Understanding how your heritage affects you and what you become can be a surprising revelation. Deconstructing and reviewing this notion, Courtney Gilbert, Sun Valley Center for the Arts' curator of visual arts, will present a free lecture, "Casta Painting: Race, Class and Sex in 18th-Century Mexico," Thursday, Oct. 2, at 6 p.m. at The Center in Ketchum.
"These are paintings made in Mexico at the time Mexico was New Spain," Gilbert said. "They are funny works made by Mexican artists for Spanish patrons and 'functioneers'—a person in the Spanish colonial government administration. The paintings show a growing sense of Mexican pride. They are unique people with unique products."
The casta paintings are part of the Sun Valley Center for the Arts' exhibition and multidisciplinary project, "How Does DNA Define You?" The exhibition consists of digital reproductions of casta paintings borrowed from the National Hispanic Cultural Center, which has toured the works to various sites in New Mexico. The reproductions are on view at The Center in Ketchum, along with original work by four contemporary artists and examples of photographs and illustrations from the American Eugenics Movement of the early 20th century.
"They are beautiful and show the luxuriousness of life," Gilbert said. "They show various fabrics and people dressed in beautiful clothing and with incredible hair styles."
Casta paintings were done in sets of 16 and show a man and a woman of different racial groups with their offspring—a third racial category. The racial labels used in the paintings parallel a complex caste system that the Spanish Empire tried to implement to maintain control over its colonies.
"I think they were commissioned by Spanish patrons and show the Spanish desire for what they wished the colony would look like," Gilbert said. "They did not reflect the reality. There was lots of intermarriage and the colony was not easy to manage. The paintings were to reflect order. You have to imagine Spanish bureaucrats bringing these paintings back to Spain and taking pride in the wealth and order even though people were treated like second-class citizens and forced to pay huge taxes."
The slide lecture will explore the complex intersection of race, class and sexual mores within casta paintings, which were the product of both an empire beginning to lose its grip on the Americas and a colony beginning to see itself as a unique nation.
"Throughout hundreds of years, all of our knowledge has been that race is a social idea," Gilbert said. "It's interesting to look back 250 years and learn about a place and time which people don't know much about."