“These Are the Women I Want to Be”: María Berrío’s Visions of Displacement

A review by Salomé Gómezz-Upegui for Hyperallergic.

When I arrive at the Norton Museum of Art to visit Esperando Mientras la Noche Florece (Waiting for the Night to Bloom), the first survey of María Berrío’s enthralling oeuvre, I am beaming with expectation. The Brooklyn-based Colombian artist has made a name for herself by building meticulously crafted collages into gargantuan canvases, using watercolor and decorative papers primarily sourced from a master artisan in Osaka, Japan, as well as various places in Latin America and other parts of Asia. Women, narratives of displacement, and ecology play a central role in Berrío’s striking compositions, which are very much inspired by Latin American magical realism.

Her exhibition at the Norton marks the latest iteration of the museum’s Recognition of Art by Women (RAW) program, an annual series that honors the art of living female painters and sculptors with solo shows. Curated by Cheryl Bravutan, Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Norton, it displays a wide array of Berrío’s works, including collages dating back to 2013 and two artworks created last year for the occasion. The show also features her recent series, Flowered Songs and Broken Currents, a body of work about the resilience and strength of women following an imaginary natural catastrophe. 

Berrío’s exuberant works are a lot to take in. I appreciate each one differently by zooming in and out. When I step back, I take in the compositions as a whole, as creations that look more like paintings than collages. But as I step forward, I experience every inch of the canvas like a universe unto itself. The fractured collages meticulously brought together seem like an allegory for what I imagine would be these women’s stories. Broken, yet whole. Thriving, despite destruction. Like Berrío, I am a Colombian woman who ended up building a life away from my country after my family fled from the incessant violence that wreaked havoc on the land that once welcomed me onto this earth. Staring back at the women in these works, I am full of pride for my homeland, for my fellow countrywomen, for Berrío. 

“Aluna” (2017) is the piece that stays with me the most. The enormous canvas (measuring 72 x 80 inches) is gorgeous and gut-wrenching, all at the same time. With a sleeker landscape than the rest of her works, it’s crafted using patterned Japanese paper and watercolor in soft hues. A stunning body of cyan water fills the foreground, surrounded by rose pink mountains under a baby blue sky. Below, five of the six young women, each wearing an exquisite headpiece, stare back at the viewer. A recumbent tiger floats between them. One character has red, bloodied hands. According to the artist, the piece reflects on humanity’s relationship to the environment and our dissociation from it due to technology. It’s inspired by Aluna, the name given to an embodiment of mother nature by the indigenous Kogi people of the Sierra Nevada in Santa Marta, a city along Colombia’s Caribbean coast. As I walk away from the work, I experience profound grief for the natural wonders we have destroyed, for the precious connections that have been lost.

Describing the women in her oeuvre, Berrío has said: “they are embodied ideals of femininity. The ghostly pallor of their skin suggests an otherworldliness; they appear to be more spirit than flesh. These are the women I want to be: strong, vulnerable, compassionate, courageous, and in harmony with themselves and nature.” Having spent time with them, I can’t help but feel these are the women I want to be too. 

María Berrío: Esperando Mientras la Noche Florece (Waiting for the Night to Bloom) continues through May 9 at the Norton Museum of Art (1450 S Dixie Hwy, West Palm Beach, FL). The exhibition was curated by Cheryl Brutvan.

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