“…Non dormirai invano, sorella.
Puro è il tuo dolce nome, pure la tua dolce vita:
di ape, ombra, fuoco, neve, silenzio, spuma,
d’acciaio, linea, polline, si è fatta la tua ferrea,
La tua delicata struttura…”
“… You will not sleep in vain, sister.
Your sweet name is pure, even your sweet life:
of bee, shadow, fire, snow, silence, foam,
steel, line, pollen, your iron has been made,
Your delicate structure …”
— from Pablo Neruda’s “Tina Modotti Has Died” (In Italian and English)
T he Brooklyn Museum is a treat to those of us who get to wander its exquisite architecture and beautifully-curated halls without the hubbub common to most NYC institutions. A prerequisite for all my trips is to visit the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art.
Organized around an incredible centerpiece — Judy Chicago’s ‘The Dinner Party’ — is a rotating Herstory Gallery. On one particular visit, I discovered Tina Modotti in the exhibition ‘Agitprop,’ devoted to artists who used their work to advocate social and political change for Communism. The images that tattooed themselves into the folds of my cerebral cortex ever since that day are these:
Tina Modotti with arms raised: the moment after removing a garment — a body in full reveal for a lover making their preliminary assessment.
A montage of awkward moments filmed in Super-8 projects in my brain, as I consider my own body. “Did someone shoot you in the back with a shotgun?” my Nonno used to ask and laugh about the acne covering my back and shoulders.
Will viewers or lovers do the same?
The shot of Tina is taken tight. She appears naked but is only visible from above the collar bone. Her arms cut off below the elbows by the top of the shot’s frame. Her biceps are pressed close to her face, obscuring her ears as if to shut out the world and its sounds. Bare armpits. Full lips and wide nose. Her low, dark hairline barely visible at the top of the frame. Unmistakable Italian features, like mine. Lastly, her closed eyes demonstrating a disarming vulnerability.
Take all of me in, she seems to invite, for I see all of you, and it seems only fair that you see all of me. For an Italian woman to break so boldly and visibly from tradition was an example I was largely unfamiliar with, but ravenous to find.
Another image: Tina Modotti naked on a blanket, arched and askew. Her head mostly hidden. Strong legs, and long feet. Her knees drawn upward towards her center, as though lying awkwardly on her side. Upon further inspection of the shadows, it doesn’t seem that her backside is touching the blanket beneath her at all.
The muscles of her back are flexed. She is lifting herself onto her knees, using her head and shoulders as leverage. She is posed in a triangle of sunlight, parting like a black curtain. She understands the composition of this photo as though it’s a self-portrait. Her physicality and placement are more than the careful manipulation of a photographer.
This is a collaboration. I see someone that knows and loves every inch of their body, and its relationship to the spaces it occupies. I am endlessly captivated. The ego-lessness of her spirit is fully present in her aesthetic. Her devotion to her subjects and the execution of an idea is riveting and leaves a lasting impression when I see any photo of or by her.
Whether it be of flowers, or communist laborers, or the Women of Tehuantepec — Tina’s vision resonates deeply. This liberated, revolutionary, creative, uncontainable Italian woman, freeing herself from a clandestine culture, stubbornly devoted to archaic traditions and ideas.
Italy has long-suffered from having too little to offer its educated and free-thinkers, especially its women, its queer humans, and persons of color, and has suffered from multiple waves of brain drains, leaving it an emigrant nation consistently abandoned by those that could elicit the most change, perpetuating a long-standing cultural taboo around education and personal liberation.
To be visible, to take up space, to expand your horizons and your mind, to be free in yourself and your body, to reach beyond to find where you best serve — are often met with a systematic campaign titled “Who do you think you are?” And soon the campaign employs itself without supervision, “Who do I think I am?” becomes the mantra we inherit. We adopt not only the words, but the tone and intention. But she seemed to have broken free of it.
See also the photo by Edward, entitled White Iris, where Tina Modotti, eyes closed, almost as though sketched in sand, smells the flower with an ethereal intimacy. Flowers were the first subject that Tina took on in her own photographic oeuvre. Edward is capturing an artist in love with their first muse. And Edward documents his muse, his love, his protege, who has already become something too free, too graduated, too individual to much longer be his anything.
In a few short years, they will release each other.
I am trying to honor the intuition telling me to do these photos alone and find myself struggling on this one. My photos are amateur recreations, but I’m attempting to hold myself to a certain personal standard for them, and this one isn’t cutting it. This photo was a conversation between Tina, and Edward, and the flower.
Who do I think I am to shove myself into it? Who do I think I am to do any of these photos?
I move to address her:
Tina, I often think of the dark hair on your body in the nudes you did for Edward. Your hairline sat low on your forehead. Even tied back, it still touched the outer tips of your eyebrows. A confident patch of pubic hair. The arm closest to the camera tucked under you your ribs. Your face tilted camera-side, eyes closed. How did I ever not know you? When you arrived in the states as a teenager, you left one world of tradition and antiquity for another, in the era where San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood boasted the finest Italian theatre outside of Italy — in the neighborhood where my family made their first American home decades later.
Performing in operettas, and plays, you made a name for yourself, while also becoming involved with Bohemians and radicals of the time who propelled a surprisingly sexually liberated era until it got obliterated by the world wars.
When they write about you, they will imply that your love affairs with your male and female collaborators and compatriots was a fault that prevented you from achieving your potential and overshadowed the legacy you did leave. It’s a narrow and diminishing perspective.
It does you a disservice. It’s asking you that same question.
Who do you think you are, Tina?
You devoted only a few of your 42-years to photography, in which you created a praised and significant oeuvre, and you abandoned it as deliberately and as passionately as you picked it up, same as theatre and film. Same, even, as being a laborer in Northern Italy.
You decided that your activism mattered more and that you could no longer contribute to the revolution as an artist.
Your lover and compatriot Julio Antonio Mella was assassinated with you standing beside him, and you were unable to save his life. You were framed for the murder of Mexican President Pascual Ortiz Rubio. You were exiled from Mexico. You went to Russia, Berlin, and to Spain, where you became involved in the rebellion against Franco. You returned to Mexico under a pseudonym, and you died in the back of a cab, on the way from the home of Pablo Neruda.
They will say it was congestive heart failure. When Pablo dies, 12 days after Pinochet’s coup in Chile, they will say it was prostate cancer.
You went to great lengths to write your own story, and the amateurs of this world still got their boring hands on it. I don’t know which assassination is worse. At least now, over 40 years later, we know the truth about Pablo. You’ve been gone much longer, but maybe one day you too can be released from the captivity of their narrative.
If you could pose the question to me, perhaps I can find a way to subvert the question’s inherent treachery. I trust you. I admire you. I see myself in you. You would not ask in the way that they ask. You would want to know.
Who do you think you are, Nico?
I am able to look at myself with the most appreciation of my wholeness when I look at myself as a canvas. Or as an ornament in a greater tapestry. I found affirmation and encouragement in that in you. This body does not reflect the body of my soul. I’m okay with that. I can dress it up, flaunt it up, touch it up, into an interpretation that I find more accurate. I can amend myself to be in better relation to the set design of my inner surroundings. But what to do with my body unaccustomed and un-curated?
How can this body — untouched and uncovered — reconcile the information that I receive from my own gaze when I wash my face at night?
I try to draw your Cala Lillies by eye with a charcoal pencil. I sit with you and I breathe with you.
I struggle because like anything I didn’t excel at immediately as a child, I was told I was no good at it. Then I often told myself to abandon it. But maybe I’m better at a lot more things than I let myself believe. Maybe I just need to give myself the time that I wasn’t given back then to develop them.
There’s life underneath all this rubble.
Maybe if I can allow myself to sketch these flowers from sight, and be patient with my amateur-ness, maybe I can also look at myself the way you were able to look at yourself. The way you let yourself be looked at.
I see my features in your features. I see my history in the shadows of your eye sockets and the rich, olive tones of your skin. And in those dark, confident patches of hair, I see my own, and I remind myself that from wherever my hair grows, however my body arcs and sways and moves and shakes, however what I see compares to what I feel, that I too can be visible, and that perhaps in me too someone will see themselves, their history, their integrity, and perhaps they too can move a little closer to themselves.
We are all beautiful in these temporary vessels, and even more so in the part more infinite. We deserve to feel that way. To exist in that place of power and to function from it. To be seen, to be touched, to explore and take up space, and to own our own narratives. To believe that everything can be healed.
You lived as though no weapon against you would prosper, and despite whatever did take your life in the back of that taxi, no weapon truly did. May we, blessed with your light, look at ourselves with such love until our assassins crumble at our enormity and our multitudes. As the song goes: I have always been here before. You are proof.