Twelve-year-old Karen paints her face white with make-up powder, putting on more and more, until she achieves the look of a ‘white woman’. She refuses to be called Afro-Mexican. She says she doesn’t like the word. (Photo: Cécile S. Baudier)
Twelve-year-old Karen paints her face white with make-up powder, putting on more and more, until she achieves the look of a ‘white woman’. She refuses to be called Afro-Mexican. She says she doesn’t like the word. (Photo: Cécile S. Baudier)

Portraits of unbelonging

  • At the GoaPhoto festival, photographer Cecile Smetana Baudier will showcase photographs of the tiny Afro-Mexican community
  • In 2015, in a historic development, the African-Mexican community was finally recognized by the national government

At first it seems like any other slice-of-life photograph, with three friends lounging around, sunning themselves. But then one’s gaze is drawn to Karen, 12 years old, with streaks of blonde in her hair and cinnamon-coloured eyes. Seated in a courtyard, she can be seen applying layers of make-up powder, with her face acquiring a ghostly white pall. Hailing from the tiny village of El Azufre, Oaxaca, along the Costa Chica in Mexico, she is part of the African-Mexican community. But Karen refuses to be identified as one, and hopes to look like a “white woman" with all that make-up.

Another image takes one to a dilapidated house in the same village, encrusted with layers of grime. The gleaming satellite dish, shining bright on the roof, provides a stark contrast. “In the village, no one owns a functioning toilet, but everyone owns a big television, usually placed next to the religious artefacts in the living room," writes Cécile Smetana Baudier. In her photo series Diaspora, the French-Danish photographer creates quite a portrait of this community, confined to the three southern states of Mexico.

Now she is bringing these images to the third edition of the international photography festival GoaPhoto, to be held in Aldona, north Goa next month. With private residences as venues, the festival—curated by Akshay Mahajan and founder Lola Mac Dougall—will offer intimate settings to view personal histories.

I ask Baudier what led her to visit El Azufre in 2015, a week after the African-Mexican community was finally recognized by the national government—a historic development. “I visited a dentist in Oaxaca and came across a series of photos of men with fishing rods and nets, lolling in boats and along the banks of lagoons," she says on email. The photo book was about the Afro-Mexican community from the coast of Guerrero. “The images were beautiful. I started researching online about the history of the Afro-Mexican minority. One week later, I found myself by the coast of Costa Chica," she adds.

The community’s origins go back to the early 16th century. According to a May report by Jonathan Custodio for the Pulitzer Center, it was around this time that 200,000 slaves were shipped to Mexico by Spanish conquistadors. In recent history, leaders from the community, such as José Morelo, have played a key role in Mexican politics but there has been little acknowledgement of their efforts.

Custodio goes on to write about activists, who have tried to increase the visibility of Afro-descendant populations . “[Finally] A historic 2015 national census...permitted Mexicans to officially claim Afro descendancy for the first time," he writes.

In the past, articles about the community have focused on an element of the exotic—from its style of music, called chilena, to the unique instrument, quijada, made from a donkey’s jawbone. Baudier’s photographs, however, train their attention on the notions of identity and a sense of belonging, or the lack of it. The blank gaze of the subjects is quite telling—of erasure, isolation and invisibility.

Baudier went about the documentation by pitching a tent in the front yard of a local family’s home and spending five weeks photographing the everyday lives of the village’s residents. During her time in El Azufre, she realized that their connection with the outside world was limited. Even though people had mobile phones, the network was spotty , and internet as well as newspapers were yet to interfere with the daily lives of the inhabitants. “The limited exposure to the outside world comes via television when families gather after dinner to watch the night-time soap operas with Mexican casts that look more like Californians than anyone from the region," she writes, “People of colour are simply not represented in the Mexican media landscape."

Her endeavours left the residents both flattered and confused. The older women were surprised—they did not see themselves as beautiful. “The younger girls would play ‘dress-up’ in their backyard and would use make-up to paint their faces white. You could tell that the hierarchy between the girls depended on their skin colour. It broke my heart, because it made me understand how big these issues are and how early it starts—this feeling that the skin you live in is not good enough," says Baudier.

In the lagoon of El Azufre. People of colour are simply not represented in the Mexican media landscape.
In the lagoon of El Azufre. People of colour are simply not represented in the Mexican media landscape. (Photo: Cécile S. Baudier)
In El Azufre, most inhabitants are up before sunrise, before the sun gets too hot and the mosquitoes too aggressive. The women usually bake tortillas and the men go fishing; and (below) Cécile Smetana Baudier.
In El Azufre, most inhabitants are up before sunrise, before the sun gets too hot and the mosquitoes too aggressive. The women usually bake tortillas and the men go fishing; and (below) Cécile Smetana Baudier. (Photo: Cécile S. Baudier)
Nobody owns a functioning toilet, but everyone owns a satellite dish and television, the latter usually placed next to the religious artefacts in the living room.
Nobody owns a functioning toilet, but everyone owns a satellite dish and television, the latter usually placed next to the religious artefacts in the living room. (Photo: Cécile S. Baudier)
In 2015, the Afro-Mexican community was finally recognized by the Mexican government, but in the small villages of Costa Chica, people are still struggling to regain their identity.
In 2015, the Afro-Mexican community was finally recognized by the Mexican government, but in the small villages of Costa Chica, people are still struggling to regain their identity. (Photo: Cécile S. Baudier)
Yaymi on the prairie. Family is at the centre of most lives in El Azufre, and many who are born here never leave.
Yaymi on the prairie. Family is at the centre of most lives in El Azufre, and many who are born here never leave. (Photo: Cécile S. Baudier)

Diaspora will be showcased at GoaPhoto (Goaphoto.in), Aldona, from 6-8 December.

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