“The Political Body”: Radical Women and Latin American Art

Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985 was conceived 10 years ago ...

Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985 was conceived 10 years ago as a way of bringing contemporary Latina and Latin American women artists, often overlooked and sidelined professionally, into the spotlight. Debuting at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles as part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, the show is at the Brooklyn Museum until July 22 and from there will travel to Pinacoteca in São Paulo. According to the curators, Radical Women seeks to look beyond the task of forming new canons and instead pay attention to the strange and rare and inventive exchanges that women artists are having all around us, all the time. “Latin American” is defined expansively here—the curators have placed women born, living, and working in places like Puerto Rico, Chile, New York, Mexico, and Peru, and under different social and political circumstances, in dialogue with each other, emphasizing their divergent approaches to one common topic—the political body.

The exhibition comes in the wake of two other recent New York shows dedicated to gender, representation, and art: the acclaimed We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–1985, at the Brooklyn Museum last year, and Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon, which closed at the New Museum early this year. Three may mark a trend, but these curatorial priorities have in fact been taking shape for much longer. Ana Mendieta, the Cuban American artist whose 1972 piece (Untitled) Facial Hair Transplants is included in the Radical Women show, sought to foreground artworks by Black, Latina, and Asian women in the 1980 Dialectics of Isolation show at New York’s A.I.R. Gallery, organized with Kazuko Miyamoto. But such curatorial activism seems insufficient when faced with the politics of the museum—the politics of our institutions in general—beyond the gallery space. Can art challenge those politics? For the Brooklyn Museum, still mired in a scandal about its recent curatorial hires, the transformative potential of art remains to be seen.

Radical Women has certainly been a long time coming, then. I discussed the show’s trajectories since its inception, new canons, representation, and more with Andrea Giunta and Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, curators of Radical Women, and Marcela Guerrero, former curatorial fellow at the Hammer Museum.

Anayvelyse Allen-Mossman (AAM): What does the word radical mean to you and how does the radicalism of these artists and their work relate to the thematic arc of the show—the political body?


Andrea Giunta (AG): For me radical has two fields of definition. One has to do with the languages involved in the exhibition. These artists were radical because they were experimenting in the most radical ways, going beyond, occupying a field that nobody occupied before. They were also working in radical contexts that involved commitment to revolutionary movements. They were really putting their own bodies at the limit, at risk of being imprisoned, tortured, or assassinated.


Cecilia Fajardo-Hill (CFH): When we talk about the idea of the political body, we mean these experiments were coupled with expanding traditional notions of representation, conceptualization of women, talking about issues that were taboo like sexuality and bodily fluids.

The two biggest mediums in this show are photography and video art. There is a reason for that. There isn’t a huge art historical tradition assigned to video art. Photography didn’t really have a position as a Beaux-Arts thing. So these were spaces where women could actually make an imprint. The themes and ideas that were being discussed and explored required new ways of saying these things.


AAM: How did you try to incorporate different genres or different media into the exhibition?


CFH: Of course there was a limit to how many artists and how much further we could go. We had limited space at the end. But it was all driven by the concept of the show, the political body. We did not decide we needed to have so many videos, so much photography—it’s an organic process.


AG: Natural.

Feliza Bursztyn (Colombian, 1933–1982), Cama (Bed), 1974. Assemblage with stainless steel scrap, cot, satin sheet, and motor. 43 5/16 × 70 7/8 × 27 9/16 in. Museo Nacional de Colombia. Artwork ©the artist. Photograph ©Museo Nacional de Colombia / Andrés Mauricio López

CFH: You don’t decide that you’re going to have 23 Brazilian artists and one artist from Guatemala. It just happens that the histories are shaped in a particular way and context. Of course, when you organize the exhibition, technology has huge implications for an institution. You have to have the projectors, and monitors that are particular to the age in which the videos were produced, and you have to put them in dialogue within an installation. So when you see the exhibition you will see that all these things are coming together. It’s not that you have videos segregated here, and photography there. There is none of the linearity that you would think of as necessary for an art historical show in terms of chronology, nation, and media. There is none of that; the show is all driven by the themes. Let’s take feminism. “Feminism” is a section that has a banner by Lea Lublin, it has videos, it has assemblages by Mónica Mayer, it has ceramic pieces by Tecla Tofano, it has photographs, and so forth. So in the end that is the museological exercise. Which pieces converse with each other? It’s not a technical decision, it’s about the works and what they do.


AG: You know, in some ways it’s a consequence and not a departure point. Performance, the photographical register of the performances, and the films about the performances are very present in the exhibition because performance was a way toward becoming. The artists are becoming someone else, and we as an audience are becoming someone else through performance. They were interrogating who they were as women in the society: what was their place? So it was a way to find new answers to the big questions.

The world of art then and even today is a very selective, white, patriarchal, and middle/high-class field. To be part of the world of art means to be recognized as a part of the world of art. This means to be involved in the powerful myth of being recognized. You are not an artist just because you want to be an artist.

Another empty space in the art world, besides gender, is race representation. From the start we wanted to find some voice that was expressing blackness. We don’t have any examples from Brazil, but one of the most powerful works in the exhibition is by a black woman from Peru, Victoria Santa Cruz. It’s very interesting, because what she did was not recognized in the field of visual arts; she was participating in the fields of theater, dance, and performance. And then we made a curatorial move, which is also a political move, to bring her from the field of theater into the field of art. It’s probably the first time her performance is being exhibited in a museum as a work of art. To do this we had to cross the limits of traditional arts or the categories that are usually represented in the field of art.


“A Thousand Years” of Zoe Leonard

By Jonathan Flatley

Marcela Guerrero (MG): Victoria Santa Cruz is coming from folklore. There’s a very important political move that is perhaps symbolic, to legitimize her as an artist even though her work did not circulate in that way. That’s just one example among many other gestures in the exhibition of women who were making art. Liliane Dardot was bored and alone in her house and made art as a way of expressing herself, but she wasn’t being exhibited. Making art was just an outlet for her, a muscle that she needed to flex.


AAM: How are you defining what categories to transgress, what categories to build on?


CFH: Any social construct is something out there that’s ready for us to transgress and redefine. In the exhibition there are artists who deal with issues of queerness and transgenderness and so forth, but that’s not the main issue of the exhibition. The issue for us was: who are the women artists who in their work actually attempted, as political beings, as women, to redefine certain issues about what is a body, what is a woman, what is a society, what is my place in society, what is my sexuality?


AAM: You’ve spoken a lot about the feminist methodology of the exhibition. You have said that the idea of representation itself is a feminist commitment …


AG: Yeah, that’s a very interesting question. For me it came up as: how am I defining a feminist methodology in general terms? It’s whatever is alternative to the patriarchal methodology. I prefer to work with arguments rather than assertions; instead of working with canonical art history, I work with what has been marginalized, erased, or hidden. To work on the other side of the canon is for me, in general terms, a feminist methodology, as is to question the narrow limits of the canon traditionally focused on white and male artists.

Letícia Parente (Brazilian, 1930–1991), Marca registrada (Trademark), 1975. Video, black-and-white, sound. 10:19 min. Private collection; courtesy Galeria Jaqueline Martins. ©the artist

CFH: For me, being feminist in one’s approach is simply to give an opportunity, to give the benefit of the doubt when you see someone’s work instead of immediately thinking something negative and belittling. Women are held to different standards of accountability; 100 percent more is demanded of them than of men. They’re pestered conceptually and aesthetically, they’re supposed to be this and that and so forth. It’s actually really difficult to work under such pressure. So, if you actually give the benefit of the doubt and offer an opportunity, open a pathway for someone to speak …


AG: Standing in the place of the other.


CFH: Yeah, this is to be feminist.


MG: Especially questioning the structures of power, like what makes an artist’s space? How does a work of art get to a wall? Really dismantling that system.


CFH: It’s as sophisticated as that. To get something to a wall, what has to happen for that to be there, and for something else not to be there?


AG: Going back to what is feminism, I want to provide a recent example. When we wrote up the Declaration of Commitment to Feminist Practices in Art, “Nosotras Proponemos” (We Propose), in Buenos Aires, many people criticized it, saying it was too long. Why 37 points? And we said, because that is feminism. You need time, you know, you need to be involved, you need to read, you need to understand. It’s not just five points intended to shock—feminism is not about that. We need time to involve others in the specificities, in order to make possible empathy and transformation.


CFH: For example, during the research process, I found a tiny little black-and-white illustration of an electrocardiogram in an old catalog in Colombia, and I thought that the author, a woman, must be brilliant. You wouldn’t have an electrocardiogram in a Biennial unless it meant something. I would ask people, and they would say, oh, she’s a nobody, don’t waste your time. One person that was advising me, she sat down and said, stop it, please stop wasting my and your time. And I thought then that I should go ahead and research it on my own.

Eventually we found out who she was, and she was actually someone brilliant who had been erased from the history of art in Colombia: Sandra Llano-Mejía. But she was not visible, and that’s the thing about history; whoever’s not visible after 30, 40 years does not deserve a place in that history. That’s the main argument, that people who are already visible are the important ones, so don’t bother. So the important thing is that there should be more research. I think it’s a field of new inquiry—instead of focusing on what else hasn’t been said about Picasso.

MG: I think there’s been a huge reeducation of the museum. As an institution, it’s finally seeing people like Sandra Llano-Mejía, who’s been doing other things but the art world hasn’t really legitimized her. The moment you put her in a catalog in a show at the Hammer Museum or the Brooklyn Museum—do you know how important that is to a person whose work that we’re showing is from 1980, maybe, from the 1970s, and now 50 years later she has this platform? If you read Christopher Knight’s review in the Los Angeles Times, he’s so honest when, after giving this huge background on Victoria Santa Cruz, he says, there’s like 90 artists here that I didn’t know at all. It’s a huge reeducation of the art world.


CFH: We know through the universities that we visited for seminars and lectures that students are actually analyzing our text and doing more research because they know that they need to continue expanding the field. So the academic world should the first to expand because that’s their whole reason for being, expanding knowledge and learning new things.


AG: Well, it’s also happening outside the university. I hope that the canon is expanded instead of reproduced. In terms of these artists that were hidden, not recognized, forgotten—in some way we changed the definition of what an artist is.

I was walking through the Museum of Modern Art last Sunday and I saw so many wall texts describing work as “mid-career,” or “late period.” This notion of a career is very patriarchal, because women have a different way of making a career. Their careers were interrupted by maternity, caretaking, and so many things that society naturalizes as what women have to do.

Then what happens is that, as Cecilia said, in the 1980s in some moments you have an artist that was incredibly active and recognized, like María Evelia Marmolejo or Teresa Burga, and many things happened in their lives. At one moment in their lives they stopped making art because, among other reasons, they were not recognized; they were working hard but they were not authorized to occupy the place of an artist.

And then the art system erases whatever they did. That’s why I think that our curatorial project is focused on the power of the art object. We worked with works of art that we considered extraordinary, without considering whether they were recognized or integrated into the narration of Latin American art or into national art histories. The performances of María Evelia Marmolejo had a specific effect when she presented them—they affected many people, had an impact in the press, and were recognized as fabulous works of art. And then because she didn’t continue with the traditional idea of a career, her works disappeared, erased from Colombian art history.


CFH: She never had another moment of recognition, until recently.

María Evelia Marmolejo (Colombian, b. 1958), 11 de marzo—ritual a la menstruación, digno de toda mujer como antecedente del origen de la vida (March 11—ritual in honor of menstruation, worthy of every woman as a precursor to the origin of life), 1981. Photography: Camilo Gómez. Nine black-and-white photographs. Five sheets: 11 3/4 × 8 1/4 in. each; four sheets: 8 1/4 × 11 3/4 in. each. Courtesy of María E. Marmolejo and Prometeo Gallery di Ida Pisani, Milan. ©the artist

MG: Speaking to what Andrea was saying about the genealogy of women artists being different from that of men—you know, some took a hiatus. Others taught many men, but somehow that’s not recognized.


AAM: They’re considered more as educators than as artists, for example.


MG: Somehow that is seen as being less than a legitimate artist.


CFH: Yeah, and some artists had incredibly tough lives. Exile was a huge component in some people’s lives.


CFH: Sonia Gutiérrez disappeared. Some went to places where they were literally swallowed by the system. Some artists didn’t do well in Europe, or didn’t do well in other places—some people have more ability than others to actually survive in a particular system. So this idea of career is a truly neoliberal idea, but it goes way back.


AAM: You mentioned that for Brooklyn, you added three Latina artists—a Cuban-American, a Chicana, and a Newyorican. For the show’s next stop, at Pinacoteca, you’re adding Brazilian artists. How is the show changing, if at all? Are you having to rethink the exhibition?


CFH: No. The themes and the structure of the exhibition stay absolutely the same, because the concepts are not changing. At the Brooklyn Museum the space has changed a lot, we had three new artists. So some of the works are not in the same relations that we had. For example, here in Brooklyn, “Performing the Body” and “Body Landscape” are together, they work really well together. We had them in separate buildings at the Hammer. It’s interesting to see what is happening here: for example, we have three themes centered around The Dinner Party, by Judy Chicago. And the triangular shape of the space actually look amazing for the “Feminisms” and “Social Places” themes. It’s fascinating to see how these come alive differently.

Of course, both in Brazil and here we worked on the floor plan with the museum to make sure that it makes sense, that the relations that had been established continue. Because some museums in the US don’t lend works to Brazil, and sometimes costs are prohibitive because they require couriers, we had to change some of the art pieces for photography and video and other more portable mediums. There are also a few artists that we won’t have in the show in Brazil, but we have five new artists, four Brazilian and one Mexican. So the experience for viewers will be slightly different, but they will still have the power of all this mass of works and these thematic relations with all these different countries there. icon

Featured image: Paz Errázuriz (Chilean, b. 1944), La Palmera (The palm tree), 1987, from the series La manzana de Adán (Adam’s Apple), 1982–90. Gelatin silver print. 15 9/16 × 23 1/2 in. Courtesy of the artist and Galería AFA, Santiago. ©the artist