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Women Art Workers in Argentina Demand Gender Equality, and Museums Start to Listen

Women in the arts across Argentina are protesting as an organized entity, through the group Nosotras Proponemos, demanding gender parity in the art world.

Women in the arts protesting with Nosotras Proponemos in Buenos Aires (photo by Barbara Scotto)

BUENOS AIRES — After starting the day with a ruidazo — noise making — to make themselves heard, 700,000 women in Argentina yesterday gathered in front of the country’s congress demanding gender equality, an end to femicides, and the right to control their own bodies, following legislation that politicians introduced on Tuesday that would legalize abortion. Among these women were gallerists, museum workers, academics and artists from all disciplines, across generations and from many corners of the country. For the first time, women in the arts across Argentina protested as an organized entity, through the group Nosotras Proponemos, or “We Propose,” demanding gender parity in the art world.

Women in the arts protesting with Nosotras Proponemos in Buenos Aires (photo by Barbara Scotto)

Out of the 47 major exhibits at the National Museum of Fine Arts in the last five years, only two starred female artists. The National Prize of Honor has had 92 male winners as opposed to a mere five female ones since 1911. And the last arteBA art fair only had 30% women represented in their main section, equaling the percentage of women artists exhibited at the Argentinian pavilion at the Venice Biennale over the last 17 years. In their manifesto-like list of 37 demands, Nosotras Proponemos asks for equal representation in exhibitions, collections, and leadership positions. But the patriarchal system within the arts runs deep, so this, the group admits, will take time.

Women in the arts protesting with Nosotras Proponemos in Buenos Aires (photo by Barbara Scotto)
Women in the arts protesting with Nosotras Proponemos in Buenos Aires (photo by Leticia Obeid)

Their first step is to make people aware. Over 30 museums and art centers from the southernmost part of Argentina, Patagonia, to villages in the Northern Andes region of Jujuy, accepted Nosotras Proponemos’s invitation to highlight art made by women — literally. Lights in exhibition spaces have been turned off and only works made by female artists shine in the spotlights. Most of the spaces remain immersed in darkness. With this powerful, performative gesture, the unequal representation becomes clear with one glance. At the provincial Museum Dr. Pedro E. Martinez in Entre Rios, for example, only one work was lit yesterday. Marcela Canalis, the museum’s director, explained: “The exhibit deals with the origins of our collection, and yes, there is only one work, out of the 17 on display, which is made by a female artist, Emilia Bertole.” She quickly added that women are equally represented as men in the museum’s temporary exhibits, prizes, and juries.

The galleries at the National Museum of Fine Arts, Buenos Aires (image courtesy the National Museum of Fine Arts)
The galleries at the National Museum of Fine Arts, Buenos Aires (image courtesy the National Museum of Fine Arts)

The National Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires will also be shrouded in darkness during the month of March from 6 to 6:30pm, when the lights will only remain lit over a small amount of art by women hanging in the first-floor galleries. The artistic director, Mariana Marchesi, has been wandering the floor to observe visitors’ reactions and handing out copies of Nosotras Proponemos’s demands. “To give it some context. Most people are not expecting this,” she said with a smile. Upon explaining the museum’s position, she confessed that “it is difficult to change the past. And you have to understand, that we are also a historic museum. Yes, the proportion of women in our collection is low — around 500 works out of 13,000 — but we are committed to take up Nosotras Proponemos’s valid arguments, discuss the current imbalance and make a change, where we can.”

Women in the arts protesting with Nosotras Proponemos in Buenos Aires (photo by Leticia Obeid)
Women in the arts protesting with Nosotras Proponemos in Buenos Aires (photo by Barbara Scotto)

There is one corner of the National Museum that is aglow, where a temporary exhibit A la conquista de la luna (Conquesting the moon) has been set up, featuring only women. One of the works is “Bocanada,” a photographic collage of open mouths, waiting to be fed or ready to scream. It is by Graciela Sacco, a socially engaged artist, who passed away last year. Her passing inspired artist Leticia Obeid to use her Facebook wall last November to express her sorrow and suggest a 10-point list on changes that need to be made in the art world. Her to-do list for a less patriarchal system went viral and formed the base for the 37-point declaration, which was signed by over 3,000 people within a period of three weeks. It was then that Nosotras Proponemos was born.

Graciela Sacco, “Bocanada” (1994–2014) (image courtesy MUNTREF)
Women in the arts protesting with Nosotras Proponemos in Buenos Aires (photo by Rosana Schoijet)

Only five months later more than 200 women joined Obeid with colorful banners, cheerful chants, and purple bracelets in the streets of Buenos Aires on International Women’s Day. “It is a sign,” she said, “that women are ready for this change, which we can achieve collectively. In only a short period of time, this experience has already changed us so much. We realize that our individual problems and limitations are shared, and by talking about them, amongst each other, we learn to understand and might be able to change the rules of this game […] I believe that what we are doing is a small contribution to something much bigger.”

The galleries at the National Museum of Fine Arts, Buenos Aires (image courtesy the National Museum of Fine Arts)

The first responses to Nosotras Proponemos have already been overwhelming. Yesterday, at the Caraffa Fine Arts Museum in Córdoba, Argentina, there were only male employees at the museum, as women left to strike. The galleries of the National University of Misiones in Obera were wallpapered with hundreds of names of local female artists, an action initiated by Nosotras Proponemos with the Museum of Latin American Art in Buenos Aires (MALBA), where the director himself, Agustín Pérez Rubio, placed more than 1,300 names of female artists on the façade of the museum. An advocate of gender parity, Pérez Rubio has tried closing the gap as much as possible since becoming the MALBA director in 2014. During the last three years of his directorship, 80% of acquisitions were of art made by women; as a result, 45% of the art on permanent view is now by women. The MALBA also has a wing continuously exhibiting female Latin American artists who should have had more merit in their lifetime, such as Annemarie Heinrich, Teresa Burgess, Claudia Andujar, and Mirtha Dermisache. Later on Friday, the museum’s doorsteps will be taken over by Nosotras Proponemos who’ll perform Susana Thénon’s poem entitled “Why is this woman shouting?”

MALBA façade being wallpapered by the director – courtesy of MALBA ph: Soledad Campos

The woman shouts until she no longer can. A woman is murdered every 30 hours in Argentina just for being a woman. Nosotras Proponemos just started shouting and they won’t be resting until changes occur in the arts, which, Obeid hopes, could be a small contribution to change within society at large. In the meantime, the group will continue to organize. In June, members will join a Wikipedia “Edit-a-thon” to update its data on female artists. The group has also asked institutions across Argentina to gather the actual data on gender disparity. By making them count, they can become aware and hopefully be open for change.

Women in the arts protesting with Nosotras Proponemos in Buenos Aires (photo by Rosana Schoijet)
Fourth assembly of the female workers in the arts with Nosotras Proponemos (photo by Caro Pierri)

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that MALBA had increased its acquisitions of art made by women by 45%; this is incorrect. 45% of the art on permanent view is by women. This has been amended. 

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