Posted by: rebeccakilroy | October 2, 2021

Martine Gutierrez and “Indigenous Woman”

This week the Victorian soap advertisements, especially McClintock’s article on race and imperialism, made me think about this image from Martine Gutierrez. I first encountered Gutierrez’s work in a Spanish class I took last semester about hybrid identities. Gutierrez is a trans woman of Latinx descent whose work celebrates indigenous Mayan heritage while seeking to dismantle categories of race, gender, and sexuality. In 2018, she produced Indigenous Woman, a 124-page fashion magazine for which Gutierrez photographed and modeled in every image. Not only does the magazine feature traditional fashion spreads, it’s interspersed with reimagined advertisements for cosmetics and other personal hygiene products. Her biography on the Ryan Lee Gallery’s website states that Gutierrez seeks to “produce the very conduits of advertising that sell the identities she disassembles”.

Martine Gutierrez, Indigenous Woman

The advertisement that most resonated with me when I was doing this week’s readings is the image of a simple bar of soap against a plain tile background with the words “White Wash” written in black paint. The fine print on the soap’s packaging reads:

100% PURE BLEACH. NO ADDED FRAGRANCE. NO FUSS. BECAUSE SOMETIMES WHITE IS RIGHT. KEEP OUT OF EYES. KEEP AWAY FROM CHILDREN, ANIMALS, NATURAL RESOURCES, AND INDIGENOUS CULTURES. DESTROYS EVERYTHING ON CONTACT”

The composition, and especially the text, challenges the still-visible legacy of Victorian soap ads. The last sentence “Destroys everything on contact” alludes to the myth of first contact employed by Victorian advertisers including Pears’ soap that presented the magical, purifying, “civilizing” powers of the commodity. Gutierrez subverts this logic to present the destructiveness of the racist ideologies that underpinned those ads. Fully understanding soap as both a commodity and a symbolic representation of imperialistic power, Gutierrez highlights the harmful impacts that imperialist ideologies have on “children, animals, natural resources and indigenous cultures”. Interestingly all of the above appear in Victorian soap advertisements. The visual exploitation of these groups stands for a larger historical exploitation based on nineteenth-century ideas which continues in advertising to this day.

Martine Gutierrez, Indigenous Woman

Gutierrez’s commentary on the imperialist ideology of soap is made more effective by the image on the opposite page. While not expressly a single, full-page spread the motif of the bathroom tiles in both images suggests their connection. On the left hand side of the page is this image of Gutierrez dressed as a maid, cleaning what appears to be a hotel bathroom. This image would never appear in a traditional soap ad because it reflects the reality of domestic labor, especially women’s labor and most especially the labor of women of color. As McClintock writes in her introduction “To begin a social history of soap, then, is to refuse, in part, to accept the erasure of women’s domestic value under imperial capitalism” (McClintock 209). This erasure is so complete that many people today expect never to see the people, mostly women, who clean their spaces especially in a place as carefully orchestrated as a hotel. By reintroducing the image of the domestic laborer alongside a cleaning product, Gutierrez refuses to participate in this erasure. She calls attention not only to the racist legacy of soap but to the continued exploitation of women of color in domestic labor.

Works Cited:

Gallery, RYAN LEE, and Rlgallery. “Martine Gutierrez: Indigenous Woman.” Issuu, 2018, https://issuu.com/rlgallery/docs/indigenous_woman.

“Martine Gutierrez.” Martine Gutierrez – Ryan Lee Gallery, https://ryanleegallery.com/artists/martine-gutierrez/#biography.McClintock, Anne, and Anne McClintock. “Soft-Soaping the Empire.” Imperial Leather Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, Routledge, New York, NY, 2015, pp. 207–231.


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