Academic journal article Bulletin of Hispanic Studies

The Muxes of Juchitán: Representations of Non-Binary Gender Identities in Contemporary Photography from Mexico

Academic journal article Bulletin of Hispanic Studies

The Muxes of Juchitán: Representations of Non-Binary Gender Identities in Contemporary Photography from Mexico

Article excerpt

Nicola Ókin Frioli's photography series entitled 'We are Princesses in a Land of Machos' (2004) is a portraiture project representing the muxes living in Juchitán de Zaragoza in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.1 The series captures the muxes of Juchitán in everyday surroundings in their finest clothes, offering a glimpse into the lives of people assigned male gender at birth who defy hetero-normative standards of behaviour in today's Mexico. The photographs reveal part of the Juchitán community occupying a gendered position that is neither male nor female, but muxe. Approaching the visual appeal of this series in a scholarly manner is complicated by the fluidity of the term muxe, which encompasses a wide range of appearances and behaviours (Gutmann 2007: Location 1117). Through a visual analysis of Ókin Frioli's photographs, I examine the representational role of photographic portraiture in documenting, consolidating and questioning gender norms. Theoretically, I probe the explicit resistance to applying Judith Butler's theories of gender in recent scholarship concerning muxes (see Subero 2013; Mirandé 2015) by arguing that her work can help to analyse gender itself as an oppressive mechanism.

Before analysing the photographs or introducing 'muxenity' as a phenomenon, it is necessary to acknowledge the larger framework of coloniality (see Stryker and Currah 2014: 303), which necessarily informs this academic mediation of Nicola Ókin Frioli's work. In pinpointing my own position as a Pole educated and working within the British university system, and the photographer's Italian roots and education, I make explicit our respective places within the colonizing framework. In doing so, I work against the presumed transparency of academic and photographic work, and acknowledge their role in producing and sustaining normativity. To admit this privilege and power of mediation is not to position the mediators at the centre of the enquiry. Rather, my intention here is to mark a point of departure for analysing whether photographic representation and its academic analysis can remain critical of its own enquiry.

Nicola Ókin Frioli was born in 1977 in Rimini, Italy. Inspired by his father's love of photography, he completed a photojournalism course after finishing school and then accepted a scholarship for a two-year experimental certificate programme at the Universitá dell'Immagine run by Fondazione Industria Onlus Milan, in Milan. In 2000, even before finishing his formal education, Ókin Frioli first travelled to Mexico, where he reports having found a sense of belonging coupled with an attraction that brought him back every year until 2007, when he decided to move to Mexico City.2 In doing so, he followed a trail blazed by Tina Modotti, an Italian photographer described by Roberto Tejada as one of the first to break with the picturesque convention in Mexican photography and establish it as a medium in its own right (Tejada 2009: Location 1193). This positions him within the long line of foreign photographers for whom Mexico was a source of inspiration and the location of some of their best work, such as Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Henri Cartier-Bresson and others. Such was their influence that the importance of foreign gaze has to be understood as a significant part of the history of Mexican photography. In that sense, the medium itself is implicated in the complex colonial and neo-colonial processes of making meanings of Mexico and in Mexico through foreign lenses.

Since arriving in the country, Ókin Frioli has built up a wide-ranging portfolio of work, encompassing three types of photography: commercial, journalistic and documentary. His commercial clients include global brands such as Adidas and Gatorade, aiming to appeal to the Mexican market.3 This type of work allows him the economic independence to be free in his choice of subjects for documentary work, as well as the time he needs and wants to spend with the people he photographs (Ókin Frioli interview, see n. …

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