Jardín botánico, Cactus Naturata.

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Artwork title translation

Botanical Garden, Cactus Naturata.

Artwork material

silver gelatin

Artwork dimensions

height: 27cm
width: 26.5cm

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Accession method

Purchased with the assistance of the Art Fund and the PINTA Museums Acquisitions Programme 2011-2012

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Iturbide took this photograph in the botanical gardens in Oaxaca, in the south of Mexico. The gardens form part of the Centro Cultural Santo Domingo, which is in a former sixteenth century convent. The gardens were designed by Francisco Toledo, one of Mexico’s leading artists, and are linked with art museums throughout the city of Oaxaca where Demián Flores, a younger generation artist in Mexican Migrations, lives and works. The state of Oaxaca has the greatest diversity of ethnic groups, indigenous languages, flora and fauna in Mexico and is known for its strong artistic community.

The image recalls the use of tents in photographs by Manuel Álvarez Bravo and further evokes the cactus fences seen in Mexico, including at Kahlo and Rivera’s other house in Mexico City, designed by Juan O’Gorman. Conceptually the cactus fence could be said to relate to the Cortina de Nopal (Prickly Pear Curtain), a manifesto written by José Luis Cuevas in 1956 and published in the cultural section of the daily newspaper Novedades. The manifesto challenged the dominance of nationalism in art, embodied by Mexican Muralism; a challenge that was maintained by the Grupo de la Ruptura (Breakaway Group) of which Cuevas was a prominent member.

(Display caption from the exhibition Mexican Migrations, 2013)

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Graciela Iturbide is mostly known for her work in rural Mexico, picturing the communities, people, and traditions of pastoral life. However, this photograph focuses purely on plant life and its life provider, the sun. Taken in Oaxaca, southern Mexico, the black and white photograph depicts a botanical garden designed by Francisco Toledo, one of Mexico’s leading landscape artists. Jardín botánico is therefore singular in Iturbide’s oeuvre since it is dedicated to a more abstract and depopulated composition that creates a mood or feeling through flora. The photograph itself is a symbol of the intersection between human intervention and nature. This is further emphasised by the pre-planned design in the form of a botanical garden, which itself is a constructed representation of nature. Consequently, the image could be viewed as symbol of the limitations imposed on Mexican society, which nevertheless continues to flourish with all kinds of cultural and floral artistic expressions. The fence, composed of spikey cacti, combined with the tent which acts as the overbearing window through which the viewer sees the landscape, contribute to a feeling of isolation and restriction. Iturbide’s positioning of the camera, which simulates a viewpoint of a plant exposed to the sun and clouds above, united with Iturbide’s traditional black and white photography intensifies this feeling.

The image inspires recollection of the early pre-Socratic philosophical work of Empedocles, who believed in transmigration of the soul.(1) Transmigration refers to a soul’s passage through the separate lives of different beings: plants, animals and humans. This may seem far removed, but the essence of the photograph is rooted in the soul and the struggle of all humans is rooted to their surroundings.

The work also bears a connection to modern images of the highly politicised land border between Mexico and the United States.(2) The multiple controls and enclosures in Iturbide’s photograph alludes to the separation of Mexican and Latin American society from the United States despite their geographic proximity. Borders are policed, lives are controlled, inequality remains. The lonely cactus rooted in Mexico serves as a reminder of the control imposed by location, and its restriction on the flourishing of the soul. This is an image of a world where inequalities remain, captured in a setting where cultural subjugation is rife. There is a lack of symbiosis between nature, human beings and their governments. The nature of a cactus is characterised by its ability to exist stubbornly in the most hostile conditions. Accordingly, Iturbide is also displaying hope for the people of Mexico in their resilience through conflict. Her photograph reaffirms the cactus as the perfect symbol for Mexico’s flag.

(1) Gordon Campbell, “Empedocles (c.492—432 B.C.E.),” Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Available at: https://www.iep.utm.edu/empedocl/#SH5a
(2) For an example of this imaginary, see: Alan Taylor, “On the Border with photographer John Moore,” The Atlantic. Available at: https://

(Text taken from the exhibition catalogue for Gone to Ground, 2019)

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