A Classroom Experience with an Archival Gem
Imagine moving among the historical subjects of a black-and-white past rendered one-dimensional on the printed page. A delicious convergence of documentary treasures—recently unearthed home movie footage from the late 1930s, volumes of photography from foreign and national artists in Mexico at the time, and a fortuitously out-of-context Diego Rivera print in an Ohio library—facilitated our upper-level college class to experience that highly sought–after sensation among historians: the “archival moment.”
This semester we (students of the class History/Latin American Studies 360T, “Mexico since Independence,” at Miami University of Ohio) are reading John Mraz’s (wonderful) new book Looking for Mexico: Visual Culture and National Identity. We’ve been discussing the different aesthetic productions of lo mexicano (that which is “quintessentially” Mexican), as produced by Mexicans and foreigners alike, and the different categories that these aesthetic productions fell into. In particular, this week we talked about the construction of visual tropes of Mexican identity in the 1920s and 1930s. Mexico had just emerged from its violent, nationalist, class–based revolution and was in the throes of rebranding itself as a proudly mestizo (indigenous-based, mixed-race), working-class, agrarian, yet modern nation. The images that come out of this time period—politicized or aesthetic treatments of majestic magueys or gnarled potters’s hands—are searing in their self–consciousness of the import of the Revolution. Something had changed in Mexico, and artists and photographers were on hand to document its visual legacy.
Following a hot tip from the Archives of American Art, we viewed the approximately thirty minutes of raw, silent footage captured by American expatriates Stefan Hirsch and Elsa Rogo, during their stint living and teaching art in the picturesque colonial silver-mining hillside town of Taxco, Guerrero, sometime from 1935 to 1941. The moving images of the video provide an excellent counterpoint—this is the raw material from which those iconic still images had been culled. We observed that seeing people in motion, laughing, embarrassed, in general having multiple expressions, mitigated the stark propagandistic power that carefully composed and edited still images had.
And yet we were still able to see the layers of foreign “gaze,” and quite a bit of construction within the imagery. Clearly, the people in the film were being directed to behave in ways that echoed the visual aesthetic being produced by an indigenist artistic milieu (especially Hugo Brehme, Tina Modotti, Manuel Alvarez Bravo). They approach the camera and then “enact” the still photographs just becoming iconic at the time. They are posed and situated in ways that subtly alter their natural activities and dress so as to render them lo (quintessential). They mill around an adobe hut, disappear within—and then reemerge in descending order of age, each carrying a proportionately-sized pumpkin. A pretty girl in a dress looks abashed as she carefully selects two or three sticks from a pile, cradles them in the nook of her elbow, walks toward the camera, and smiles with downcast eyes. Her loose, groomed hair does not suggest that she is about to engage in labor, despite the props. These controlled representations suggested to us more about Hirsch and Rogo than about the villagers they were so keen to document. Thanks to these filming conventions, the presumed audience—martini-sipping gringo cultural enthusiasts watching the reels from the comfort of a sunken den?—would perceive these exotic Mexican villagers as orderly, civilized. Images like these aspired to the contemporary photography of Brehme, who documented workers and laborers as timeless, through a lens that made manual labor and rural life look not only palatable, but downright appetizing. To us, it seems as though Hirsch and Rogo believe in Mexican timelessness, and do not want this quaint, hardworking, peaceful village life to change; we see evidence of this in their emphasis on cross-generational interactions and continuities in the apparent family units they observe.
And yet, buzzing around in the background of the staged subjects of this unedited footage, we saw all kinds of rich context that was not being reified, and from which we can draw many cultural cues. We can see that human or donkey transportation prevailed, and by looking at the terrain, we can understand why. President Plutario Elías Calles’s famous road-building campaigns (1924–1928) might have brought most villages their first roads, but we can see that those roads were more often dirt, mud, or cobblestone. We see the items for sale in the marketplace—the quick-fired terra cotta cookware that seemed almost disposable in its fragility. We can’t help but stare at the smudged spot on the market vendor’s apron, where he has worried his money endlessly in the stretches of his day between sales.
The last few minutes, largely religious processions, are shot on rare color film stock. We had some observations about the different visual impact that the color film had on the viewers’ experiences—it disrupts the “timeless” nature of indigenous culture that the black and white stills so effectively transmit. In color, the faded clothing of the faithful seemed dingy and dated, almost like a 1970s Polaroid. Tina Modotti, capturing the very same subjects on silver gelatin, would have wrung socialist-tinged indignation out of every drape of a rebozo (multi-purpose shawl, usually associated with indigeneity and women’s labor). While the film makers likely thought that the color technology would heighten the verisimilitude of the cultural immersion for their intended viewers, from our historical vantage point, color diminished the aesthetic impact that vanguard image-makers at the time strove to create.
We were supposed to have this footage running in the background, a bit of visual noise and ambience for our group activity in the Special Collections classroom. After all, we had come to see what we thought was the “real” archival gem—“Communicating Vessels,” a rare woodcut print by Diego Rivera in 1938, intended as a propaganda poster for the renowned visit of André Breton to Mexico for Surrealist Week. There it was, brittle and crumbling on the edges, worn at the seams where it had been folded to fit into a notebook or envelope, Rivera’s own bulbous frog-like eyes staring at us with very little mediating space (Rivera did not shy away from self-portraits, even in his abstract work). It’s a marvel to see anything by Rivera in person. Having this experience in Ohio seemed to fit the spirit of the artist’s original intent: it was surreal.
Yet we were all drawn back to the other end of the room, to the home movies by Hirsch and Rogo. These images were possibly even captured in 1938, the same year of Breton’s visit. There wandered Diego Rivera’s contemporaries. There were the protagonists, the victims, the subjects, of Mexico’s great Revolution. There were the indigenous faces that Rivera so famously rendered good and Mexican, all over the patios and porticos of the country’s public buildings. There were the hard-working hands that he elegized, the brown skin that he adored, the white muslin clothing that redeemed the colonial stain of the black clergy frock. But rather than engaging in important, revolutionary events—and rather than being frozen in a single expression that evoked proletarian resolve—these Mexicans were picking lice out of hair, tickling their children, casting sidelong glares at imposing foreign camera operators, flirting, worshipping.
We love the way that this footage complicates and complements our understanding of the construction of Mexican national identity in the revolutionary decades. We love the way that rare access to moving archival images facilitates our semester-long (and lifelong) goal to critically consume the visual rhetoric that marks historical ages, and our age.
And we love that it is silent, because we can talk over it and analyze it as it rolls.
- A rare delight: Mexican home movies from the 1930s
- “Surrealist Week” from the Rodolfo Usigli Archive Online Exhibit at the Miami University Libraries
Elena Jackson Albarrán is Assistant Professor of History and Latin American, Latino/a, and Caribbean Studies at Miami University of Ohio, where she teaches classes on modern Mexico, Latin American popular culture, revolutions, and comparative childhood. Her blog collaborators are the students of HST/LAS 360, Mexico since Independence. This semester, they are embarking together on an exploration of the visual manifestations of Mexican national identity over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They have also resurrected the spirit of Pancho Villa in the classroom through the competitive performance of a traditional folk ballad in his honor, “La Punitiva.”