With over 116 women artists in one show, a new exhibition shines a light on the underrepresented contributions of Latin artists
“I don't give a shit what the world thinks. I was born a bitch, I was born a painter, I was born fucked. But I was happy in my way. You did not understand what I am. I am love. I am pleasure, I am essence, I am an idiot, I am an alcoholic, I am tenacious. I am; simply I am,” Frida Kahlo wrote in a letter to her husband, artist Diego Rivera.
The Mexican artist, who faithfully painted self-portraits throughout the course of her life, has become not only one the most famous artists in the world, but is very often the only Latin American women artist most people know by name. The invisibility of her comrades can be attributed to the power structures within the art world that disregarded the major contributions that women from 20 countries have been making to the art world throughout the twentieth century.
Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985, a new exhibition on view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, is a major step towards setting the record straight with more than 260 works by 116 women artists now on view through December 31, 2017. Curated by Dr. Cecilia Fajardo-Hill and Dr. Andrea Giunta, Radical Women is a watershed moment in the art world, illustrating the power of intersectionality in the new millennium.
Six years in the making, Radical Women brings together women from across Central and South America, the Caribbean, and the United States, showcasing the works of pioneers making art on their own terms, including Brazilian art star Lygia Pape, who had a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier this year; visionary Venezuelan Pop artist Marisol, who died at the age of 83 in 2016; and the gender-bending self-portraiture of Cuban American performance artist Ana Mendieta, whose husband was found not guilty of her murder in 1985.
The exhibition, which is accompanied by a catalogue of the same name, published by Prestel, is a brilliant introduction to both the artists and the issues they face as women in the Latin American diaspora, providing their own take on feminism, patriarchy, gender, sexuality, identity, and art history. We spotlight six artists you should know, who have inherited the mantle from the indomitable Frida Kahlo.
Multimedia artist and activist Yolanda López was born in San Diego in 1942 and came of age during the 1960s at a time when the fight for Chicano rights was a major cause across California. As a third generational Mexican-American, this period was critical to her development as both an artist and a patriot. “I did not become aware of our own history until 1968 when there was a call for a strike at San Francisco State, a strike for ethnic studies,” López told Shaping San Francisco in 2014, recalling her involvement in the famous student movement that shut down San Francisco State University. “I heard the men and women that led that Third World Strike speak and I understood at that point what my position was being part of this long legacy of the oppressed people, just like Black people."
With this knowledge, López developed an artistic practice that embraces the issues facing Latina women in everyday life, using a wide array of media to explore the social, political, and educational impact of domestic labour, and labour as a whole. Her work challenges the notions of high art and its exclusionary practices, producing traditional paintings, posters, and assemblages the use found materials, photocopies, and “Mexicana” objects drawn from popular culture. López has an extraordinary gift for transforming iconography so that it speaks to the present time, whether depicting an Aztec god crumpling immigration papers in a pose that evokes the army’s “Uncle Sam Wants You” recruiting poster or casting herself, her mother, and her grandmother as the “Virgin of Guadalupe”.
Born in Mexico City in 1954, photographer, educator, journalist, and curator Isabel Castro grew up in Los Angeles. As an émigré in the city, coming of age during the height of the Chicano movement, Castro embraced the struggles of her people, honing in on the space where women have been oppressed and exploited within America. Her 1980 series, Women under Fire, addressed the horrific practice by the Los Angeles County USC Medical Center, which sterilised Chicana women during the 1960s and 1970s without informed consent and by coercive methods.
In the catalogue, art historian and curator Carla Stellweg observes, “Similarly, Castro’s ‘X Rated Bondage’ from 1980 spotlights injustices to women, in this case condemning the sexual exploitation of women of Mexican American backgrounds. By rephotographing images from porn magazines, Castro recovered the anonymous women forced into various forms of sex work due to lack of opportunities.”
Born in the town of Marcos Júarez in 1942 Argentine artist Graciela Carnevale moved to Rosario when she was a teenager. She graduated from the Escuela de Bellas Artes, Universidad Nacional de Rosario, in 1964 and has served on its faculty since 1985. In 1965 she became involved with Grupo de Arte de Vanguardia (GAV) de Rosario, a collective of experimental and established artists who acquired a reputation as one of the country’s most dynamic avant-garde art groups. In 1968 GAV established Ciclo de Arte Experimental, a series of exhibitions organised every two weeks from May to October of that year.
For her presentation, Carnevale organised “Acción del encierro (Lock-up action)”, a profound metaphor that explored the relationship between the collective, the individual, and the power of the state. Carnevale invited guests to an opening reception at an empty art gallery – then locked them inside for over an hour. The only means to break free required them to shatter the gallery windows, which had been covered with posters. “Acción” was intended to incite violence as well as underscore the growing social unrest under the military dictatorship of Juan Carlos Onganía (1966–70), and also revealed how many were loathe to act in their own interest. Rather than breaking the glass from the inside, the incarcerated guests flagged down a passerby and had them do their dirty work, so to speak.
In 1968, at the age of 18, Yolanda Andrade left her home in Villahermosa, Mexico, and moved to Mexico City to study theater. After becoming involved with Club Fotográfico de México, in 19784 Andrade changed her focus to photography and never looked back – finding all the world is a stage, to quote the Bard. As a street photographer par excellence, Andrade beautifully captures the drama and comedy of life around the world, be it in Mexico, Paris, or Calcutta. Wherever she goes, she sees the sensual and the surreal, the gritty and the glamorous, and the outright fantastical.
Describing her Mexico City work in 2002, Andrade revealed her work is made, “from a very personal point of view, to envision it as if I were making a visual diary, with my comments about politics, womanhood, machismo, religion, traditions, sexual mores, social attitudes, the imagination of the common person, high art and popular culture. It is not only the city of my daily life, the one I live in as a woman and as a professional photographer, but also the city of my imagination, the protagonists of works of fiction, the scenery where different stories happen at the same time.”
Born in 1942, Panamanian artist came to New York to study at the International Center of Photography with the American photographers Ken Heyman and George Tice. After her time in New York, Eleta returned to Central America, first working in Costa Rica and then returning to her native land in 1974.
From 1977 to 1981 she documented the lives of people in Portobelo, on the Caribbean coast, creating the most significant series of work of her career. She earned the trust of her subjects, who let her into their daily lives and posed for her signature square format photographs, capturing a side of the nation that had been excluded from traditional forms of representation.
“Eleta is one of the many women artists from Panama who studied abroad and then returned to a country where there was much to be done. Thanks to her dedication to the medium of photography, her work explored the body from other perspectives,” Rosina Cazal writes in the catalogue. “Eleta was the one who changed the way photography is perceived by focusing on its subjective and poetic power… Following intuition, Eleta focused on what appeared to be trivial moments in the domestic space… In a society whose very structure is marked by issues of race and class, this work begins to suggest the ‘political’ through a closer relationship between the artist and her subjects.”
Born in Salvador, Brazil, Letícia Parente (1930-1991) didn’t begin her training as an artist until moving to Rio de Janeiro at the age of 41. A chemistry teacher by profession, Parente never abandoned her first career, no matter how much acclaim she received for her work as an artist.
In 1975, Parente created her first videos: “In (In), Preparação I (Preparation I)”, and “Marca registrada (Trademark)”, which showcased the themes she would focus on throughout her career: the body, subjectivity, and the female condition in a sexist culture. In “Marca registrada”, her best-known piece, Parente embroiders the words “Made in Brasil” into her foot using a needle and black thread, calling into question the traditional roles assigned to women within the space of domestic activities.
In 1976, with the groundbreaking exhibition Medidas (Measurements) at the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro, Parente created the first exhibition in Brazil to combine science and art. Here, she played into the ego of the museum attendees, inviting them to use a series of scientific (or pseudoscientific) devices to assess their physical, intellectual, and emotional conditions. In doing so, Medidas (Measurements) exposed both the power and the limitations of scientific methods to assess, classify, and regulate individuals’ bodies and subjectivities – a practice that still continues to possess a powerful and seemingly unbreakable hold over our imagination and our faith that science (as we know) is as good as truth.
Get to know more artists in Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985 in the gallery below: