LOS ANGELES — Anna Maria Maiolino was displaced twice in her life: first from fascist Italy, where she was born in 1942, and then from the military dictatorship of Brazil, the country where she has resided most of her life. These seismic shifts had an impact on her largely autobiographical art, as she seemingly spent years waiting to finally settle in one place.
Maiolino is currently having her first major US retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles. In addition, she is featured in a massive survey at the Hammer Museum on radical art by Latin American women. Both exhibitions are part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time Initiative, which this year gave $16.3 million toward the display of Latin American art in Los Angeles and beyond.
Maiolino belongs to a generation of Latin American women artists who have only recently begun to receive broader recognition. These women reached the peak of their careers during the various South American dictatorships of the second half of the 20th century and many took part in left-wing resistance efforts. Yet, unsurprisingly, art history has tended to only remember the men. Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, one of the curators of the Hammer Museum show, recently explained to me that scholars (mostly men) have dismissed this art as uninteresting or kitsch. Perhaps, in reading between the lines, these scholars find the work ‘too personal’ — the artists often inserted themselves into their work, depicting their bodies, used tampons, and children’s cribs. But this is precisely what makes their work so compelling and still relevant, as audiences continue to feel uncomfortable when a woman intimately invites you into her world.
What strikes me about Maiolino’s retrospective at MOCA is how it’s as much about the progression of a career as about the progression of a life. The very first artwork we encounter is a woodcut from 1967 in which two figures with their mouths agape share a single speech bubble that reads, “ANNA.” These wide-open mouths come up again and again — hungry, angry, and eager — shown with a spread of food and coiled intestines. Maiolino was a child in Calabria, Italy; she remembers all the starving people during the war. And as an exile who by this point had already traveled from Italy to Venezuela to Brazil, switching between three languages, one imagines the times she struggled to speak.
Maiolino has described these early pieces, made in Rio de Janeiro, as an attempt to “construct [herself] as a person.” Indeed, you get the sense that she was spilling herself onto the page, discovering her identity as a human as well as an artist.
But that sense of discovery was abruptly cut off in 1968, when Maiolino and her husband, Rubens Gerchman, also an artist, decided to escape Brazil’s increasingly violent dictatorship and moved to New York City, together with their two children. The year before they left, Maiolino made the work “A Espera (Waiting),” in which a woman in black silhouette stands by a window where baby clothes hang to dry. The image prefigures what was to come in her life in the US, where she assumed the role of housewife and produced very little art.
After living three largely unhappy years in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Maiolino left her husband and returned to Rio de Janeiro with her children. There, she got back on track, on the search to define and express herself. She began her Mental Maps series: delicate works on paper that use grids, circles, and arrows to arrange minimal thoughts; lines lead us from an “entrance” to an “exit,” from “A” to “B” to “C,” from “restart” to “refuge” to “solitude,” from “New York” to “Brasil.” Here we see the influence of the Rio-based Neo-Concrete artists, who made sensual abstract art, but Maiolino’s use of language sets her apart; her art is more direct and intimate. As she has put it, her work paved her own “emotional geography” — a kind of map for how she moves in the world.
However, in the ’70s, this journey becomes less solitary, and increasingly political. And, like many of her contemporaries, particularly women artists, Maiolino turned to video and photography. In a two-minute video, the gaping mouth reappears, this time the artist’s very own, where it inaudibly whispers, whimpers, screams, and remains ominously silent — again struggling to express itself, only this time because of the oppressive dictatorship. In another series of photographs, she nearly cuts her tongue off with a pair of scissors.
Maiolino used her art to explore her role as a citizen, and she did the same for her identity as a mother. In the photograph “By a Thread” (1976), she sits between her mother and teenage daughter; together they share a piece of thread which travels from one mouth to the next, nourishing and connecting them. As Helen Molesworth, the curator of the show, writes in her essay for the catalogue, “This image significantly heralds that she is no longer making work in between the pauses of motherhood, and profoundly, she is not creating art in spite of being a mother.”
In the stunning installation “Estão na Mesa (They Are on the Table),” Maiolino arranges rows of clay shapes that look like baked goods on a table — the title of the work is an expression used in Portuguese to announce when dinner is ready. The artwork alludes to the repetitive labor of sustaining a family, but also of sustaining one’s art. Perhaps one creates art in a similar way to how one cares for a person: by repeating gestures and acts of devotion.
“My first encounter with clay provoked a storm in me,” Maiolino has said. Indeed, her clay works from the ’90s onward appear to overflow and reproduce out of control, crawling over the walls and spreading about the floors. Everything, we are told, has the potential to replicate — a single spiral sculpture is titled, “They Could Have Been Two.”
Bryan Barcena writes in the catalogue that Maiolino’s works do “not suggest resignation, but rather an understanding that life (specifically that of a mother [read provider]), is structured and given form via repetition.” Indeed, in traveling Maiolino’s “emotional geography” we often feel ourselves to be treading a familiar path, encountering the same shapes, symbols, and words, only each time manifested in a slightly different way.
But while we began Maiolino’s journey traveling from A to B, from entrapment to escape, in the last rooms we are no longer searching for an endpoint. Her most recent works on paper, from the past 17 years, recall her early Mental Maps, only instead of maps we have playful mazes that do not have clear exits or entry points. There is this prevailing sense that Maiolino has found some serenity.
People are often wary about mixing the personal with the intellectual. There is still the stigma that outwardly personal art is less interesting or serious; while this might seem like a dated conception, when an entire generation of women artists — who often made their personal experiences front and center — is elided, it makes me think otherwise. Maiolino’s art, like that of so many other contemporaneous, brilliant women artists, eloquently shows how one’s life and work are necessarily intertwined.
Anna Maria Maiolino continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles (250 S Grand Ave, Los Angeles) through January 22.