The current work is a series of contemporary caste or “casta” paintings. Casta painting was popularized as a
genre during the 18th century in colonial-Mexico. Originally meant to record the racial mixing taking place in
the New World, these paintings came in sets that depicted different families from lightest-skinned to darkest-
skinned, very much like a table of elements. The darker-skinned the parents were, however, the more
socially and biologically degenerate the child was considered, making racial cross-breeding a real problem
in the Euro-colonialist project of empire-building. Still, miscegenation between Europeans, Native
Americans, and Africans was common in the early Americas, though not always consensual. Mestizaje, as
well as the concept of “mixed races,” were born from this. In response to these developments in cross-
racialization, Spaniards created taxonomic hierarchies to organize the new colonial social structure.
Paintings were commissioned to illustrate and explain the new classificatory scheme. Their primary
audience was European.
My research has led me to re-examine this genre in effort to see how genealogy, sexual desire, and poverty
affect our own structuring of social identity. Each painting takes an original casta as a template to be
distorted, in which original characters are replaced by archetypes from popular media, comics, and world
history. Similar to hip-hop, border techno, and global mashups, these works lift and sample from original
paintings in order to understand the processes and effects of re-appropriation. In this manner, we can better
understand how such re-appropriation functions as both language and method.
There are several differences between an original casta painting and the ones I am producing. To begin with,
the original sets began with the lightest-skinned progressing toward the darkest-skinned. The sets located
white Spanish males as a racial ideal, with the conquered Native and African slave being at the end. This
was significant for two reasons. First, the privileged positioning of the Spanish male established a
phallocentric order where the white phallus is expected to penetrate the dark womb of the lower-ranking racial
other, which is specifically feminized. This symbolism legitimized European conquest as biological or
natural. Secondly, it established a racial order in which skin pigmentation carried a qualitative measure—the
darker one was, the less human one was deemed to be. The work before you inverts this racial ordering by
only depicting unions between white women and dark men. In place of a hierarchy there is a horizontal field
of endless relationships between the primitive other and the feminine other, with the figures of the white
mother and the dark father masked in stereotypes. Consequently, the child becomes the product of two racial
signifiers reproducing. But what happens next? What do stereotypes reproduce?
My understanding of art as an emancipatory practice leads me to believe that, by re-contextualizing these
visual stereotypes through old casta paintings, their meaning can be dismantled and broken loose from fixed
identities, thus moving us towards a different awareness and, ideally, towards socio-political agency. In that
light, remaking old casta paintings is a critique of the role visual arts have played, and continue playing, in
shaping the constructs of race, gender, and class. Similarly, by rearticulating the complicit relationship
between 18th century artistic production and the intellectual regime of the Enlightenment, we can begin
uncovering the dominant ideological structures that guide the work we do today.
|Claudio Dicochea All rights reserved.