Reading Race and Racial Hierarchies in Visual Sources from Latin America

AHA Session 107
Conference on Latin American History 21
Friday, January 7, 2022: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Rhythms Ballroom 2 (Sheraton New Orleans, 2nd Floor)
Rebekah E. Pite, Lafayette College
The Audience

Session Abstract

How can historians use visual sources to uncover new understandings of race and racial hierarchies in Latin America? What, in particular, can paintings and photographs tell us about the symbolic weight placed upon black and brown subjects, as well as their agency in creating compositions of their own, in a region where elites were preoccupied with fixing racial distinctions and maintaining white supremacy? Finally, what can the study of visual culture offer to our understanding of whiteness in Latin America?

Our panel moves within and beyond Casta Painting, drawing attention to understudied aspects of the eighteenth-century genre while also giving space to less familiar, but no less revealing, works from other historical periods and regional contexts. Elena FitzPatrick Sifford’s paper focuses on the depiction of diverse human types in Mexico City’s famed Alameda Park, in casta paintings and in other contemporaneous portraits, to analyze colonial anxieties over cross-racial intimacies and their potential for social and moral contagion. For her part, Tamara Walker turns to late-colonial Upper Peru (Bolivia), where a revealing portrait of the Spanish-born Governor of Potosí and his Black servant was painted by an anonymous indigenous painter just as the local mining industry and Spanish authority were dissolving into ruins. Moving towards the independence-era Río de la Plata region, Rebekah Pite analyzes the ways in which black and indigenous subjects became more visible in post-colonial domestic artwork, especially in depictions of the quotidian and highly symbolic ritual of serving yerba mate to white patrons. Turning to late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Colombia, Luisa Arrieta shows how African-descent men used the new technology of the camera to insert photographs of themselves as enduringly relevant to their nation in the face of state-sponsored attempts to make their presence in national narratives and imagery less visible.

Because our work spans such a wide arc and swath of Latin American history, our panel will provide context-specific examples while also allowing for meaningful comparisons across time and space. For example, FitzPatrick Sifford, Walker, and Pite’s papers will show the myriad ways in which artists deliberately juxtaposed white and black subjects in both the colonial and early national era to highlight the differences between them. Similarly, Walker and Arrieta’s papers will show, respectively, how both colonial indigenous painters and twentieth-century Black photographic portrait sitters played key roles in shaping artistic production, enacting ways of seeing and being seen that complicate our understanding of the finished products under study.

Together, our papers will appeal to historians with interests in race and/or visual culture in a variety of regional contexts and time periods, from the Americas to Africa, Asia, and Europe, and from the colonial era up through the twentieth century. Our highly visual and engaging panel promises to offer new methodological ways of seeing and understanding the language of race both within and beyond Latin America.

See more of: AHA Sessions