At the Brooklyn Museum: Latin-American Women Artists Take a Stand

Sandra Bertrand

 

Is art over?  Gloria Gomez Sanchez, a Peruvian artist and activist whose work is in the current exhibition, Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985 at the Brooklyn Museum, posed that question back in 1969.  Asking such a thing in her opinion was “as absurd as a rabbit running after a carrot tied to its tail.”

The curators of this extraordinary and, at times, exhaustive exhibition have set their sights on bigger game than such philosophical conundrums. Organized by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, it is the first exhibit to present the contributions of Latin American and Latina women during a period not only of exceptional experimentation but one in which profound political and social turmoil was rampant throughout Latin American countries.  Dictatorships were the order of the day, with subsequent interventions and coup d’etats from the United States quick to follow.  The populace, particularly women, were too often the victims, caught in the middle of a tragic humanitarian upheaval.

One-hundred-and-twenty-three women artists from 15 countries are represented here, giving voice to decades of repression.  Through photography, performance, video and conceptual art, the female body itself often became the primary means in their artworks to express repression and the need to revolt—to figuratively, and literally, break free from the ties that had bound them for too long.  The result of speaking from such oppression is not always pretty to look at.  It can at times be repulsive but at its best, it’s powerful and even at times beautiful.

 

 

It should be mentioned that wide recognition for originality and experimentation emerged since the 1990s in the works of Latina artists such as Beatriz Gonzalez, Anna Maria Maiolino, Ana Mendieta, and Lygia Pape, among others.  The period covered here, though including name talent entries such as the iconic wood sculpture, Self-Portrait by Paris-born Venezuelan Marisol—a work that gives us seven carved figures of various attitudes to express the multifaceted nature of identity—there is no attempt to give star status to the few.  This exhibit is too overflowing, too egalitarian in approach to allow for that.   

To give essential order to such a rich helter-skelter of styles, the exhibit is organized thematically in nine sections, exploring key topics like Social Places, Resistance and Fear, Erotic, Mapping the Body and Performing the Body among others, the latter rife with photographic documentation of many highly controversial public performances of the time. 

As part of the Self-Portrait section, one video from 1978 performed by Peruvian Victoria Eugenia Santa Cruz’s Me gritaron negra (They shouted back at me) is a confrontational chorus of voices on one of the overhead screens that literally sets the tone for much of the work on display.  Another three-minute video at the other end of the same room presents an Homage to George Segal, featuring Brazilian artist Lenora de Barros brushing her teeth in what appears to be a plaster cast in the style of Segal’s lifelike characters. It’s one of the show’s few pieces that injects a touch of humor in its satirical response to the male-dominated canon. 

 

 

Another Brazilian, Wanda Pimentel, is represented by a stunning series, Entanglements.  These are vinyl paintings of great virtuosity, bold colors and geometric compositions showing fragmentary female limbs in claustrophobic disarray.  American-born Judith Baca gives us The Three Marias, three panels with the woman on the left in a masculine pose, the one on the right a cigarette-smoking siren, and in the middle panel a mirror to capture the viewer herself. 

One could argue that broad descriptions have a limited function—the traveler who moves through this emotionally wrought maze may wonder why Argentinian Delia Cancela’s wood construction, Destroyed Heart, with a painted fragment of a red heart and little silk fragments hanging from its base, really belongs in the Erotic section?  Would a damaged heart resonate better in Resistance and Fear?  Little matter. That the artwork speaks in some way to each individual viewer is the point after all.  (During my own visit, I couldn’t help overhearing Catherine J. Morris, the Sackler Senior Curator and organizer for this leg of the exhibit mention to a group of students that you could enter at any point and that every time she went through herself, she learned something new.)

Photography can have an immediacy hard to replicate in other media, especially when it addresses its subject with an honesty and directness of intent.  Born in Switzerland in 1931 but living and working in Brazil, Claudia Andujar produced 12 black and white portraits of the indigenous Yanomassa community.  There’s an indisputably naked beauty in every face.  The dictatorship of 1978 forced her to escape, but when she returned to the Amazon to work in a vaccination campaign, she was able to document the immunized with their ID numbers.  The wall notes tell us that Andujar’s own father died in a Nazi extermination camp. 

 

Panamanian Sandra Eleta’s photograph of Edita, the one with the feather duster from her La servidumbre (Servitude) series, is obviously posed, but the subject reclining in her chair confronts us nevertheless with an uncompromising gaze.  The same “in your face” attitude is prevalent in Chilean photographer Paz Errazuriz’s series of transgender sex workers in Santiago.  Others, like Lordes Grobet from Mexico, create a fictional tableau vivante in catchy portraits of the artist breaking through metallic paper in three stages—a farfetched nod to The Birth of Venus by Botticelli.  The images were originally printed without fixatives so the work would fade over time.  We can be thankful that the images here have a lasting effect on the eye. 

Argentinian Liliana Maresca’s photograph shows the artist in an elaborate and chilling vise of her own making.  Brazilian Anna Maria Maiolino is represented by a close-up portrait, lifting a pair of scissors to her eye—a clear nod to self-mutilation.  The most heartrending example in this category is an image of Colombian Maria Evelia Marmolejo, wrapped from head to toe in afterbirth placentas with an explanatory title: “I question coming into a world where there are no benefits or peace for newborns in a society where eleven thousand children starve to death in Latin America every year.”   

That brings up another issue—the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of still photography documentation of art performance pieces.  In the case of an exhibition of this nature, the need of the artist to express her subjugation publicly under such harsh political and cultural regimes seems reason enough to document the event.  Chilean artist Sylvia Palacios Whitman’s photographs from her Sonnabend Gallery show of 1977, Passing Through, shows the artist with two giant green hands.  Elements of her performance—the hands and stairs—are placed on the wall but the viewer may be left with an emptiness over the whole business without the performer present. 

In many instances, the video arts are more effective in communicating the complex repository of emotion that is an indisputable part of protest. One three-minute entry from Chile that had a dramatically effective shock value is Chilean Diameta Eltit’s Zones of Pain II.  An attractive woman aggressively follows a homeless man, suddenly planting an openly erotic kiss on him.  This reversal in gender social behavior from 1981 still holds a certain power. Four film screenings from Mexican artists Sarah Minter and Jessica Rodriguez and one from Cuban-born Sara Gomez are also included to satisfy one’s visual appetite and desire for a storyline. 

Graphic art as protest is writ bold in American-born Ester Hernandez’s iconic poster Sun Mad from 1982.  The serigraph on display is a takeoff on the Sun Maid Raisins logo, only in this instance, the Sun Maid in question wears a grinning skeletal face with pesticide warnings noted at the bottom.  A pop art style entry from Colombian Sonia Gutierrez depicts a woman lifted upside down by rope.  The mastery of line and composition challenges the viewer to see it as much for its artistry as for its subject.

A surprising art for art’s sake entry is Argentinian Marcia Schvartz’s Las vecinas, a delightful diptych collage of two cutout female neighbors, hanging over their balconies in a gossipy moment, replete with a small birdcage over one of their heads.  For pure minimalist form, Cuban-born Zilia Sanchez’s Lunar V manages to give us a hauntingly beautiful moon shape on stretched canvas, a center crease implying the juxtaposition of two breasts entwined. 

One of the most ambitious pieces, perfectly suited to the Body Landscape category, is Brazilian Vera Chaves Barcello’s Epidermic Scapes.  Thirty printed squares of skin have been enlarged on photographic paper, forming a huge floor display.

One room is covered with a Timeline of Social and Political Events in play that is well worth at least a few minutes before or during the visit.  It is an indispensable tool for understanding in plain English the number of dictatorships, depositions, coup d’etats, disappearances, murders and the eventual rise of feminism and the right to vote for women in Latin America and the United States. 

If one take-away impression from this remarkable exhibition is the universality of repression and the overarching need in the human spirit for freedom, that will be more than enough answer to art and its future in whatever form.

The exhibition will be on view through July 22, 2018.

 

Correction:

The exhibition is organized by the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, as part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA. The exhibition is guest curated by Cecilia Fajardo-Hill and Andrea Giunta with Marcela Guerrero, former curatorial fellow, Hammer Museum. The Brooklyn presentation is organized by Catherine J. Morris, Sackler Senior Curator, and Carmen Hermo, Assistant Curator, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum.

 

Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief arts critic.

 

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