With a contemporary and cultural twist to the age old art of portraiture, Sandra Nitchie aims to create tension between fame and identity that “evokes deeper questions about who we really are and what we reveal or hide.” Drawing inspiration from the iconic images of Mexican La Catrina, she sees her work as an investigation into the nature of identity.
Working in acrylics and oils on canvas, Nitchie creates works that capture the grandeur of her celebrity subjects while also turning them into images that reflect cultural value. In each painting, the subject is seen wearing the “La Catrina” mask associated with the Day of the Dead celebrations.
Can you talk a little bit about your “La Catrina” series? How was this idea born and why Mexican folk art?
I lived in Mexico for almost two years before painting my first Catrina.
Like most artists, I was on a quest to find my muse. Since my first visit to Mexico, the iconic La Catrina figurine – often seen in local markets depicted in murals and paintings – intrigued me because it celebrated death and embraced the idea of an afterlife. La Catrina also refers to the Grand Dame of Death. Her image is celebrated throughout Mexico on the Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos) every year on November 1st and 2nd.
During the festivities, people adorn themselves with painted masks and elegant dresses resembling La Catrina’s as a way of honoring the loved ones who have passed away. It is believed that the souls of the dead rise to dance, sing, and eat with the living.
The first time I discovered La Catrina I was awestruck by the juxtaposition of absolute beauty and morbidity of death. I was instantly hooked. I had found my muse.
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When did you first get interested in masks and how did you develop your unique style?
The mask of La Catrina, Lady of Death, is rooted deep in Mexican culture. Historically, it is attributed to the Aztec Goddess Michtecachuatl (Mitcal), the Queen of the Underworld. She is believed to be the protector of the bones of the dead and also presides over festivals such as the Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos). La Catrina’s next appearance came between 1910-1913 when it was printed on a broadside by Jose Guadalupe Posada. In Posada’s rendition of La Catrina she appeared modernized, wearing popular clothing indicative of the wealthy Europeans in power during that time in Mexican history. Posada’s intention was to poke fun at the upper class, stating in the end, “We are all the same!”
I painted my first La Catrina using a photo that I took during the Day of the Dead celebration. The image was an attractive woman who painted her face with the mask of La Catrina. I was mesmerized by the enchanting designs.
The first celebrity I painted was Marilyn Monroe. I was not just hooked on La Catrina, but also hooked on celebrating amazing people who brought beauty and talent to the world. Tying the legend of the ancient Aztec Goddess to the status of the modern day celebrities felt important and exciting.
What do these masks symbolize for you?
The La Catrina mask symbolizes a historic representation of Mexican culture evolved from ancient to modern times. It represents the celebration of death and the beauty of life. The La Catrina mask is not only historical but also evokes a deeper question: “What do we reveal to the world and what do we choose to hide.” We know celebrities through social media, television, and magazines but we do not know them intimately. The mask represents the duality between our inner and outer selves.
There is a mixed bag of famous portraits in your portfolio, from artists to celebrities. How do you choose your subjects?
I choose my subjects based on their beauty and their impact. For instance, I obviously chose to paint Marilyn Monroe because she is beauty, personified. However, she was also very private revealing a masked side, which I found mysterious and provocative.
Today, I find myself painting more current celebrities who have passed away such as David Bowie and Prince. When I paint a famous portrait I am very aware of their spirit and contribution to the world. The mask design often comes through listening to their music, reading about their lives, and looking at their old photographs.
Do you have a favorite work? Which one and why?
If I had to choose, it would be my two Marilyn paintings. She ignited me on this path of painting deceased celebrities and artists.
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