present Contemporary Casta Portraiture: Nuestra "Calidad."

Colonial society emerged out of a mixed ethno-racial social structure. In the years following the conquest of Mexico in 1521, most people in the New World fell into three distinct ethno-racial categories: First Nation (indigenous people), peninsular Spaniards (European) and Africans (both enslaved and free). By the late seventeenth century, these categories broke down quickly and a caste system based on miscegenation was defined throughout the New World colonial realm. More specifically, as the Colonial discourse was deployed through surveillance that is as

the gaze of the colonizer towards colonial bodies a socio/racial hierarchy conformed to the European ideas of the "other."

Casta paintings presented a group of sixteen portraits, with each painting depicting a racial mixing or mestizaje of the population found on the American continents. The basic formula illustrated a married couple with one or two children, who were rendered in a domestic or occupational environment. An inscription describing the ethno-racial make-up of the mother, the father and the child(ren) usually appeared in writing within the painting or above the family unit. The offspring was given a unique ethno-racial definition. Each casta is given a classification, such as “mestizo” (de india y español) or “mulato” (de negra y español). The castas illustrate a social hierarchy, with the peninsular Spaniard (español) located above the First Nation (indio) and African (negro) family units. The lighter or more European the ethno-racial mix, the closer it is positioned to the peninsular Spaniards.

There were two conditions that separated the Spanish elite from "others": non-elite that was raza/lineage and calidad/status. In "Imaging Identity in New Spain," Magalí M. Carrera explains,

The Spanish association of raza with purity of blood and blood lineage was adapted to fit the specific circumstances of the conquest. In Mexico, the Spaniards found themselves in the minority among the Aztec-Mexica, who had achieved a certain degree of social complexity. They acknowledged the existence of social and political hierarchy among the indigenous people and recognized the caciques, Indian nobles, as having civil and social rights and privileges. In fact, following the logic of raza, Spaniards believed that Indian blood was not blemished by infidel blood, thus, was essentially a pure blood. …Spanish men and Indian women that produced mestizo offspring resulted in diluted [status] but not polluted blood [lineage]… by the seventeenth century it was thought that the union of mestizo and Spaniard resulted in castizo offspring … the offspring of a castizo and Spaniard returned to Spanish "calidad, meaning pure Spanish blood." This was not the case for the mixing of Spanish or Indian blood with that of black Africans.3

Once descendants of enslaved Africans were freed they began to participate as artisans or in markets of the general economy. However the Spanish crown controlled the African presence in America through laws barring them from military guilds and quarters of Mexico City. Black Africans and mulattos were forbidden to wear gold, silk, pearls or lace. Mixed race marriages with African bloodlines were considered a permanent stain that polluted raza/linage of a family.

At the time of baptism, the colonist was either written into the book of the Español [Spanish], Indígena [Indigenous] or Casta [the diluted and black lineage.] The book separated the ones who paid tribute from those who received privileges. Castas and non-cacique indigenous populations paid tribute while the Spaniard and cacique did not.

The fact that the majority of casta paintings are located in Europe rather than the Americas indicates they were commissioned by viceroys and clergy to describe the colonies’ various racial mixtures to the King. Katzew writes, "Colonial Artists

worked for an implied audience and their images encode the expectation of that audience." The casta "encode" shifted from first as nomenclature aligned with a strong sense of "criollismo" to an examination of material culture, pointing towards national identity; it finally ends abruptly after Mexico gained its independence in 1821.4

Historians have linked the genre paintings produced after 1760 to the influence of the Spanish American Enlightenment, thus marking a shift in production from visual classification of casta types to illustrating colonial material culture. They reveal details of architectural space and home life and present meticulous depictions of everyday objects, native flora and fauna and foodstuffs.

During the 1760s Bourbon reforms, these depictions speak not only about a fascination with race, but also about the leading philosophical and scientific preoccupations. The reforms shift the scope of casta painting from demonstrating a medieval hierarchy to "illustrating the endless racial permutation that took place in the colonies."5

In the Location of Culture, Homi K. Bhabha discusses colonial discourse as producing a colonized social reality based on mimicry, ambiquity and hybridity. The colonizer defines and is defined by the colonized; each cannot exist without the other. The stereotype creates an "identity" that develops from the complete dominance of the other, as well as from the anxiety of the dominant, thus recognizing the differences while at the same time disavowing them. Mimicry appears when the colonized imitate and take on the culture of the colonizer: "the observer becomes the observed and 'partial' representation rearticulates the whole notion of identity and alienates it from essence."6 Bhabha continues by envisioning the colonized Other as positioned in the binary space between the “us” and Other dichotomy. He concludes: “Colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed recognizable Other, as subject of difference that is almost the same, but not quite.

Mimicry is … a complex strategy of reform, regulation and discipline which 'appropriates' the Other as its visualized power” (Bhabha 85-86). Bhabha's concepts help us understand the casta system not only as a construct of raza/lineage and calidad/status but as an ambiguous term that confirms the existence and working of mimicry and hybridity in eighteenth-century colonial society.

Even though the casta structure suggests an ethno-social segregation, one’s casta could be changed by the individual's ability to mimic the elite class through marriage, entrepreneurship, education or the arts. A casta designation could be and was contested when one married into a higher class, owned a successful business, acquired an academic education, or mastered one of the arts, including entertainment and sports. The castas' ethno-social classes were fluid, much to the dismay of the peninsular/creole Spaniards who attempted to maintain control by keeping the plebeians in separate and distinct spheres out of fear that non-elite classes would and could pass as one of them. They feared the bloodlines would become polluted, but more importantly that they could lose control.

Like the Colonial casta paintings, Contemporary Casta Portraiture: Nuestra “Calidad” represents household units; however, it does not define the members by means of colonial terminology. Instead, the families agree to share the results of

their DNA test to demonstrate their deep and regional ancestry. In contrast, the casta paintings visualized the ethno racial/social hierarchy as a "natural order."

Contemporary Casta Portraiture: Nuestra “Calidad” is a photographic study of selected families from Texas and New Mexico whose ancestry emerges from New World ethno-racial mixtures. The DNA test that was employed in my research suggests a sort of contemporary mimic of the casta painting. Yet like all mimicry, there is distance in that the contemporary casta families collaborated with me as the artist in representing their family units. They were asked to be actors in their own lives, leaving the viewer to read what the families chose to reveal. Rather than a representation of a constructed identity to fit an assumed description, as in the original casta paintings, simply put, the contemporary families represented themselves.

The attempt is to witness an "optic unconscious" revealed by DNA that points to a racially mixed ancestry that in turn references a colonial past. I believe this verifies that the colonial caste system still exists as a footprint in our contemporary culture, and the presented portrait of families from the colonial past of the Americas and America serves as a document. “Our America” is not only connected historically, but also genetically and culturally. Colonial reality resonates in our cultural, social and racial identities and is not only evidenced through DNA but in our environments, as well. The family portraits are taken during a one-hour sessions either at the family’s public or private space. Then, different photographic decisive moments are merged through Photoshop layers to create a family portrait. The names of the families remain anonymous so as to direct the viewer’s attention away from the specific individuals and to the family unit as a genre.

This project serves as a reminder that the mass incarceration of American colonial communities (redefined as immigrants/ illegal aliens or offenders) held in detainment -prisons throughout the United States demonstrates how sovereignty still struggles to control the colonial body. Casta paintings and the Genome DNA Project attempt to give a fixed identity, to mirror a "natural truth." Yet the castas also remind us how "ambiguity brings chaos to all dreams of order." (Carrera 153)

Production of Contemporary Casta Portraiture: Nuestra "Calidad" is funded in part by grants from Transart Foundation, Artist to Artist Fund, New Mexico Artist Match Fund, Hatch Fund, The Idea Fund, UH Center for Mexican American Studies and the University of Houston Small Research Grant, as well as contributions from Chon Noriega, Gilberto Cárdenas, Joe Aker, Surpik Angelini, Celia Muñoz, Sam Coronado, Ann Tucker, Connie Cortez, Ann Leimer, Zoanna Maney, Tere Romo and Rick Custer. With so much gratitude for the donors' encouragement and support, they are thanked for their generosity. Also I thank Holly Barnett Sánchez, Surpik Angelini and Mía López for taking time to write thoughtful informative essays in support of this work.


1 Mark Reinhardt, “Vision’s Unseen: On Sovereignty, Race, and the Optical Unconscious.”

2 The optic unconscious is based on how we routinely miss much of what unfolds in our visual field. The optic unconscious is that unseen knowledge that is rendered by technology, i.e., the image created by an explosion seen not by the naked eye rather the fast shutter speed of a camera. In the


case of Contemporary Casta Portrait it is the ethno/racial heritage recorded through DNA testing and not by looking directly at the family portrait.

3 Magali M. Carrera, Imaging Identity in New Spain (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003): pp. 12- 13.

4 It was the Spanish Creoles who ended casta painting production because the painting genre illustrated their class among mixed-blooded peoples.

5 Katzew, Ilona, Casta Paintings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004). pp. 103

6 Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994). pp. 89