Women artists in Latin America: Notes for a political analysis of images

Andrea Giunta

Andrea Giunta is principal researcher of CONICET (National Council for Scientific and Technical Research) in Argentina, and is professor of Latin American and International Art at the Universidad de Buenos Aires. She is a visiting scholar at the University of Texas at Austin, where she served as founder-director of CLAVIS (Center for Latin American Visual Studies) from 2009-2013. She is the founding director of the Arte y Pensamiento series at Siglo XXI Editores. Her most recent publications are When Does Contemporary Art Begin? (2014) and (with Agustín Pérez Rubio) Verboamérica (2016). During Spring 2017 she is the Tinker Visiting Professor at Columbia University, New York.

Paz Errazuriz, La manzana de Adán, 1990. Fotobook. MALBA, Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires
Paz Errazuriz, La manzana de Adán, 1990. Fotobook. MALBA, Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires

Modern and contemporary art history has been written from the standpoint of a vast operation of global censorship whose sheer scale remains difficult to grasp, and whose consequences are replicated in art exhibitions whenever these fail to implement strict criteria of equality. Statistical studies, which have recently seen a resurgence—and will continue to do so as long as such studies remain the only available method to debunk naïve and acritical preconceived ideas about systems of representation and discrimination in art—show that the theoretical turn regarding the politics of the representation of the body has not translated into any transformation of exhibitions of works by artists whom society classifies as women. In group shows the percentage of women might range from the classic 20% to an enthusiastic 30%, but very rarely does it reach the logical 50%.

I don’t believe it’s urgent to translate these numbers, ones that so readily disarm the cynicism of the art world, by underscoring how “pioneering” and “valuable” are the artists, expert and amateur alike, who have been removed from the horizon of the international gaze. “Pioneering” and “valuable” are words used to sustain the very power structures that are being brought into question here. What I do believe to be urgently needed is to point out just how necessary those works of art are.

I’m interested, above all, in turning the problem on its head. Rather than wondering about what has been lost by the artists who are prefixed with the word “woman,” by artists who are systematically relegated and discriminated against in terms of representation, I would prefer to underscore and problematise what we, as art-world audiences (whether expert or sporadic) miss out on when the processes of selective censorship carried out by individual or institutional curatorship deprive us from seeing, enjoying, and analysing more than 70% of the works made within the overall framework of an art world dominated by a patriarchal canon.

Clemencia Lucena, Huelga en Bogotá, óleo sobre tela, 160 x 130 cm., 1978
Clemencia Lucena, Huelga en Bogotá,oil on canvas, 160 x 130 cm., 1978

How many ways of understanding and viewing the world have been denied us? As a starting point, I will address the basic demands of spectators who wish to gain access to what they have been prevented from seeing. These demands have the potential to serve as the basis for a collective aesthetic emancipation that would open up other ways of understanding beauty, of imagining the world, of viewing aesthetics, and of analysing the political theory of images.

The issue has been addressed in recent years by referring to exceptional examples that problematise the body and the experience of sexuality on the basis of an idea of emancipation that demands new terminology to designate an exceptional liberation from the preconceived ideas that govern sexual differences. This theoretical liberation, however, falls short. It has a soothing effect, one that—especially when it restricts itself to the present and ignores history—deactivates a large part of what hasn’t even been begun.

Another aspect that emerges as problematic is the consolidation of the patriarchal canon in the formation of dominant taste in contemporary art, the taste, that is, on the basis of which the hierarchy of “good art” is established. Years ago, a Latin American conceptual artist wrote to me that he had no opinion about an exhibition of women artists because he didn’t know anything about the subject (he was referring to feminist artists), and because the little that he had seen (the work of Judy Chicago) struck him as kitsch. It’s interesting how that term—kitsch—enjoys such vigorous health when it is applied, for instance, to the art of the 1990s in Argentina, and how it grants a license to expel the works of a feminist artist from the canon. The absence of history, and the prejudices imposed by the canon of “good art,” are two of the ways in which the art world wields the authority that allows it to so readily censor 70% of the artworks being made.

This article admittedly can’t restore the history that has been erased or the circumstances that led to such erasure. Nor does it put forward an aesthetic treatise that might erode the hygienic minimalist conceptualism that still dominates the canon of “good art” (whether this be in its political or more abstract guise). I will, however, advance a hypothesis that I will illustrate with several examples. At the same time, I’ll address elements of one of the areas most in need of an urgent rethinking from a historical perspective, namely, comparative studies between disparate Latin American fields of art.

Clemencia Lucena, Sin título, tinta china y témpera sobre papel, 1970
Clemencia Lucena, Untitled, India ink and tempera on paper, 1970

As a starting-point, I would argue that the intense focus on recent work has blurred the twenty preceding years in the history of politics developed out of images. Even within gender studies itself, the frameworks that employ pre-existing theories in debates about the politically-correct approach to gender issues serve to delegitimise and erase works that possess much more complex formulations than the stereotypical value judgements which object to those works.

The hypothesis that I put forward and that I have defended in various recent forums argues that between the 1960s and the 1980s there was an iconographic shift—probably the greatest one of the twentieth century—in regard to representations of the body. It’s true that the body already occupied centre stage and that this prominence was by no means exclusive to the work of artists who were socially and institutionally classified as women. The female body had been the field which had suffered the greatest oppression within the art world, as women were predominantly represented from the fixed patriarchal gaze that systematically reproduced the roles assigned by society to women: mother, homemaker, spectator, nude model, prostitute—an entire manual of social behaviour and moral judgements.

All that being said, however, the process of excavating the parts of that body, its functioning, and the sentiments associated with this corporality systematically addressed by women artists throughout these years produced a demolition of the body and of the corsets that had restrained it, giving rise to an authentic political emancipation in how it was represented.

The Latin American case introduced two additional variables. First of all, and particularly in the countries of the Southern Cone, we have the marks left behind by dictatorships. Women were subjected to a specific playbook of torture that targeted the particularity of their bodies: the places in which torture was applied to them, serial rape, separation from their children who were born in captivity (after which the women were generally killed)—all of this amounted to a set of methods of torture centred on women’s biological sexuality. Secondly, we have the marks left by the militancy that sidelined the centrality of feminist demands, which it subsumed into the revolution and the complete transformation of society. The work of the Colombian artist Clemencia Lucena is a case in point. While certain images she made in the 1960s and early ’70s, such as her series parodying the newspaper section reporting on the comings and goings of the upper classes, posed crucial questions about the place of women in bourgeois society, the images that she produced in the late ’70s, in conjunction with her militancy in the Maoist revolutionary independent labour movement known as MOIR (Movimiento Obrero Independiente y Revolucionario), were aligned with the dogma of revolutionary struggle. Thus, in the ’70s, Lucena represented women who were on strike but who at the same time were engaged in cooking for unemployed men. The feminist struggle was erased within another struggle in which women were assigned the role of creating the revolutionary family.

María Luisa Bemberg, El mundo de la mujer, 1972.
María Luisa Bemberg, El mundo de la mujer, 1972.

Another case in point is the 1972 militant film El mundo de la mujer (The World of Women), a feminist work made in Buenos Aires by the filmmaker María Luisa Bemberg. Conceived within the broader context of the Unión Feminista Argentina (UFA), the feminist group to which she belonged, which was founded in 1970 and opened the way for other groups that were active before 1975, this work has since been relegated in her catalogue to the category of “early work.” It was further obscured by the demobilisation that led to the closure of UFA’s meeting place by the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (AAA) in 1974 and by the restructuring of public life instigated by the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1982. Bemberg’s film takes an unforgiving, ironic look at the bourgeois model of the proper woman: wearing make-up, reclining on a waterbed, freed from domestic work in order to focus on the construction of her body as a function of male desire. Comparing the inscriptions of feminist artistic imaginary in Colombia and in Argentina and the interceptions brought about by revolutionary projects and dictatorships provides material that is valuable to an understanding of why there is, in these countries, a continuity of artistic feminism that doesn’t exist in, for example, Mexico.

María Luisa Bemberg, El mundo de la mujer, 1972.
María Luisa Bemberg, El mundo de la mujer, 1972.

In Mexico, after the first world conference on the International Women’s Year held in 1975, and following Mónica Mayer’s early decision to take part in the Feminist Art Programme led by Judy Chicago in Los Angeles, feminism has remained to the present day something exceptional. In 1978, Mayer created a mail art action called Lo Normal (The Average), in which she ridiculed social patterns of normality of sexual desire by means of a parody of a survey. Sociology and mail art were thus employed as methodologies to elaborate obvious and confrontational proposals that exposed the rules that govern feminine (and indeed masculine) desire.

Mónica Mayer, Lo normal, 1978. MALBA, Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires
Mónica Mayer, Lo normal, 1978. MALBA, Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires

In addition, together with Maris Bustamante, Mayer undertook a parody designed to undermine motherhood. They applied to motherhood the displacement of functions and the partition of the integral body that enabled other ways of rethinking it. They made of it, this biological mandate chained to an infinite and unconflicted feminine love, practically a mechanism. They broke down the body, separating the belly and also all of the bodily symptoms of pregnancy. They identified subjectivities which they transformed into powders and amulets that substituted for the absence of feelings associated with a hormonal condition. With this kind of boîte-en-valise they created devices to enact the performance of being “mother for a day.” But it was not to be a joyful and stereotyped motherhood, but rather one that paid testimony to the torment of carrying the weight of a child in the body, to nausea and physical discomfort. In this parody, motherhood is transformed into a mechanism divested of nature, into a manual and an instrument that deny the biological condition and anticipate the bourgeois revolution of the body, which during this period was emancipated from sexual and social roles thanks to the legalisation that provided for equality in marriage, but not for liberation from the mandate of the family. In 1986 they anticipated a large part of the agenda that separates desire from biology.

A further two cases will serve to provide greater insight into the array of poetics that involved the reformulation of bodies produced within the iconographic shift that characterised those decades and which was led by women artists who were caught up in the violent reality of Latin American dictatorships.

Mónica Mayer y Maris Bustamante, Madres por un día, en Nuestro Mundo, programa de televisión de Guillermo Ochoa, Canl Televisa 2, 1987.
Mónica Mayer y Maris Bustamante, Madres por un día, in Nuestro Mundo, TV program with Guillermo Ochoa, Canal Televisa 2, 1987.

In 1983 the artist Nelbia Romero presented her work entitled Sal-si-puedes in Montevideo in her native Uruguay, which was then under dictatorship. It referenced and recreated the massacre of the Charrúa people that was carried out during the process of consolidating the national territory of the Republic of Uruguay. She did so using the body, her own body, in a performance that re-enacted the various moments that led up to the subterfuge that ended in a massacre of the indigenous people; it included, as well, mannequins that were disjointed and dripping with red paint, which were heaped up at the back of the installation; and finally, she made use of allusions to Michella Guyunusa, an indigenous woman who was taken to Paris and exhibited, pregnant, to the public eye and scientists curious to know how these strange people—the Charrúa, devastated first by colonisation and then by the independent republics—gave birth. The repression of the indigenous people mirrored the contemporary repression that the Uruguayan dictatorship carried out on the Uruguayan people on a daily basis. This work offered resistance to the dictatorship insomuch as it used a language that allowed it to breach the siege of censorship but at the same time to speak, to express itself, to a community that shared codes of understanding. The work’s implications were felt by many to be perfectly evident. To represent, when images are subject to control, is an act of insubordination and a particular (if admittedly subjective) form of resistance.

In the context of the dictatorship in Chile, Paz Errázuriz photographed transvestite brothels. She introduced us to life in a brothel, to its inhabitants, its contacts, and the transformation it underwent at night. The series that were published in her 1990 book La manzana de Adán (Adam’s Apple) were made in 1983. The pages of this book gave access to an emotive texture that deregulated the prejudices that our socially conditioned imagination had woven around transvestite prostitution. She lived with the prostitutes, slept in their beds, used their kitchen and their bathroom, and won their confidence, along with the privilege of conserving these condensations of intimacy in photos. The prostitutes lounge around the shabby house in dresses, pose, put on make-up and transform themselves.

Errázuriz translated and read aloud the letters sent by Pilar, an imprisoned transvestite in Berlin, to Mercedes, one of the prostitutes, in Santiago. The letters were dictated by Pilar to Kamur, her Bengali lover, and written in English. (Neither Pilar nor Mercedes knew how to read or write.) In reading these letters Paz Errázuriz banished distance, illiteracy, and desperation. Her reading was able to reconstruct the love of family bonds and affection, and did so under a dictatorship, in one of the sectors of society that suffered most from military and police violence. In the performative moment of reading, everyday, loving sensibility for a moment found its place.

These examples enable us to draw parallels between different Latin American experiences. I have briefly outlined their historic inscription and their contexts. The images that I refer to neutralise many stereotypes about the normalisation of bodies. They speak out against the advertising suppositions that gave women free time without shattering the certainties that surrounded their own bodies.

These works question the poetics of motherhood in its relationship with the biological body; they uncover the violent exclusion on which the independence movements of the Latin American republics, which reproduced the colonial order of control over bodies, were predicated; they expose a process of investigation into sensibilities and bodies that have been doubly castigated by society and by police violence. Returning to this repertoire, which has been displaced or hidden for many years, opens up access not only to other historical narratives, but also to the political economy of bodies that was in operation in those years and which these works conserve as a historically-situated and, at the same time, anachronic repository whose potential is intensified when it is interrogated from the present.

Skip to content