Casta Paintings: Identity constructed and deconstructed
By Kaylee Lass, Curatorial associate and operations manager, Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston
In this series, Friedemann-Sánchez confronts a racist eighteenth-century genre of painting by Spanish colonizers that endeavored to taxonomize miscegenation and glorify a proximity to whiteness in Latin America.
Nancy Friedemann-Sánchez tells stories of our shared global histories through her artwork. She explores our world through the material culture left from generations past — seeking portals between then and now in an effort to understand who we’ve become through who we’ve been. Casta Paintings is no exception to this keen interest of the ways in which people shape identities. Individuals build a sense of self with familial and collective experiences influenced by and in resistance to cultural identity. The power structures that shape cultural identity are inherently imbalanced, and thus often perpetuate stereotypes. In this series, Friedemann-Sánchez confronts a racist eighteenth-century genre of painting by Spanish colonizers that endeavored to taxonomize miscegenation and glorify a proximity to whiteness in Latin America.
Though used for only a short period in history, the assumptions and terms defined by casta paintings still carry weight in the Americas. The chart-like layout utilized in the genre “identified” sixteen racially mixed families documented in New Spain. The subjects were presented as if they were objects in cabinets of curiosities created for an elite European audience. This fixed system of racial hierarchy determined social and economic class, signaled by the clothes they wore, their domestic environment and the color of their skin.
The life-size ink tracings of Latina women take up space — forcing you to acknowledge their presence and giving them a place of dignity.
Friedemann-Sánchez’s contemporary casta paintings take inspiration from this problematic genre to reflect on the legacy of colonialism that lingers in the racial and social discrimination and marginalization present in her home country of Colombia and here in the United States. The life-size ink tracings of Latina women take up space — forcing you to acknowledge their presence and giving them a place of dignity. Layers of tracings indicate variations in skin tone. Their position is familiar to any air traveler to or within the United States; a stance imposed by TSA that the artist relates to being colonized, surveilled, and vulnerable. In that moment, your body is not your own as others scrutinize it as safe or unsafe, fit or unfit.
Each figure is paired with a mask and comb and adorned with painted florals. Friedemann-Sánchez began rescuing Latin American masks from second-hand sales online with a desire to recover pieces that should be in museums and give them a new place to speak. The artist selected masks for each work by considering contemporary meanings and her own interpretations of the labels defined by historic casta paintings, often contradicting the motives of colonizers. For example, the mask assigned for Castiza (2017) is a depiction of whiteness made in Mexico by someone who is not white, or the mask for Española (2019-2021), which depicts an indigenous person to counter the once common rejection of indigenous ancestry prevalent in Latin America. The masked figures are also wearing peinetas. These Spanish combs were worn for special occasions associated with a woman’s entrance into society. Together, the masks and combs indicate a woman’s agency and empowerment to define their own identity despite societal labels.
The collective tells a story of hybridity as a result of migration and questions concepts of cultural ownership, focusing not on dualities but instead the liminal space between.
Painted flowers fall around the figures, representing a confluence of cultures and denial of the inevitable hybridity that resulted from colonization. Friedemann-Sánchez pulls iconographies from Spanish colonial floral paintings and Colombian mopa mopa or barniz de Pasto, an indigenous lacquer technique used to decorate wooden objects. Spanish interest in barniz de Pasto was primed by the trade of Chinese lacquer, silk, and porcelain products from which Europeans lifted styles for chinoiserie, a Western design motif. The barniz de Pasto tradition lives on primarily in objects not unlike souvenirs. By elevating mopa mopa from a small object to a large scale in her paintings, she gives visibility to historical practices that are reduced as decorative and created anonymously.
Casta Paintings serves as the fifth chapter of Nancy Friedemann-Sánchez’s visual novel, Mestiza Dos Veces. The larger work sheds light and gives reason to cultural memory using paintings, sculptures, objects, and collages to interweave personal narratives that address larger narratives, always considering and deconstructing dominant ideologies. Each chapter is intended to be examined in a non-linear fashion, speaking to one another in different ways. The collective tells a story of hybridity as a result of migration and questions concepts of cultural ownership, focusing not on dualities but instead the liminal space between.
Admission to the galleries is free and the museum is open 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
"Nancy Friedemann-Sánchez: Pinturas de Casta and the Construction of American Identity" opened at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston on May 13 and is on view through July 16, 2022. Admission to the galleries is free and the museum is open 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and until 7:00 p.m. on Thursdays. Find out more about the exhibition and the artist athalsey.cofc.edu.