A report by Michael Valinsky for The Brooklyn Rail.
Part of the Southern California art initiative Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, the exhibition Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985 at the Hammer Museum contains work by over one hundred female artists, including prominent figures such as Lygia Clark and Ana Mendieta, and lesser-known artists such as Zilia Sánchez and Feliza Bursztyn. The artists in Radical Women explore bodies as political prisms through which we experience the world. The show serves as a genealogy of radical and feminist Latin American and Chicana art practices, and seeks to dismantle the received stereotypes of women in art through a meticulous deconstruction of a male-dominated sociolinguistic system. The curators have drawn from Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage—the theory that when a child sees herself in the mirror, she establishes pronoun-identification and a fitted language—to try and build a female Latin American and Chicana identity that lives outside of predetermined patriarchal expectations.
Upon entering the exhibition space, viewers are immediately confronted with a 1978 recording of Afro-Peruvian artist Victoria Santa Cruz performing “Me gritaron negra,” a poem she wrote in response to racial discrimination she suffered. When she was a child, her white friends excluded her from the group because a new white student didn’t want to play with a little black girl. As Cruz tells her story, five back-up performers emphasize key words (“Black!”, “Yes!”, “Finally!”) that characterize the progress of her self-awareness as a black woman. “¿Qué cosa es ser negra?” (What does it mean to black?), she asks. “Negra!” the chorus answers. This back-and-forth creates a rhythm in the poem, which syncopates to a deliberate hand-clapped beat and a drumming man in the background. Cruz starts with her childhood trauma and, through a series of ruminations on the standards of white beauty, examines the long history of subordination to express women’s corporeal experience and subjectivity, all the while hinting at the double system of oppression she was subjected to as a black woman.
Cruz’s work focuses on birth and identity, asking viewers to partake in a collective meditation on and of the individual—similar to questions posed by Colombian artist María Evelia Marmolejo. In 1981, Marmolejo performed 11 de marzo — Ritual a la menstruación, digno de toda mujer como antecedente del origen de la vida (March 11 — Ritual in honor of menstruation, worthy of every woman as a precursor to the origin of life). The exhibition presents photographic documentation of the performance, in which Marmolejo is nude and covered in hygienic pads. Using her body as a discursive support to convey eroticism, social norms, and identity building, Marmolejo sheds menstrual blood throughout the space, imprinting her pubis on the white gallery walls. While Cruz discusses the linguistic aggression inflicted upon her, Marmolejo turns menstrual bleeding into an aesthetically medical intervention, sexualizing the white cube of the gallery space and effectively dismantling the restrictive expectation that women are to be clean and “all white” in a gallery space.
To push this disruptive force further, Chilean artist Gloria Camiruaga challenges the Christian system of repentance through a series of irreverent nods at its wrought structure. In her 1982 video Popsicles, young women lick frozen treats while reciting “Hail Mary.” Plastic toy soldiers appear inside the melting popsicles and the girls place them on a Chilean flag. The young women in the video represent a community that puts governmental and sociopolitical structures under deep scrutiny. The mixing of religious language with the sexualized act of licking a popsicle to its center and the soldier placed on the Chilean flag is a clear act of resistance. The popsicle’s dye stains the women’s lips, but still they keep licking the structure until they get to its patriarchal core
In 1972, influential Cuban artist Ana Mendieta produced two photographic works: Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints) and Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants). In Glass on Body Imprint, Mendieta pushes her naked body up against a glass surface. In Facial Hair Transplants, Mendieta asked her fellow student Morty Sklar to shave his beard in order to transfer his facial hair onto her face. In each of these works, she uses her body to dislocate the mandate of the female figure, explicitly rejecting the overwrought standards of beauty and perfection often associated with a feminine ideal. This liberation from societal expectation culminates in Untitled (Rape Scene), 1973, a photograph in which Mendieta bends over a table, bloodied, with her clothes pulled down to the ankles. Mendieta describes the experience in vulgar imagery to develop a strategy for liberation, taking ownership of a trauma over which women are essentially denied power, and that is instead subsumed by the male-dominant justice system.
Radical Women’s tackling of male-dominant systems makes it poignant. But more importantly, Radical Women establishes a new framework that expresses the development of Latin American and Chicana women’s corporeal experience and subjectivity, by way of experimental practices that challenge the gendered body and reconfigure modes of ownership. By offering shifting perspectives, from Argentina to Cuba to Panama and Venezuela (among others), Radical Women lays out the tools necessary for women to conceptualize, develop, and celebrate the possibilities of their gender. Through this, men can question their role in the conversation. As the first of its kind at the Hammer Museum, the exhibition is both a reminder that gender gaps and cultural disparities need to be systematically and productively addressed by institutions, and an inspiring restitution of female artists’ place in the art historical tradition of subversion through language and performativity.