We were lucky to be in New York when such an important exhibition for us with Latin American background is showing in a major art museum. Radical Women: Latin American Art 1960-1985, curated by Cecilia Fajardo-Hill and Andrea Giunta and currently on view at Brooklyn Museum showed 120 women artists from Latin America and the intersections between politics, the body and society, and groundbreaking ways of seeing. All these aspects are intertwined both formally and conceptually with the narratives of women in the continent in the stormy decades from the 60s through the 80s.
The exhibition shows a wide array of artists from Latin America, including North American artists with Latina background (such as Ana Mendieta, for instance), which expands the notion of Latin American identity to those in diaspora and even of double national identity throughout the exhibition. Seeing narratives of women artists in Latin America is not so common in the northern hemisphere whilst for us having studied, lived in and being brought up with narratives of female resistance and contemporary art in Latin America, it was a welcome opportunity to engage with these artists as we live in a nordic context far from our second homes and homelands (in our case Brazil, Chile and Peru).
Victoria Santa Cruz (1922-2014), Me gritaron negra (They shouted black at me), 1978. Video documentation of performance, excerpted from the documentary Victoria – Black and Woman (1978). Courtesy of OTA-Odin Teatret Archives and the Hammer Museum.
At the entrance of the exhibition, we were directly confronted with a video-performance by Afro-Peruvian choreographer, composer and activist Victoria Santa Cruz (b. 1922) “Me gritaron negra!” from 1979, filmed by the Odin Teater, a nordic experimental theatre company founded in 1964 and currently based in Denmark. The video shows a performance by the artist, who is well-known for starting the first black theater company in Peru in the late 1950s, recounting a personal narrative of racism and discrimination of her awareness of being black as a child. This piece sets the tone for the first room of the exhibition dealing with the issue of identity, public and private. The artworks and artists shown provide a portrait of an era where they “protested the dictatorships across the South American continent, made plain the monotony of domesticity, and expressed their sexuality in intimate self-portraiture, exposing breasts, vaginas, and tongues.” – Read a review here
As a reflection of the extraordinary experimentation in several media typical of this period, the exhibition includes many works in photography, film, multimedia installations, as well as more traditional mediums like sculpture and painting. The exhibition at the outset introduces us not only into the political struggles of the period marked by political instability with several dictatorships beginning exactly on these decades in most countries – except the USA (but many works being critical of USA’s involvement in many of the coups throughout the continent in the period) – but also into the women’s liberation movements in the West which challenged many conceptions of womanhood, motherhood and the body especially in reaction to the conservatism which pervades Catholic societies. Throughout the exhibition it becomes clear that the body is reconceptualized during this period, and through most artworks, as a political process. Violence is an ongoing theme, best exemplified in Ana Mendieta’s performance Rape Scene (1973) recreating the aftermath of a violent assault, where the artist represents defenselessness and invites the viewer to take a stand.
Sonia Gutierrez, b. 1947, Y con unos lazos me izaron, 1979. Acrylic on canvas.
In the revolutionary spirit of these decades, in which many of the artists features in the exhibition took part, leading many into exile for their oppositional stance towards the régimes, we see artworks that challenge traditional roles and expose the difficulties endured by populations in Latin American populations at large while also challenging the canons of visual form. We see for instance, multiple references to the coup in Chile and the Pinochet era in Chile, echoes of the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, the plight of the indigenous in the Amazon in the works of Claudia Andujar (BR) and the decolonial critique by Anna Bella Geiger (BR), the questioning of domesticity in the works of Letícia Parente (BR) and the radicality of Marcia X (BR), the neo-concrete and geometric explorations of Liliana Porter (AR, living in NYC since 1964), the performances of Ana Mendieta (d. 1981), the reference to torture in Sonia Gutiérrez’s (CO) paintings inspired by a Pop Art aesthetic, and the intense photography of the New York-born Puerto Rican photographer Sophie Rivera, a relatively unknown photographer from the Bronx we were happy to discover. Other names are Judith Baca, a central figure of the Chicano art movement, and the Chilean-American performance artist Sylvia Palacios Whitman. And so many others.
It is not usual to group together artists from Latin America and artists from Latina background in an art exhibition, but it made sense. While these divisions may seem artificial constructs that tend to separate North American Latina or Chicana artists from the rest of the continent, it can be said the struggles and critiques of patriarchy and the response towards second wave feminism – especially in terms of issues for minority women during those decades – are some of the themes shared by artists with Latin American background throughout the exhibition.
Gloria Camiruaga (1941-2006), Popsicles (1982-84). Video, color, sound 6′,
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (MAC, Facultad de Artes de Universidade de Chile.
In the middle of the exhibition, there was a room which provided the viewer with an overview of events in every Latin American country represented, with key dates in terms of women’s history and political turning points. It was interesting to compare the different decades in which women acquired the right to vote in each country (in the 1930s and 40s in most country, but as late as the 60s in some), to the dates when divorce became legal (astonishingly as late as the 1980s as in Argentina), to the timeline of political coups and changes of power. The timelines themselves varied in content greatly, some shorter than others, and the USA having the longest list of events. Perhaps a bias towards the hosting country and financers of the exhibition? Some woman politicians were named, but not for example, any statistics on the presence of women in politics. Also sorely missed were dates related to the emancipation and rights of minority women, figures which would also have been nice to observe against the relatively large colored and mixed populations in all countries. Nevertheless, what made this room with factual information powerful was its combination with a video piece by Gloria Camiuraga (Chile) projected above, showing close-ups of women and girls’ mouths sucking popsicles shaped like soldiers, as we listen to a choir of women mumbling hail marys to the images.
All in all, we also realized that this generation of artists is also de generation of our mothers and their struggles. While all of us at IDA are daughters of this generation, some of us even having grown up and studied art under the influence of these artists and artists of this time period. What was interesting to compare is how many of the struggles depicted in the works in this exhibition remain in the political fragility of the region at the moment, but also in how the politics of the body and of identity have evolved since then. It was disheartening to realize, however, that even though dictatorships of the 60s-80s have been dissolved and countries have become established democracies where women’s political presence have increased significantly, the region still beckons women artists to require audiences to take a stand in issues of women’s rights in the face of a renewed religious conservatism, the connection between environmental issues and women (tangentially touched upon in this exhibition), and more representation of women artists with diverse backgrounds within Latin America, in an effort to give an even more complex image of this continent of sharp contradictions.