You can tell a lot about a person based on how they interact in an art museum. How long do they spend looking at a painting? Do they fidget, or pause to check their phone? The difference from those who just want to skim through the gallery versus those who truly look for the hidden details within a painting is important, and patience in appreciating a beautiful work of art is something more people should have. On Friday, the Benton sought to strengthen the UConn communities’ art appreciation by hosting “Critical Looking: A Gallery Dialogue,” where I and a number of other Benton attendees spent a half-hour looking at a single artwork. The event was led by Amanda Douberley, Assistant Curator and Academic Liaison of the Benton.
The artwork examined was Graciela Iturbide’s “Angel Woman,” a singular black-and-white photograph of a Mexican Seri woman atop a hill overlooking the rural desert. After ten minutes or so of deep introspection, the group’s noting moved from the immediately obvious to the hidden features of Iturbide’s work. A couple members of the group pointed out Iturbide’s usage of negative space in her framing of the titular woman. Her white dress is juxtaposed with the dark rock behind her, and her dark top contrasts with the bright white Sonoran Desert painting the background. One attendee noted the significance of the title of the work, “Angel Woman,” as her figure seems to float above the infinitely stretched valley, her white dress giving an otherworldly aura to her presence.
In addition to guiding us through a deep dive of the painting, Douberley gave the crowd a superb background of the artist and how she came to take photos of indigenous people in Mexico. “Iturbide, early in her career, spent a lot of time being embedded in and photographing indigenous people in Mexico,” Douberley told us. “She was on an assignment from the Ethnographic Archive of Mexico, this indigenous institute, and so she lived with the Seri people who live in the Sonoran Desert near the border of Arizona. She took lots of different photographs documenting the Seri people and their customs, including this [photograph].”
In discussion, several analyzers noted that the photograph could easily be placed in a specific time period based on what she is holding in her right hand: A 1970s style boombox (the picture was taken in 1979). Douberley gave background of the Seri people’s involvement with the Western forces surrounding them. “The Seri, during this time period, were still negotiating a forced introduction to capitalism,” Douberley explained. “They were really trying to live off the land, as well as negotiate modern life and also systems like money, which they were resistant to. The image that we see is a Seri woman, and she is holding a boombox – something that she had gotten through barter, and this allowed her to listen to Mexican popular music.”
Someone walking by “Angel Woman” would just see a figure and a desert. On Friday, the Benton showed that great art deserves more than just a passing glance.
Daniel Cohn is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.