In the Brooklyn Museum’s latest exhibition Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985, the “radical” component is the fact that it showcases 123 Latina artists from 15 countries as part of the art history canon. I’ve never seen an institution take on Latinas so intentionally, comprehensively, and thoughtfully. From the range of geography on display, socio-economic backgrounds, and variety of mediums, there was so much detail put into every aspect of the exhibit. These women dedicated their lives to their art: an ardent desire to make art as a profession despite the countless discouraging factors they faced like patriarchy, political repression, violence, and sexism. They used their art as a way of creating the representation they wanted to see, to form self-expression in a world that tells you “Q__ue calladita te ves más bonita (You’re prettier when quiet)." They rejected the script and wrote their own.
To see these Latina artists, who are still alive and creating, gave me inspiration to continue on my own creative path as a photographer. This was the first time in my life I was surrounded by works of art that looked like me and reflected my experiences. This type of visibility was jarring. Erasure is all I know in representation in the arts. Yet here I understood the questions the artists were exploring because as an artist, I have the same ones.
Growing up first-generation Salvadoran and working class in a Mexican barrio in Texas, the only role model I had was Selena. Central American representation couldn’t make a dent in the Mexican hegemony of Texas. Survival mode took precedence over any dream, ambition, or choice. Dreams and feelings were a luxury we could not afford on minimum wage. Intergenerational poverty taught me to make something out of nothing. My parents are from rural parts of El Salvador so in their resourcefulness, they were able to adapt their agrarian-based skills to this new country. One of those skills was sewing. My dad was a tailor and my mom a seamstress. I saw mom make pillows, belts, and gowns out of flat yards of fabric. Creativity was empowering and necessary for survival.
Art was not an encouraged profession. Nonetheless, art found me. My creativity grew when I started listening to my authentic voice. My writing became a cathartic release of all the toxic parts of my culture like sex shame and intergenerational trauma. Making zines taught me patience and compassion for myself. Photography gave me strength to understand my uprooted diaspora in a new light. From gifs to embroidery, my work stands for visibility and representation when there is none for us.
Mónica Mayer is a pioneer of the feminist art movement in Mexico. As a self-declared feminist, she took ownership of the term feminist in the 1970’s before the political movement grew teeth in Mexico. This particular work, Lo normal (Quiero hacer el amor) (The normal [I want to make love]), 1978, was born out of a performance where people were invited to complete the sentence, “ Quiero hacer el amor… I want to make love…” Seeing the small details in person stopped me: the shiny tape on the corner pieces; the bubbly marker handwriting on each postcard; the fact that these postcards were held in someone’s hands to reveal a deep desire felt 40 years ago. I didn’t know performance art could be revealing and intimate, yet unknown. Mayer’s piece was brought to life by strangers. She engaged their anonymity to spell out their most free self.
Tableaux Vivant by Yolanda López places the young artist on a tiny altar with a backdrop similar to the sacred veil of La Virgen de Guadalupe. Conceptual art has this way of making me feel like I haven’t read enough books to understand symbolism but López’s piece brought immediate recognition. Her big smile against the blue gold textile and the veladoras at her feet are at the center of six photographs. López steps into the hallowed spot usually filled by the Virgen de Guadalupe to represent the average woman. This composition reimagines that the reverence reserved for the virgin can also be applied to our daily women. There is the idea that the creator can also be the subject. This shows that both can reject Eurocentric beauty standards and traditional Western masterpieces and still be visible. López seems to yell to the viewer, “You, in your most natural state, are worthy of being art.”
Given the focused time period of the exhibition, many artists lived under violent dictatorships and a repressive combination of patriarchy and oligarchy. The featured artists here are from Mexico, the USA, and Panama. During the 1960 and 70’s, Mexico’s government used violence as a form of repressing social movements, seen in the massacre of Tlatelolco where the government murdered 300 to 400 protesting students and civilians. The US military intervention in Central America destabilized the entire isthmus to devastation and it is still felt today. To contrast the violence in their countries, several artists chose to take a compassionate position in their work as a way to process their changing environment. They took their formal education and applied it to serve marginalized populations in their ancestral lands.
Of the three Central American women represented, Sandra Eleta’s work jumped out of the frame. Originally from Panama, Sandra Eleta studied in New York City and returned to live in Portobelo, a small coastal town of Panama. In Portobelo, Eleta forged deep relationships with the local residents to visually document the community on the fringes of the country. She displays her subjects with dignity and trust. The young woman’s soft gaze in La platería, Panamá (The silversmith, Panama), 1982, is from Eleta’s series titled Servitude where she documents various subjects in their daily domestic work serving wealthy families. Oligarchy and classism is as common as mangos in Latin America. Social class determines access to education, running water, employment, and quality of life. This image layers the idea of how classism is tied with intergenerational servitude. What your parents do determines what you do and the thread goes on. Her soft gaze is almost a nod that things can be different because the smell of revolution is burning in the air.
Photographer Graciela Iturbide approaches her subjects with tenderness and compassion. She grew up in a conservative Catholic upper class home in Mexico City. What captivated me most about her work is the poetic use of light. Magnolia, Juchitán, México, 1986 is a graceful portrait of the subject who identifies as muxe, who are both men and women at the same time. Muxes have been celebrated for centuries in Juchitán and Iturbide honors their effervescent essence in the series. This work is from the series titled Juchitán de las Mujeres, a decade of photography which documents the fluid community of Juchitán de Zaragoza where gender is not a binary and matriarchy is the way of life.
Iturbide chose to lead an artistic life. She teaches me that it is possible to reject tradition and comfort. On the other side lies the ability to be open to new environments. This risk-taking is necessary to grow as an artist. Personally, the idea of choice is still new to me. I choose to be vulnerable. I choose to share that in my art. I am taking the risk of living beyond survival mode, beyond what my cultural norms dictate. Radical women, give me strength.
This is just a small sample size of the massive buffet on display at Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985. I walked through playful erotic landscape, abstract menstruation, scientific existentialism and many other amalgamated concepts that I had no idea could be in the same room together. The works highlighted in this piece spoke to me on a visceral level to my photographer senses. Although there was a solid image on print, I felt the artists’ curiosity glimmer the background as if it were printed on metallic paper. The images are the summation of trust (between the subject and creator), exploration and expression of the artist.
I teared up a few times from the overwhelming waves of feels: representation, visibility, and solidarity, all experienced with a crescent moon of sorrow. The sadness was for my younger self, that she never had this experience. That little girl needed someone who looked like her to tell her that it was going to be okay and that her voice counted. She needed to hear that you can to take up space and you can be unapologetically weird, soft, and chingona. And look, here are 123 examples of badass women who did just that. May the radiance of the radical women light your way.