Claudio Dicochea’s Contemporary Casta Paintings

by Margot BuermannPosted on

Mexican artist and arts educator Claudio Dicochea is best known for his contemporary reworkings of 18th century casta paintings, featuring a plethora of media idols and public figures sourced from world history and popular culture. Dicochea describes his work as “a contemporary re-examination of mestizaje, or mixed race identity” that explores “the legacy of colonial representation, hybrid identity, and contemporary media stereotypes.”

The artist utilizes a variety of materials – including acrylic, charcoal, graphite and transfer – on wood to create his brightly colored works, which incorporate text, comic book illustration, and collage of stitched-together images. The works instantly draw the viewer in with the myriad of famous faces, from Albert Einstein to Prince, which populate Dicochea’s canvas.

The original casta paintings, created in the 18th century in colonial Mexico, were based on the Spanish casta, or “caste”, system of socio-racial classification in the New World. This system was developed to document the processes of mestizaje and socially rank mixed race individuals born during the post-Conquest period. Casta paintings included portraits of mixed race families, arranging the subjects from lightest-skinned to darkest-skinned to reflect the social hierarchy imposed by Spanish colonialism. Many of Dicochea’s works are based on real casta paintings he encountered in his research of the genre.

As Dicochea notes on his website, “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… 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,” the artist continues, “thus moving us towards a different awareness and, ideally, towards socio-political agency.

Claudio Dicochea was born in San Luis Río Colorado and raised on the Mexican-United States border in southern Arizona. He studied at the University of Arizona, San Francisco Art Institute, and Arizona State University. Dicochea has taught at Arizona State University and Theatre of Hearts/Youth First in Los Angeles and participated in a number of panels and public speaking engagements. His artwork is included in the permanent collection of the Arizona State University Art Museum.

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