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Trethewey and the Casta Paintings

Cover artNatasha Trethewey has served as the 19th Poet Laureate of the United States (2012-2014), and as the Poet Laureate of the State of Mississippi (2012-2016). She has also published, to date, eight books of poetry. Thrall, published win 2012, was a Goodreads Choice Awards 2012 Finalist and a Best Poetry Finalist, a 2013 Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) Book Award Finalist, and a 2013 Paterson Poetry Prize Finalist, and won the 2013 Phillis Wheatley Book Award for Poetry. The highly decorated poet is also often informed by materials found during her research. The title and cover image of her book Bellocq’s Ophelia, for example, came about from archival research that led her to E.J. Bellocq’s photographs of sex workers. Bellocq’s Ophelia cover features one of Bellocq’s pictures; a well-dressed sitter seated slightly off-center. Thrall, on the other hand, shows Juan Rodríguez Juárez ‘s 1715 Spaniard and Indian Produce a Mestizo. It is from a genre known as casta painting. Casta painting is defined in a 2015 LACMA Unframed post by Ilona Katzew (Curator and Department Head, Latin American Art) as “a uniquely Mexican pictorial genre documenting the process of racial mixing among the colony’s inhabitants: Amerindians, Spaniards, and Africans.” While the painting appears as a single canvas, casta paintings are meant to be viewed in groups.

Evelina Gužauskytė’s 2009 article “Fragmented Borders, Fallen Men, Bestial Women: Violence in the Casta Paintings of Eighteenth-century New Spain” explains that “[the paintings are] usually arranged in sets or series of sixteen scenes, which are either depicted on sixteen consecutive canvases or, in some cases, are displayed on a single canvas [as is the case for the portrait on the cover of Thrall]. Casta paintings suggest that each of these races and the castas had their own clear, unmovable place in society.” The hierarchical structure was of particular concern to some colonists as some of their number had children with individuals of non-Spanish ancestry. Individuals within these structures were not simply given names that indicated the lineage of their parents, but instead whimsical titles. Nina M. Scott’s 2005 article, “Measuring Ingredients: Food and Domesticity in Mexican Casta Paintings” provides a list of such names, including names meaning “coyotes, wolf, up in the air, [and] jump back”. Katzew’s LACMA Unbound post examines how light skin is a marker of social superiority in the casta naming system using the term “return backwards” as an example. Katzew explains that “Some [pseudo-scientific] theories [that informed the casta paintings] even argued that albinos proved that darker bodies could revert to whiter ones without having to mix with Europeans (or ‘whites’).” Such individuals were given the title “torna atrás (literally, ‘return backwards’).”

Thrall  is described on Trethewey’s website as a work that “…explores the historical, cultural, and social forces that determine the roles to which a mixed-race daughter and her white father are consigned…”. This exploration is paralleled in casta portraiture of two individuals and the resulting child or children. Parul Kapur Hinzen’s 2012 “Review: Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey’s ‘Thrall’ explores father-daughter racial divide” provides biographical information to explain the poet’s own experience with being a bi-racial child in the 1960’s. Hinzen writes, “Trethewey was born in 1966 in Gulfport, Mississippi. The marriage of her black mother and white Canadian father, a poet and one-time boxer, broke the state law against miscegenation. Her parents divorced when Trethewey was young.” The Racial Integrity Act of 1924 outlaws marriage between whites and non-whites. The act was more concerned with Caucasian blood purity and percentages of blood such as “one-sixteenth or less blood”. Titles were not attributed to mixed race individuals; instead, such unions were outlawed.

While the idea of creating large sets of portraiture to act as identifiers for specific groups in order to limit their social status may seem bizarre and excessive, it has precedence. Scott recalls Albert Eckhout’s 1640 series depicting “racially mixed people surrounded by native fruits, flowers, and animals”. The paintings are beautiful examples of individuals in the countryside, but they are also insidious displays of European prejudice. Eckhout’s paintings implement the penny dreadful tales shared by European travels of the time, as Scott observes. Eckhout “even tucked a human foot into her [the subject’s] basket of food stuffs, a clear reference to the cannibalism described”. While the casta paintings were created to elevate some individuals at the cost of subverting others, the works taken out of context and without their titles tell a different story. Trethewey’s decision to remove the pseudo-scientific information at the top of the painting presents the portrait as an act of resistance. A Spanish and Indigenous person stand together, a mixed-race couple happily living without concern of reprisal for their life together from the outside world.