Radical Women: Making Room

Ionit Behar

Gloria Camiruaga (Chilean, 1941–2006), Popsicles, 1982–84. Video, color, sound, 6 min. Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (MAC), Facultad de Artes, Universidad de Chile.

Part of a massive Getty-sponsored initiative focused on Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles, Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985 offers an experience both enriching and traumatic. Organized by the Hammer Museum with guest curators Cecilia Fajardo-Hill and Andrea Giunta, the exhibition takes as its baseline the systematic exclusion of its 120 artists from the canon of Western art history. This is partly because of widespread sexism in Central and South America, and partly because the global art system is caught in a vicious cycle where the perceived quality of artists is based on visibility and success, often denied to women. Imagining itself as a corrective, Radical Women implores its audience for strong engagement, while overwhelmingly asking visitors to do many things at once.

Radical Women organizes its 250 artworks, many time-based, into dense visual fields. The strategy is purposeful: Fajardo-Hill explains that the show “is designed as a sort of landscape, so when you look at something it is always crossed by something else. It is a complex web of relations, problems, opportunities, and sensibilities of that period.”11. Interview with Cecilia Fajardo-Hill on October 12, 2017.  The problem with such a jammed exhibition is that, as in biennials, art fairs, or MFA exhibitions, any individual work is subordinated to an overall exhibitionary effect; this makes it difficult to fully appreciate each piece on its own. Indeed, everything in Radical Women seems to intersect with or touch something else. For example, there are multiple instances of sound bleed, where the audio of one work can be heard while experiencing another one nearby.

But even if quantity is prioritized, the works are nevertheless exceptional. The most compelling ones directly reference the artists’ experiences of repression, imprisonment, exile, torture, violence, or censorship during eras of military dictatorship, and are beautiful and terrifying at the same time. They draw you in to look carefully. Popsicles (1982–84), a video by Chilean artist Gloria Camiruaga, portrays the voices and actions of a group of girls licking popsicles while reciting the Hail Mary. The girls, who include Camiruaga’s daughter, obsessively repeat their prayers and lick the popsicles until they uncover plastic soldiers. Produced under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, the work combines the sensual and the playful with a sense of restrained violence. The artist described it as “a rejection of all that is destruction, and death, yet is depicted almost attractively as innocence."22. http://www.vivomediaarts.com/popsicles-1984-by-gloria-camiruaga/.

Anna Maria Maiolino’s É o que sobra (What Is Left Over, 1974) similarly addresses a dictatorship, this time in Brazil. Maiolino—who has a concurrent retrospective exhibition across Los Angeles at the Museum of Contemporary Art—threatens to cut out her eyes and tongue with scissors, thereby enacting at an individual level the violence that repressive dictatorship exercises on a collective social body. Silencio II (Silence II, 1967) by Argentinian artist Margarita Paksa at first appears abstract, a minimalist cube made from transparent acrylic. But this mute cube, made during the first year of Juan Carlos Onganía’s dictatorship, is not empty: it contains silence as material, referencing the authoritarian suppression of dissidence.

Anna Maria Maiolino (Brazilian, b. Italy, 1942), É o que sobra (What Is Left Over), 1974, from the series Fotopoemação (Photo Poem Action), 1973–2017. Three black-and-white photographs, 25 × 61 7/16 in. (65 × 156 cm) overall (framed). Collection of Anna Maria Maiolino.

The works described above are grouped under the theme “Resistance and Fear,” one of nine themes in the exhibition. At times the groupings seem to oversimplify the artworks they present (other sections include “Mapping the Body,” “The Erotic,” and “Feminisms,” topics that can seem a bit arbitrarily imposed, or that could apply to work across the entire exhibition). Taken together, though, the sections express different aspects of the overarching theme, “the political body.” By this the curators refer to how patriarchy and authoritarianism shape politics and history, and how patriarchy is carried out differently on differing bodies and subjectivities, thereby disrupting the entire social fabric.

In academia, Latin American, Chicano, and Latino identities are frequently addressed separately, in so-called “area studies.” Radical Women by contrast endeavors to include Chicana and Latina artists alongside Latin American artists—an approach embraced in other Pacific Standard Time exhibitions. Radical Women thereby focuses on matters of gender as a unifying dimension, above other cultural differences. This often brings consonances into view. Consider for example Ana Victoria Jiménez, an active participant in the Unión Nacional de Mujeres Mexicanas and founder of the largest feminist archive in Mexico, and her Cuaderno de tareas (Assignment Book, 1978–81), a series of photographs recording domestic activities. Focusing on a woman’s hands as she cooks, cleans the bathroom, folds clothes, writes, and sews, the photographs recognize the value of this home labor—a reevaluation that occurs in multiple works across distinct geographies of the presentation. Another work, by the Afro-Peruvian choreographer, composer, and activist Victoria Santa Cruz, indicates certain limits to the exhibition’s inclusivity: namely, Santa Cruz is the only black artist in the show. Radical Women foregrounds her work Me gritaron negra (They Shouted Black at Me, 1978), video documentation of a musical performance in which the artist narrates her experience the only black girl in her neighborhood, left out of games because of her skin color, and her later embrace of black identity as a source of pride.

The prominent display of Santa Cruz’s video doesn’t manage to dispel the feeling that the curators should have done more to include black artists from Latin America. Ironically they seem to reference black struggle in the title itself—one notes the similarity to the subtitle of a 2017 exhibition of black women artists at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85. Further irony can be found in the exhibition design’s formal reference to shows organized by the Italian-born Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi.33. Hettie Judah, "'An Exercise in Stubbornness': The Making of Radical Women," Sotheby's Museum Network, September 6, 2017, https://museumnetwork.sothebys.com/article/an-exercise-in-subborness-the-making-of-radical-women. Bo Bardi was a passionate advocate for the radical modernity of Afro-Brazilian culture, this being one thing her innovative exhibition designs were trying to demonstrate. One must therefore wonder what criterion marked artists as “radical women” if so few black women could be taken to qualify.

Installation view of Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985, “Self-Portrait” theme. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, September 15–December 31, 2017. Photo: Brian Forrest.

There is no such thing as a perfect exhibition. Despite my qualms, Radical Women is an enormous undertaking that justifies itself as both a compelling experience and a research base from which future scholars can work. It is accompanied, moreover, by a substantial publication, the first major anthology covering women artists in Latin America and Latina artists in the United States, with essays by Fajardo-Hill and Giunta as well as Connie Butler, Rodrigo Alonso, and many others. The catalogue is as valuable as the exhibition, representing eight years of committed research. The exhibition compels art history to make room for these artists and promises major future opportunities for artists under-recognized by the Western canon. As a corrective to that canon, Radical Women takes on a difficult task and succeeds; I look forward as well to the exhibition that will correct Radical Women.

Radical Women
runs through December 31, 2017, at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. It will travel next to the Brooklyn Museum, New York (April 13–July 22, 2018), and the Pinacoteca de São Paulo (August–November 2018).

Ionit Behar is a writer, curator, and art historian based in Chicago.