Radical Women in Latin American Art

United By A Thread

Recent exhibitions in Los Angeles featured works by notable Latin American female artists who – each in their own way – established guidelines for observing, constructing and depicting female identity in often hostile political contexts.

Perhaps because I am a first generation British woman, of Caribbean parentage, living in California, I feel the need to focus my perspective here on the notion of the body and home. The ways in which the Italian-Brazilian artist Anna Maria Maiolino (born 1942) constructs and creates a dialogue around the body is both engaging and alarming: the huge molded extrusions of unfired clay (Hic et Nunc, from the Terras Modeladas/Modeled Earth series, 2017) that immerse us in her subjectivities, the discourse she creates around the internal/external realities of our bodies (Glu Glu Glu, 1967) and the private and the public (Linha Solta, Loose Line, 1975). She uses this binary element as a way to highlight the way the visible is celebrated and the hidden dishonoured. However, the show had many pieces of work (e.g. Por Um Fio/By a thread, 1976) that are solely from a woman’s perspective, with no binary in operation. Helen Molesworth, former Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, comments: “What Anna does is question what if the binary isn’t the problem, what if the rendering of the binary is the problem? She doesn’t do binary structures psychologically or intellectually or formally. She just does background/foreground etc., and refuses to privilege any of those terms.”

Key to Maiolino’s background is her birth in Italy and movement to Venezuela and Brazil with her family as a child. So language, belonging and identity are central to her work. The show includes many pieces that involve the artist using her mouth as a vehicle for evoking language – mother tongue (Po Um Fio/By a thread, 1976) silencing (É o sue Sobra/What is left over, 1974) and cultural/linguistic cannibalization (the Super-8 film, Antropofagia/In-Out, 1973). In the self-portraits and video works, there is a reference to both language and the limitations placed on women’s ability to express what she calls their “poetic freedom”.

How our bodies relate and integrate with the environment, what Maiolino refers to as “spatial relativity”, is a recurring theme throughout the Hammer Museum’s Radical Women show. The ways that some of the artists embrace the domestic, in terms of the mother, the child and the servant, and the repetitive nature of “women’s work” can be seen throughout the exhibition, for example in Sandra Eleta’s series La Servidumbre/Servitude (1978-8), Marcia Schvartz, (Doña concha /Doña shell, 1981) and Leticia Parente (Tarefa 1, Chore 1, 1982).

The idea of the domestic is revisited by many of the artists. In many ways, “home” is a place of contradiction – a space where one should feel safe, and experience comfort, while at once, it is one where the state has authority to invade, abuse and reify notions of power through cultural, class and traditional gendered distinctions and through the support of masculinist identities. This contradiction is visited upon by Paz Errázuriz series (La manzana de Adán/Adam’s apple, 1982-90), Graciela Iturbide (Magnolia, 1986) and Kati Horna (Oda a la necrofilia/Ode to necrophilia, 1962) by creating scenes of the unfamiliar in domestic settings.

Home is also the foundation of the area of craft and there is some interesting interplay between the high and the low in the exhibition. Artists like Marta Palau (Llerda V, 1973), Leticia Parente (Marca Registrada/Trademark, 1975) and Catalina Parra (Cicatriz/Scar, 1977) have elevated the work of the traditional crafts of weaving and sewing etc., by using these methods and materiality in ways that critique the domestic and the paternal.

There is a quiet and sometimes vocal expression of an anti-government politic and some subtle, at times visceral displays of emotion in both exhibitions. And there is one more thing: a language that transcends the categories of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian or English (as well as the many indigenous languages within Latin America) to us as the audience, one in which we understand that our bodies and sexuality have been defined by a white wealthy paternalistic power structure. There is a reclamation of the body and the voice in these works, a celebration of the erotic, the abject and of space astutely described by Giunta as moving from the ‘external eye’ to the ‘internal eye’.

Exhibition catalogues are available:

Anna Maria Maiolino, Molesworth and Barcena, Delmonico/Prestel, 2017.
Radical Women, Latin American Art: 1960-1985, Delmonico/Prestel, Hammer, 2017.

Nan Collymore writes, programs art events and makes brass ornaments in Berkeley California. Born in London, she lives in the United States since 2006.