Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

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Beauty has been defined by scholars as “the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.”1 However, this idea of aesthetic pleasure has been mostly shaped over the decades by advertising companies working hard on imposing Western stereotypes of beauty.

Moreover, beauty has been defined and stereotyped by only a few for the majority of the world to stay quiet and follow. But, are sculptural bodies, fine features, and luxurious settings the real definition of beauty? Definitely not. Immanuel Kant once said, “beauty presents an indeterminate concept of understanding.”2 It is marvelous to affirm that what really is beautiful in art is not only aesthetically pleasing to the eye but something that gives rise to a certain kind of experience or emotion. Whether this experience or emotion is amusing, repelling or enchanting, there is always an alluring force of attraction that drives us into it in a general manner that makes us ask about the value of beauty in art. Dr. Isobel Harbison argues that beauty, beyond skin deep, is always relevant, so let’s stop for a moment and reflect about the fascinating stories behind Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide’s Francisco Toledo and Xolo, Juchitan, Oaxaca, and artist Laura Anderson Barbata’s extensive work revolving around Julia Pastrana and her story.3

Graciela Iturbide, Francisco Toledo and Xolo, Juchitan, Oaxaca, 1995.

The lifelong friendship between Iturbide and Toledo dates back to 1979. During this year, Maestro Toledo invited Graciela to work on a photographic project about the Zapotec people that inhabited in Juchitan, Oaxaca, Toledo’s homeland. The Juchitan project encompasses the time Iturbide spent photographing the matriarchal society in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, home of one of the purest indigenous community in Mexico, where women are fierce, fearless, and independent. During this time as well, Graciela developed a close friendship with Francisco Toledo. In her piece Francisco Toledo and Xolo, Juchitan, Oaxaca, she captures their friendship wholeheartedly, as it reflects a playful side of Toledo rarely seen before.4

With arms in the air, undone shirt and messy hair, the maestro holds a Xoloitzcuintli dog in his hand. This mascot, often categorized as ugly and sometimes even mistaken as the fantastic Chupacabras, has a long history behind. The word Xoloitzcuintli comes from the Nahuatl word itzcuīntli meaning dog and the god Xolotl. This hairless ancient dog has been part of the Mexican cultural history for more than 3,000 years and was believed to be a sacred creature in Aztec mythology. Aside from their unappealing appearance, they have been frequently portrayed in art because of their connection to the spiritual world and healing properties, as well as for their loyalty and companionship. 5 What a beautiful contradiction: something so mundane and repelling being loved and praised, reminding us of the presence of beauty in unexpected places.

Laura Anderson Barbata, Bienvenida a Casa, 2012.

Similarly, artist Laura Anderson Barbata’s specific work and on Julia Pastrana’s embraces how beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Julia Pastrana was an indigenous woman native from the state of Sinaloa in Mexico, who was born with the strange condition of hypertrichosis terminalis, a genetic disease that causes an abnormal amount of hair growth over the body. Pastrana, gifted with a beautiful voice and graceful entertainment nature, was exploited from a young age for money, and travel around the world in the 19th century as part of several circuses. After her death in 1860, her rests and the ones of her newborn child were mummified and exhibited before being stored in a sealed coffin at the Department of Anatomy in Oslo University. Many reports recount that she was a smart and happy woman, but it is clear that her life was not an easy one. Laura Anderson Barbata committed herself to a long process to repatriate Julia’s remains to Mexico, and after almost 10 years, in 2013 Julia Pastrana was respectfully buried in her birthplace. Anderson Barbata gave Pastrana back the rights and humanity that were neglected to her all of her life. From this journey of trying to bring her home, Laura Anderson Barbata created a special handmade paper print inspired by the traditional Mexican cut-paper (papel-picado), memorializing Pastrana’s repatriation. This grand undertaking has been documented in the book The Eye Of The Beholder published in 2017 by Lucia|Marquand, Seattle.6

Even though the definition of beauty will always be a debate between the subjective and the objective, its definition in art is profound and unique. Art has the power to transform any commonality into a meaningful experience, free of norms and labels desperately willing to fit in. You can either approve it or not because after all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.


Written by: Roberta Zertuche

Made in Mexico will be on view from September 13 to November 3, 2018.


  1. Merriam-Webster, s. v. “beauty,” accessed October 30, 2018,
  2. Weiler, Gershon. “Kant’s “Indeterminate Concept” and the Concept of Man.” Revue Internationale De Philosophie 16, no. 61/62 (3/4) (1962): 432-46.
  3. Harbison, Isobel. “Does Beauty Still Matter In Art?.Tate. ” (October 30, 2018).
  4. Miranda, Carolina. ” Graciela Iturbide Talks About Going Viral, L.A. Cholos And Shooting Frida Kahlo’s Bathroom.” LA Times. (October 30,2018)
  5. Geier, Elisabeth. “The Amazing Story Behind Mexico’s Ancient Dog Breed.” The Dog People. (October 30, 2018).
  6. Laura , Anderson Barbata, and Donna Wingate, The Eye of the Beholder: Julia Pastrana’s Long Journey Home. Seattle, Washington: Lucia|Marquand, 2017.

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