She sits at the peak of a sand dune, curls in her legs to create a tight ball, grasps her feet and thrusts forward to somersault down the steep slope. Eventually slowing, she pulls in tighter for a few last, clunky turns; then stops, stands and climbs back up to begin again. Mexican artist Silvia Gruner’s harrowing, Sisyphean exercise in the grainy Super-8 silent film Arena (Sand, 1986) is an apt metaphor for the socio-political struggles represented in ‘Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985’ at the Hammer Museum. This survey of experimental practices by women artists working in Latin America and the US in the late 20th century will certainly be remembered as the most crucial and ambitious exhibition of Pacific Standard Time, the Getty’s sweeping, multi-venue biennial initiative. I expect its relevance to endure well beyond the present, much the way ‘WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution’ (2007) at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) has remained a touchstone for artists and curators alike.
Building on seven years of research, curators Cecilia Fajardo-Hill and Andrea Giunta have included 120 artists from 15 countries, accompanied by a day-long symposium, 400-page catalogue and extended wall texts in both English and Spanish. This marathon viewing experience is enhanced by the substantial amount of video, typical of experimental practices at that time. Well-known figures such as Lygia Clark, Ana Mendieta, Lygia Pape and Liliana Porter are shown alongside artists whose work is largely unknown outside of their local context – part of the curators’ stated aim to correct the art-historical record to include female artists marginalized by the Western canon.
‘Radical Women’ explores the concept of the political body, and the ways women artists resisted the systemic sexism and repressive governments that prevailed across Latin America in the late 20th century. Although the works on view share a feminist commitment to address gender stereotypes and dismantle patriarchal structures, many of the artists here did or do not consider themselves feminists, due in part to their mistrust of Euro-American theory and the racial exclusionism of second-wave feminism.
Preparação 1 (Preparation I, 1975), by Brazilian artist Letícia Parente, shows the artist standing at a bathroom mirror, quickly readying herself for the day. She brushes her hair, straightens her blouse, then presses white tape across her mouth on which she traces thick lipstick. This is followed by tape across each eye, then made up with eyeliner, eye shadow and mascara. It is the rote diligence in these actions that make the work an effective critique of the social expectations women face, as well as the repressive military dictatorship in Brazil (1964–85). Chilean artist Gloria Camiruaga’s video Popsicles (1982–84) similarly responds to authoritarianism: young girls lick brightly-coloured popsicles with toy soldiers at their core, to a chorus of quickly murmured Hail Marys. Their blue- and purple-stained lips continue to suck the soldiers as the popsicles melt, internalizing and becoming numb to the daily violence around them.
Camiruaga’s video plays across from a suite of paintings by Colombian artist Sonia Gutiérrez, which depict bodies being tortured in the flat, colourful and boldly outlined style of pop art. Y con unos lazos me izaron (And They Lifted Me up With Rope, 1977) shows a body lifted up, its hands and feet bound. Gutiérrez began her career painting typically banal items from popular culture before turning overtly to politics in the 1970s, as ordinary Colombians were caught in the middle of increasing violence between the government, drug lords and militarized guerillas. Nearby hangs Cecilia Vicuña’s Vaso de leche (Glass of Milk, 1979), comprised of three photographs and a handwritten poem documenting a quiet yet startling performance. A glass of milk tied with a red string is pulled, spilling its contents onto the street. Vicuña scrawled the poem on the ground just off camera. The action references a horrific incident in which over a thousand children were poisoned when a company added water and paint to milk, after a populist government policy to provide every child with a ration of milk was scrapped. The work is one of Vicuña’s ‘Precarios’ (1966–ongoing), or precarious pieces – a series of choreographed fragile gestures.
Many works take on social resistance to rigid moral codes. In 1968, Argentinian-French artist Lea Lublin was invited to produce a new work at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris shortly after giving birth to her son; in photographic documentation of her performance, she nurses, cradles and changes her seven-month-old’s diaper in the gallery. Art and life were in relief as Lublin addressed her dual role of artist and mother; her gesture of female solidarity stood out against the backdrop of the May ’68 protests, which raged just outside the museum’s walls.
The fixity of gender is contested with humour and irony, too: in a 1987 television appearance, Mexican collective Polvo de Gallina Negra (Mónica Mayer and Maris Bustamante) strapped a Styrofoam belly on a male talk show host and crowned him ‘mother for a day’ and ‘queen of the home’. Patssi Valdez’s Portrait of Patssi (1975), made while the artist and Chicana activist was a member of the seminal performance group Asco, shows the artist staring down her own camera in a sexually charged, gender-fluid self-portrait, reproduced as a street poster.
‘Radical Women’ is packed with too many moving works to mention in a brief review. Hopefully, the under-recognized artists included will get their own follow-up solo exhibitions, affording the opportunity to dig deeper. At MOCA, the first US retrospective of Brazilian artist Anna Maria Maiolino offers such insight into five decades of work on paper, sculpture, video, performance and photography. Much of her practice forefronts the political body, women’s work and serial production, but always negotiating her identity as an artist, mother and migrant.
In his 1965 essay, ‘Aesthetics of Hunger’, pioneering Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha proclaimed that the country’s stark social inequalities constituted an insatiable hunger, an absence felt but not fully understood. This sense of yearning is apparent in one of the earliest works in the show, Glu Glu Glu (1967), a stuffed fabric bust of a figure with a gaping, void-like mouth that leads to a soft maze of guts, sewn in the rich colours of the Brazilian flag. The mouth appears here as a tool of both nourishment and expression: in response to the military dictatorship’s suspension of civil rights, Maiolino shot the trio of photographs É o que sobra (What Is Left Over, 1974), in which she appears to cut off her nose and tongue with a pair of scissors, literally stripping away her voice and senses. Her 1973 film In-Out Antropofagia depicts a series of mouths in close-up, swallowing and regurgitating an egg and string, respectively – an internalization of the violence of the time. Eggs reappear, too: for her 1981 performance Entrevidas (Between Lives) – represented by photographic documentation and restaged at MOCA by the artist and her grandson, Gabriel – Maiolino navigated a cobblestone street strewn with them while wearing a blindfold.
That elective loss of agency is a powerful metaphor for the political repression over which Maiolino and others had no control. This is implicit in her performance Solitário ou Paciência (Solitary or Patience, 1976), during which she sits before a small card table in the middle of a gallery to play solitaire, but removes two cards from the deck, making the game endless – and stacked against her.
In the late 1980s, Maiolino began producing the clay and concrete sculptures for which she is best known. In one gallery, tables have been stacked high with shapes kneaded from dark, earthy, unfired clay: balls, eggs, long tubes and coils whose forms repeat again and again. Piles of long, snake-like forms spread on the floor like spaghetti, and an expansive wall bears round clay balls pressed with the thumb, from floor to ceiling – resembling cookies or an encrustation of coral. The installation invokes a sense of monumental labour. These loaves of bread, rolls and sausages cannot provide sustenance, but in making them with her own hands, Maiolino seems to have found a meditative, even hopeful, peace in hunger.
Main image: Regina Silveira, Biscoito arte (Art cookie) (detail), 1976, c-type prints (diptych), 1.8 × 1 m overall. Courtesy: Fernanda Feitosa and Heitor Martins, © the artist
First published in Issue 192