Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985
Edited by Cecilia Fajardo-Hill and Andrea Giunta
(Hammer Museum/Delmonico Books/Prestel, 2017)
After the devastating results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, many Hillary Clinton supporters may have doubted if the future really was female. However, having witnessed the unprecedented scale of the women’s protest marches across the globe during the presidential inauguration, and more recently, having closely followed the deluge of women coming forward with stories of sexual abuse at the hands of some of the most powerful men in Hollywood, journalism, and politics, I think it is safe to say that the future has arrived, and it most definitely is female.
This is particularly evident in a spate of recent large-scale survey exhibitions on the art practices of women of color who have experienced the double marginalization of gender and ethnic/racial oppression. The same weekend that the Brooklyn Museum closed its landmark historical survey of radical African American women artists, We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles opened its own show of radical women during roughly the same period: Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985. One of approximately seventy exhibitions organized by Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA (Los Angeles/Latin America)—the Getty-funded initiative of Latin American and Latino themed art exhibitions taking place in over seventy venues in Southern California in the fall and winter of 2017—the exhibition will come to the Brooklyn Museum in April. It features 120 female artists of Latin American descent, some of whom—like Ana Mendieta, Marisol Escobar, Cecilia Vicuña, and Marta Minujín—are well known in the U.S., while many others are completely unknown outside of Latin America and are being exhibited in this country for the first time.
In addition to organizing this mammoth survey, the curators, Cecilia Fajardo-Hill and Andrea Giunta, have also provided researchers with an equally generous exhibition catalogue, composed of numerous essays by a range of scholars and curators who specialize in women’s and Latin American art. This hefty hardcover English-language publication is the first major anthology of visual arts practices by Latin American women and Latina artists, and for some artists in the show, it is also their first appearance in an international publication. But the book’s significance lies not only in simply showcasing these artists and documenting their practices; it is in its comparative analysis of their shared artistic strategies across the Americas, and in its outlining of some of the feminist methodological approaches to interpreting their work, that it reveals itself to be a truly invaluable resource.
Hammer Museum Director Ann Philbin writes in the book’s foreword that the exhibition and its attendant publication aim to present new interpretations of the “iconography and experimental languages employed by the artists, arguing that the representation of an emancipated, political body was central to their work.” This focus on the body is filtered through the exhibition’s key term: “radical.” The authors of the catalogue essays do an excellent job of interrogating the word’s multiple meanings within the context of the exhibition, from the artists’ radical politics to the experimental artistic strategies they pioneered. In many cases, their politics were what led to their search for a new artistic language, often through new media like video and performance art.
Despite this emphasis on radicality, the organizers are careful to point out that few of the artists in the show self-identified as “feminists” or made self-proclaimed “feminist” art; many actually disavowed the label. For a variety of reasons, feminism was long perceived as taboo in many Latin American countries. Some women viewed it as a form of U.S. cultural imperialism, and others claimed they were too involved in anti-dictatorship activism to be concerned with issues around gender. Furthermore, as Carla Stellweg points out in her essay on Latina and Chicana artists working in the United States, many Latinas and Chicanas felt that mainstream feminism did not always fully address the experiences of women of color.
For these reasons, many of the catalogue’s authors are careful to distinguish between feminist art and feminist art-historical interpretation. In a transcribed dialogue on feminist “artivism,” María Laura Rosa asserts that though many women artists in Latin America did not call themselves feminists, they nonetheless created works that can be interpreted today in relation to feminist art theory. Similarly, both Giunta and Julia Alejandra Antivilo Peña distinguish between artists intentionally making feminist art (Giunta labels this “feminist art” and Peña “feminist aesthetic politics”) and historians like themselves, who study these art practices from a feminist perspective (Giunta terms this “artistic feminism” and Peña “gender aesthetics”). Despite the disavowal of feminism by many of the artists in the show, Fajardo-Hill and Giunta are justified in their assertion that as curators and as art historians they are entitled to read a feminist agenda in these works, which they accomplish by highlighting the experimental strategies of self-presentation these artists used to undermine gender normativity and to position the female body as a site of transgression and political resistance.
The opening essays not only outline the premise of the show, but also justify the format of the all-women survey: to fill a gap in the art historical literature and to establish Latin American women’s contributions to patriarchal and Eurocentric art histories. In her essay on iconography, Giunta addresses the critique that all-women shows endorse biological determinism by arguing that works in Radical Women actually challenge essentialism by representing “other bodies and other sexualities.” These works, she contends, not only imagine anti-patriarchal aesthetics, but also laid the groundwork for the later queer aesthetics of the ‘80s and ‘90s that would further trouble traditional representations of gender and sexuality in art. In another essay on the historical “invisibility” of Latin American women artists in canonical art histories, Fajardo-Hill provides a useful literature review and curatorial overview of related exhibitions in the past. These opening essays are followed by a list of the exhibition’s themes, which range from “The Self-Portrait” and “Performing the Body” to “Feminisms” and “The Erotic.”
While the exhibition is organized thematically, offering an examination of conceptual strategies among artists regardless of national heritage, the main catalogue essays are organized around geography, which serves a stronger research and pedagogic purpose by emphasizing the shared historical and sociopolitical contexts among artists from the same country. Given the historical and political specificities and diversities across the Americas, the essays in this section function to unfold artists’ individual practices within their own geopolitical contexts. While the catalogues of the 2007 transnational surveys WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution and Global Feminisms positioned women’s art in relationship to wider global feminist networks, the Radical Women essays largely locate artists specifically within Latin American art histories and discourses. Though the exhibition does present a simplified country-by-country timeline of historical events posted on a wall outside one of the galleries, the catalogue’s country- and region-specific essays present a more nuanced examination of the works in terms of their geographic and historical contexts, outlining women’s histories in each country, including the presence or absence of organized women’s or feminist movements, the occurrence of international women’s congresses, and the dates when women were granted suffrage. They also outline the factors that differentiated the sociopolitical landscape in Latin America from that of the U.S., including the impact of the Cuban Revolution, the centrality of leftist politics, the widespread presence of dictatorships across Latin America, and the effects of U.S. economic imperialism and political interventionism in the region during the period.
Together these geographically oriented essays disclose the artistic strategies that Latin American women artists employed to problematize the body. For instance, Rodrigo Alonso’s essay on Argentina, Carmen María Jaramillo’s essay on Colombia, and Maria Angélica Melendi’s essay on Brazil identify the artists’ use of irony and the unruly body to undermine normative behaviors and expectations as a form of visceral, bodily resistance. Similarly, Giunta’s essays on Argentina, Chile, and Paraguay, Marcela Guerrero’s essay on the Caribbean, and Rosina Cazali’s essay on Central America highlight the artists’ involvement with experimental and interdisciplinary art practices, and non-institutional networks to create a space for themselves where there was none. They also demonstrate how these strategies enabled women artists to communicate radical anti-authoritarian and decolonizing politics in the coded poetic language of resistance that would not be decipherable by disciplinary authorities. Finally, Karen Cordero Reiman (writing on Mexico), Miguel A. López (writing on Peru), and Fajardo-Hill (writing on Venezuela) analyze women artists’ engagements with self-representations of the body to undermine stereotypes, to present new modes of subjectivity, and to unfix gender binaries and hierarchies.
Generously illustrated with over 150 pages of rich color plates—a thorough documentation of the exhibit for anyone unable to attend it—the catalogue is an indispensable resource that will deepen understandings of women’s art practices across geographical regions. Though its approach is broad and inclusive enough to appeal to non-specialists, it will be especially useful to researchers of art history, gender studies, and Latin American studies, with short biographies and bibliographies of each artist, a list of all the artworks in the show, contributor biographies, and a comprehensive index (not a given for exhibition catalogues). Its only significant drawback is in not being available in Spanish or Portuguese, which may limit its accessibility to some Latin American audiences.
Connie Butler points out in one of the catalogue’s introductory essays that many of these artists’ gestures “might serve as models of resistance, both for their time and for our own.” This sentiment is exemplified by Mexican artist Mónica Mayer’s interactive work El Tendedero (The Clothesline, 1978/2017), in which audience members are invited to write about their experiences of sexual abuse and harassment on pink cards clipped to clotheslines, calling to mind the recent “#MeToo” social media campaign. In some ways, this work, along with many others in the show and in the catalogue, seem to have anticipated the current backlash against the misogyny pervading political and private-sector institutions across the Americas. Like activists involved in the women’s movement of the 1970s, women today are becoming more politically engaged than ever before around issues that affect them in their daily lives, from sexual assault to workplace harassment. In the U.S. for instance, 2017 saw the highest number of women candidates running for state office in a decade. The Radical Women catalogue furthers scholarly and artistic discourses around these issues by examining the strategies of resistance employed by women artists of Latin American descent in the postwar period, ones that help us better understand women’s practices of resistance across the Americas today.
GILLIAN SNEED is an art historian and writer, whose work centers on gender studies, and modern and contemporary art of the Americas.