Interviews

“You Can’t Say It Doesn’t Exist”: A Curator on the Art of Latin American Women from 1960 to ’85

Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, a curator of the Radical Women exhibition at the Hammer Museum, talks about this largely ignored history.

Installation view of Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985 at the Hammer Museum (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — There is an astounding display of art by Latin American and Latina women currently at the Hammer Museum. The number of artists — 120 — amazes alone; their work, which spans 1960 through 1985, is all political. Many of these women have never been widely studied or shown in museums. In fact, this history has been largely ignored, as if it hadn’t existed at all.

Cecilia Fajardo-Hill and Andrea Giunta, the two curators of the show, spent seven years preparing for Radical Women: Latin American Art, which will be traveling to the Brooklyn Museum and the Pinacoteca in São Paulo. While the exhibition includes some known artists (Lygia Pape, Ana Mendieta, Marisol), Fajardo-Hill and Giunta encountered several names for the first time in their research. During that process, they faced pushback from other scholars who believed that some artists weren’t worth their time and claimed the art was kitsch or insignificant. “A key prejudice is that women artists are simply not as good as men,” writes Fajardo-Hill in the exhibition catalogue.

Sonia Gutiérrez, “And they lifted me up with a rope” (1977)

When I met with Fajardo-Hill in the courtyard of the Hammer Museum, she explained, “We did not take no for an answer. And especially we did not take no for an answer from men.” Rather than rely on the prejudiced opinions of certain scholars, Fajardo-Hill and Giunta often found themselves turning to the knowledge of living artists of the time.

The resulting display makes it overwhelmingly clear that these women were in active, passionate conversations with one another. (“It doesn’t matter if you don’t like the art,” said Fajardo-Hill, “but you can’t say it doesn’t exist.”) Hailing from Central America to Argentina, they protested the dictatorships across the South American continent, made plain the monotony of domesticity, and expressed their sexuality in intimate self-portraiture, exposing breasts, vaginas, and tongues.

In the aftermath of feminist art historian Linda Nochlin’s death, and in the midst of sexual harassment allegations in the art world and beyond, Radical Women is a poignant and necessary exhibition. Because, as Fajardo-Hill frankly puts it, we’re still proving art history that women artists are worth looking at and women are still fighting to control their own bodies.

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Marisol, “Self-Portrait” (1961–62)

Elisa Wouk Almino: There has only been one other large-scale museum exhibition in the US dedicated to Latin American women artists, at the Milwaukee Art Museum in 1995. At the same time, you’ve mentioned that there are still people in your field who question the need for exhibitions dedicated only to women artists. Could you talk about why you chose to pursue this show, what kind of historical gaps it fills, and why you think we still need exhibitions dedicated to women artists?

Cecilia Fajardo-Hill: As art historians you address which areas of the field you think are missing. The moment between 1960 and ’85 — everywhere in the world, not only Latin America — people were experimenting with the languages that became what is contemporary art today: video art, photography, conceptual art, and installation art. It wasn’t different for Latin American and Latina artists. But when you look at the books, women are not there. The history that has been told solely deals with men. And it is a wrong history.

When people during the first four years of the research told us that this exhibition was not relevant and unnecessary, it comes from a patriarchal perspective where they accept the history that we have as the status quo. And it’s very comfortable to think that history is OK, especially when you’re a man. I’m not OK with it. Because I know there have to be women. Linda Nochlin’s question was why there have never been great women artists. For us it was, where are the women?

Judith F. Baca, “Las Tres Marías (The three Marias)” (1976), with the author for Hyperallergic

EWA: You have said, “this is not a feminist exhibition, not because we are not feminists, but because many of the artists did not identify as feminists.” This is a point that comes up again and again throughout the catalogue and exhibition — that the art here is not necessarily feminist.

CFH: It is a feminist exhibition in the sense that our agenda is feminist. It’s about creating visibility for a group of women artists. But it doesn’t mean they are feminist artists. Lucy Lippard defines feminism as helping and acknowledging another woman. And in that sense it is. But I wouldn’t call these women feminist artists, even though the many things that they discuss and articulate could be seen as feminist. They are in a broad sense of the word because they contest a lot of the patriarchal principles of society. But historically speaking it’s incorrect to call an artist who did not identify herself as a feminist, a feminist. That’s why for us the word ‘radical’ is more all-encompassing.

Installation view of Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985 at the Hammer Museum

EWA: You’ve talked about how early Latin American modernism and abstraction is a more studied topic in art history. You’ve also pointed out that this abstract art has the tendency to “neutralize gender.” Do you think discussions of gender have been generally avoided in the study of Latin American art?

CFH: It’s become a big topic, feminism in Latin America. People are not afraid anymore. I consider myself a feminist, Andrea considers herself a feminist, and maybe before the exhibition I didn’t say that to myself. Now I understand that defending other women and highlighting other women is a feminist gesture.

When we started the research we included abstraction. And we had the case of artists who said, “we are universal artists, we are not women artists,” and so forth. I understand why people said that — because otherwise they would be excluded. The fact that their art, that gender, could not be reduced, made them possible to kind of coexist. But there are artists who did parallel work with both languages, like Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape. They are not exclusive of each other. Zilia Sanchez’s work is abstract, but for her, it deals with the female body. I’m interested in this kind of hybridity.

It’s a political position to say, “I don’t mind enunciating myself as a woman.” And fundamentally, the artists in the exhibition do. I think the fact that there have been so few really important exhibitions about Latin American women tells you a little bit about what Latin America is in that sense.

Regina Silveira, “Biscoite arte (Art cookie)” (1976)

EWA: Many of these artists were faced with political censorship, as they were living under dictatorships. Given the circumstances, it’s impressive how they were able to make such politically charged work. Could you talk about some of these artists’ methods in avoiding censorship or dealing with it?

CFH: Some artists had to leave their countries, live in exile. Some of them worked in silence and very much in obscurity. A lot of performance during this time was just done for the camera — very few were a public event. So people still did their work and then sometimes they didn’t exhibit the work.

For example, Luz Donoso, and her faces of disappeared people — she would just plaster those images in the street. It would be like an ad hoc situation. Or there is a piece by Narcisa Hirsch, “Maribunta,” where she makes this huge figure with food for people to eat it. Originally it was going to be a public thing but then she was forbidden to do it, so she had to put it inside a cinema.

So the artists found their way to say these things. The big act of resistance here is not only if they managed to show these things, but also if they did the work, even if it wasn’t part of a huge art scene.

Amelia Toledo, “Sorriso de menina (Girl’s smile)” (1976)

EWA: Do you think some of these artists’ obscurity is in part owed to censorship?

CFH: During that time there were also men doing political work — Artur Barrio, Cildo Meireles. It was kind of a big scene of political art. If you look at certain books of conceptual art, what is talked about is what men did. But they were all part of the left-wing resistance; women were part of the art scene, but then were erased.

A lot of women will tell you that it was hard, and sometimes so hard that they stopped making art. The other thing that is difficult is that when women went into exile, and had to start a new life, had children, their careers were not typical like a man who has the ability to produce art throughout his life. The way art history sees that is they were only artists for a little bit, so they weren’t interesting anymore. But it’s a horrible, patriarchal way of excluding; we don’t believe in that concept of career.

Installation view of Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985 at the Hammer Museum

EWA: There is a lot of photography and video in this exhibition. You’ve talked about how women were historically excluded from painting, but that video didn’t have as long of a history yet, so it became a space for women to insert themselves and explore. Of course, there were male artists also using these media, but how would you distinguish the video and photography work made by women in Latin America during this time?

CFH: Photography provided very immediate ways of recreating a different iconography of the female body. For example, Sophie Rivera’s images of bloody Tampax — that is the most taboo of all the bodily fluids; it’s more taboo than even blood from assassination. People find it completely disgusting. So for someone to use photography and say, “I’m going to celebrate menstrual blood. I’m going to celebrate my shit.” That is a powerful thing. Ana Mendieta uses her body to talk about rape, the idea of gender as flexible — putting a beard on her face. If you were to paint a body, it wouldn’t be the same. This is her body, this is her pubic hair, her breasts, and her face, that she is deforming. The way that photography and video allows these artists to talk in a very direct way about stereotypes, about situations of oppression, and redefinition of a body and place in the world is, for me, very unique.

Ana Victoria Jiménez, From the series Cuaderno de tareas (Assignment book) (1978–81)

EWA: This show is part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative, which has supported exhibitions across Los Angeles dedicated to Latin American and Latino art. The term “Latin America” has been widely debated among curators, and I am wondering how you conceive of it.

CFH: I spent a time in my life where I did not talk about Latin American art. I said it was a really disgusting category and such a problem that I don’t even want to use it. When I was the director at the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO) in Miami, I wanted to say artists are from Brazil, are from Colombia, to be more specific. Then I realized museums evolved and started to think of Latin American art as “part of the universal thing,” and didn’t think they needed to create a Latin American category in their collection. The problem is, if you have $10 million in your budget, none of it is going to go to Latin American art because you’re not going to know anything about it. So then I thought, yes, of course, it is a difficult category because it encompasses a lot of misunderstanding, but at the same time, it is a geographical construct that has a shared colonial history. And that shared colonial history could make us very powerful in terms of the revisions we do, the collaborations we can propose.

For me, they are problematical terms, but they are necessary terms. We need to recover stories that confirm our political history that we have erased by erasing these terms. By you eliminating those terms, you wouldn’t have a Radical Women exhibition.

Installation view of Liliana Maresca’s “Untitled” (1982) (left) and Margot Romer’s “Aparato reproductor de la mujer (Woman’s reproductive system)” (1972) (right)

Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985 continues at the Hammer Museum (10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, California) through December 31. 

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