Mining the Corporeal: Black Women in Casta Paintings

Visual tools were commonly used devices in the Spanish empire to indoctrinate colonial subjects with Christian religious beliefs and Spanish ways of living at large. It is a seemingly natural transition that casta paintings emerged to visually tell the story of racial mixing that caused the elite classes of Spain and New Spain so much anxiety (Katzew 10). The belief in limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) gave credence to their anxieties (Loren 3). Initially, this ideal was utilized not only to purport Spanish superiority but also to encourage racial mixing in the guise of changing the racial makeup of New Spain to mainly Spanish. However, during the Bourbon reforms that began in 1739, the attitudes towards the mixed-race population shifted dramatically. The children once seen as the future of New Spain were now seen as a representation of a wayward society that would be the ultimate destruction of the colonial state (Fuelling 6). This perception was fueled by the growing restlessness of the mixed-race, indigenous, and Black African populations who were becoming increasingly intolerant to their various inferior statuses. These elite, literate Spanish and New Spanish populations sought to reinforce limpieza de sangrea as they feared that they may have to relinquish their dominant status given the increasing tensions. This racial purity was a synonym for total societal dominance. Therefore, in late eighteenth century New Spain, casta paintings were created for and commissioned by the elite Creole population as well as their Spanish brethren abroad to fortify this social dominance and protect Spanish political interests in colonial New Spain. Casta paintings and the ethnographic labelling assigned to each racial category were meant to convey a sense of orderliness in society that did not exist in reality.

The systematic formulation of these sixteen panel compositions depicted the miscegenation of the most prominent groups of people in New Spain: Spaniards, indigenous “Indians,” and Black Africans. Spanish blood reigned supreme while indigenous people were considered second, and Black Africans last. The mixed-race children of Spaniards were then ordered from most respectable (indigenous peoples) to least (Black Africans). The following captions were derived by Miguel Cabrera’s 1763 series (Earle 430).

1. From a Spanish man and an Indian woman is born a Mestiza
2. From a Spanish man and a Mestiza woman is born a Castiza
3. From a Spanish man and a Castiza woman is born a Spaniard
4. From a Spanish man and a Black woman is born a Mulatta
5. From a Spanish man and a Mulatta woman is born a Morisca
6. From a Spanish man and a Morisca woman is born an Albina
7. From a Spanish man and an Albina woman is born a Throwback
8. From a Spanish man and a Throwback woman is born a Tente en el aire
9. From a Black man and an Indian woman is born a China Cambuja
10. From a Chino Cambujo man and an Indian woman is born a Loba
11. From a Lobo man and an Indian woman is born an Albarazado
12. From an Albarazado man and a Mestiza woman is born a Barcino
13. From an Indian man and a Barcina woman is born a Zambaiga
14. From a Castizo man and a Mestiza woman is born a Chamizo
15. From a Mestizo man and an Indian woman is born a Coyote
16. Heathen Indians

These captions demonstrate the various labels given to each category. Although, full-blooded indigenous people are shown at the bottom of the listings, It is clear that mixing with indigenous peoples was preferred to mixing with Black Africans. The reasoning for this lies in the fact that indigenous peoples were allowed some more autonomy in their native practices compared to Black Africans.

In eighteenth century New Spain, the physicality of the body and the various objects used to adorn it were commonly used as a metaphor of society (Guzauskyte 182). Mining in the literal sense means to dig below the earth to obtain something of value, usually coal or other minerals for industrial use. Corporeal relates to a person’s physical body as opposed to their spirit. In the title of this exhibition, I combine the words to explore the rendering of the physical bodies of Black women in Casta paintings to extract a meaningful discovery. Casta paintings were systematic renderings of hierarchical status to depict racial mixing in New Spain that were frequently commissioned by the Spaniards to better understand the racial, cultural, and literal landscape of New Spain and by New Spaniards to reinforce their dominant place in colonial society. The different racial caricatures were reified through their physical skin colors, but the reality of their race was solidified by the various artists rendering them in stereotypical clothing and accessories and very pointed titles such as El Español y Negra; Nace Mulata. In the case of Black African women, it is hard to pinpoint one particular way in which Black African women were meant to be portrayed. There is little scholarship that focuses specifically on the Black African women in these paintings. This exhibition is meant to start the process of bridging this gap. The oil paintings in this exhibition feature the breadth of representation of Black African women in casta paintings from Black African women as dutiful wives in tranquil domestic settings to angry wives beating their husbands with the trappings of similar domestic settings. Given the wide variety of representation, the paintings have been separated into the following three different categories: Violence: The Angry Black (African) Woman, The Dutiful Caretaker and The Black African Woman Idealized. Violence: The Angry Black (African) Woman includes De Español y Negra, nace Mulata (1785-1790) by an unknown artist and De Español y Negra; Nace Mulata (Frutas de el Paiz) (1753 – 1773) by Andrés Islas. This section of the exhibition was curated to dissect these extremely violent depictions of Black African women. The Black African Woman Idealized ­features De Espanol, y Negra, Mulato (1775) by Francisco Clapera and From Spaniard and Black, Mulatto Woman (De Español y Negra, Mulata) (1763) by Miguel Cabrera. This section analyzes the Black African woman in leisure through her clothing and physical settings. Dutiful Caretaker examines the various ways that these women may have labored in New Spain, and it features De Español y Negra, Mulato (1780), by José de Pàez and De Español y Negra, nace Mulata (1778) by Jose de Alcibar. The lack of continuity in the depictions of Black African women demonstrates that there was no singular trope that Black African women were identified by. However, this exhibition will visually analyze each painting to illustrate these complexities of representation of Black African women in casta paintings and stitch together the complicated narratives the artists used to portray about Black African women in the social, political, and cultural landscapes of New Spain.

Curated By: Jade Elizabeth Maria Flint

Acknowledgements: This online exhibition was created for Fall 2020 ARHS 6874: Race & the Art of Empire with Dr. Mia Bagneris. Special thanks to Dr. Bagneris for sharing her generous wealth of knowledge with the class and pushing me to expand my skills as a writer and curator.

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