As F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, "The rich are different from you and me." But if "Ricas y Famosas," a new exhibition at the Blaffer Gallery, is any measure, the rich in Mexico are really freaking different. Photographer Daniela Rossell's portraits of "rich and famous" Mexicans are so shockingly over-the-top that they set off an international scandal. And the clincher is, Rossell isn't an outsider peering in -- she's one of them.
In Mexico, over half the population (53.7 million people) are considered to be living in poverty, but in 1997, a Forbes list of countries with the most billionaires named Mexico fifth worldwide. Rossell grew up on an ornamental estate with fiberglass replicas of Olmec heads in the garden. Let's just say the people she photographed look like they used her parent's decorators. Her subjects -- along with their homes, clothes, servants and possessions -- put the "conspicuous" in conspicuous consumption. Their homes sport enough glitter to shame Liberace and, as one writer beautifully put it, have "richly detailed theme rooms that would make Elvis weep with envy."
Rossell started her project in 1998 and completed it four years later. She focused primarily on women, and many of the people depicted are her friends and family. All of Rossell's subjects volunteered for the project, and the only restriction she imposed is that they be photographed in their home environments. The sitters chose the locations, dress, poses and objects that surrounded them.
"Daniela Rossell: Ricas y Famosas"
Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, 120 Fine Arts Building
Through June 13; 713-743-9530
Yes, someone chose to be photographed standing on a coffee table in a jeweled leopard-print bikini and flesh-toned fishnet stockings, surrounded by stuffed animals and Asian kitsch. And someone else elected to wear a zebra-print unitard with black sparkly leg warmers while, not coincidentally, crouching on zebra-print sheets, with ceramic zebras and a pile of ostrich eggs decorated with zebras nearby. The subjects treat their photo sessions like some weird amalgam of fashion shoot, soft-core porn, society portraiture and household inventory.
The plot thickens when you discover that much of this obscene wealth is derived from high-ranking members of Mexico's notoriously corrupt PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), which held a monopoly of power over the country from 1929 to 2000. Rossell doesn't title her photos and doesn't identify anybody, but viewers recognized the son of exiled former president Carlos Salinas among the cast of characters. He stands with his arms folded in the crotch of a massive gnarled tree outside a huge stone mansion.
The stepdaughter of Salinas's brother, Raul, is another participant. Raul Salinas is in jail for murder and is accused of laundering $100 million in drug money. His blond stepdaughter wears an off-the-shoulder yellow shirt that reads "Peep Show," is clasping a tennis racket and is resting one foot on the head of a taxidermied lion. These images no doubt contributed to the outcry and scandal that erupted when the photographs debuted in Rossell's book, Ricas y Famosas.
In response to the book, editorials in Reforma and other Mexican media called for a national examination of conscience. Rossell gave her subjects enough rope to hang themselves, and they did an admirable job. Taken by surprise at the international ridicule of their excesses, her subjects retaliated with lawsuits and death threats against her.
I visited the show with an artist friend who is Mexican-American. In stark contrast to the women in the images surrounding us, his mother worked as a maid to support him and put him through college. "Look, these people are all a lot more light-skinned than me; they aren't mestizo," he says. "Look at the maid -- that's me. She's posed as a prop, like everything else in that picture. She doesn't get to make eye contact with the camera; they aren't supposed to look directly at their employers. They are invisible."
With a couple of exceptions, the sitters in Rossell's photographs are indeed light-skinned and European-looking, with a penchant for blond hair. There's still a caste system operating in Mexico, and people with indigenous or African heritage appear in these photographs mostly as employees. One image shows dozens of servants, seated on steps stadium-style and holding the implements of their jobs -- irons for maids, clippers for gardeners and cell phones for security people. Racial attitudes also manifest themselves in the sitters' home decor, with a large number of blackamoor figures and "el negrito," Sambo-esque sculptures.
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I point out the clear plastic covering the huge floral rug. "Oh, I can relate to that," my friend says. "That's very Mexican; my mother does that. She covers the rugs with sheets, and sometimes she lifts them. And you realize, wow, there's a nice carpet under there."
We stop at an image shot from overhead, with a massive chandelier looming in the foreground. Below, a young woman in a gold lamé minidress reclines on a gold brocade couch. Above her is a painting of John the Baptist and Christ, depicted as children tending a sheep. "That's a very revealing painting," my friend remarks. "It could be a metaphor for the PRI. They see themselves as the shepherds of the poor -- the sheep. It's very paternalistic; this less than 1 percent of the population holds all the power."
Most of the women in these images are dependents -- the wives and children of powerful men -- and the show has the whole "bird in a gilded cage" thing going on as well. They have bodyguards and live in gated estates. They pose and dress sexily because their attractiveness is their currency. Most of the older women have obviously had plastic surgery. But you do see moments of lashing out and rebelling. Young bridesmaids stuff communion wafers in their mouths, snacking on the body of Christ. A woman wearing blue eye shadow and a dollar bill-printed shirt sits cross-legged on the floor of her private chapel. Her obese dachshunds copulate in front of the altar. Another woman sits on a saddle placed on a desk, flicking cigarette ashes onto its leather top.
These photographs aren't great just because Rossell has access to these people and their homes. She has a marvelous sense of the theatrical and a knack for dramatic angles and lighting. Rossell takes bizarre environments and pushes them even further. The photographs' depth of field is amazing, with every ornate detail in crisp, voyeuristic focus. Rossell photographs a faux Moroccan harem, gilded Europhile extravaganzas, goofy "modern" architecture, herds of stuffed game animals and private chapels -- all in full hyperreal color. The fascinating thing about these works is that they operate on so many different levels. They're all the stronger because Rossell isn't promoting one particular agenda with this glorious cavalcade of kitsch; she lets the images speak for themselves. I'd love to see her do a series in Houston.