Art

Childbirth and Menstruation in Defiant Art by Latin American Women

It is interesting that so many works in the Brooklyn Museum show Radical Women refer to the one form of power that men cannot dominate.

Lourdes Grobet, “Hora Y meida (Hour and a half)” (1975) (detail) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

In his remarkable book, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, Serge Guilbaut describes the ways in which the United States projected its imperial power onto Europe in the wake of the Marshall Plan. In particular, he stresses the importance of Abstract Expressionism as a symbol of American individualism and anti-Communism, contrasting American art against the effeminate and tasteful art made in Paris, for example. By the 1960s, the American imperial project had turned its attention to South America, through “Operation Condor” — but the export product was not abstract painting but rather a virulent form of anti-Communism. The heart of “Operation Condor” was found in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil, though the influence of this program extended to Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. It was, despite empty rhetoric to the contrary, the engineering and support of repressive dictatorial regimes coordinated and enabled by the CIA, that tortured and killed their citizenry with impunity, for decades.

Anna Bella Geiger, “Declaração em retrato No. 1” (Statement in portrait no. 1) (1974), still from video

Given the repression taking place in these societies, and adding to it the restrictions placed on women in particular, it is hardly surprising that the knowledge of artwork made by women in Latin America did not flow to the United States in the manner that Abstract Expressionism once flowed into Europe. In fact, of the 120 woman and collectives exhibited in Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985, currently at the Brooklyn Museum, only a small handful would have been familiar to American audiences prior to the “age of the internet” and most of those who were had spent some time in the United States. American institutions paid little enough attention to women working in the United States and many of the women whose work is included in Radical Women disappeared within their own cultural contexts and were rediscovered after significant research by the exhibition’s curators.

By definition, the colonized do not easily export the cultural expression of their oppression. But they know it, and they believe in their ability to enact transformation, as evinced when Brazilian artist Anna Bella Geiger states in her 1974 video “Declaração em retrato No. 1” (Statement in portrait no. 1): “They take a position of colonizing us. They always come to dictate ideas.” All the while she sits, calmly facing the camera and stroking a white pussy cat resting on her lap.

The catalogue for Radical Women, published by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, where the exhibition originated, makes a heroic effort to contextualize the works of individual women within their specific cultural milieus and countries of origin, but it is difficult to keep track of this information while looking at the exhibition and especially if the details of each country’s history and cultural production are not well known to the viewer. A timeline appears mid-way through the exhibition that outlines some basic events in each country, including which year women received the right to vote, which ranges from the ’30s to the mid-60s (in the United States, it was 1920). But the information is pretty bare bones.

The women represented in this exhibition were at times censored, and some took real risks to their physical safety in response to the dictatorships they were forced to live under. Andrea Giunta, co-curator with Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, points to the importance of being disobedient under dictatorship and stresses the subversive power of unruliness and disorder. In her catalogue essay, Giunta states: “Their interventions revolved around a destructuring of the social formats that regulated the body.” She goes on to say: “Indeed, the artistic research that ensued was so intensive that I would even argue that feminist artists and artistic feminism — the historiographic position from which I analyze the work of these women artists — enacted the twentieth century’s greatest iconographic transformation.”

Maria Evelia Marmolejo, “Il de morso-ritual a la menstruacion, digno de toda mujer como antecedente del origin de la vida” (March 11 – ritual in honor of menstruation, worthy of every woman as a precusor to the origin of life) (1981) (detail)

It’s striking how these women artists, from the ’60s onward, moved away from the more traditional means of expression, like painting and sculpture. Instead, many chose photography, performance, video, and street theater, eschewing traditional venues as well as expected materials, much as women had here. Wandering through the exhibition, I thought about what was happening in my studies and in my own awareness at the time that these works were being made, starting from the ’60s and moving forward to the mid-80s. What was the focus of attention in the art world then? Pop Art, of course, and Minimalism. Minimalism, which was described off the cuff at a recent dinner party by memoirist and art historian Eunice Lipton as “that fiercely masculinist style where women could not be imagined.” Of course, Carolee Schneemann was active, and I thought about dance, which made room for radical women: Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, and Lucinda Childs, for example, but they did not pierce my consciousness when they first began working, in part because I was too young, and because they were not being historicized or recognized in the same way as their male counterparts. My history of art didn’t include them until graduate school and even then, just barely.

I was struck immediately by the fact that one of the most significant threads woven throughout the Radical Women exhibition is the reference to childbirth and menstruation. Just prior to my visit to the Brooklyn Museum, I had seen Being: New Photography 2018 at the Museum of Modern Art. In that exhibition there is a corridor installation of thousands of images of women giving birth, taped to both sides of the hallway from floor to ceiling, by American photographer Cindy Winant. While the whole performs as an artwork, the individual images are mostly sourced from personal and documentary photographs. In other words, the individual images were not initially conceived as artworks. We already know that white men have defined universal values for some time and they have determined what is of value in art making in particular. It is interesting, then, to find so many works in Radical Women that refer to the one form of power that men cannot dominate.

Many works allude to being born into the world. There are three luscious, large-scale, black-and-white images by Lourdes Grobet titled Hora Y meida (Hour and a half) (1975) in which the artist breaks through a doorway, walled off by a sheet of tin foil.

Lourdes Grobet, “Hora Y meida” (Hour and a half) (1975)

There is Barbara Carrasco’s “Pregnant Women in a Bail of Yarn” (1978), an image that depicts a pregnant women in a state of bondage to pregnancy, ensnared by the domestic sphere. According to the wall label, the work was a response to the artist’s shock, when her brother, who grew up with her in a liberal household, began to restrict his wife’s movements once she became pregnant.

Barbara Carrasco, “Pregnant Women in a Bail of Yarn” (1978)

There are Josely Carvalho’s “Waiting” (1982) and “The Birth” (1981), both prints of a pregnant woman.

Joesely Carvalho, “The Birth” (1981)

There is Silvia Gruner’s “Arena (Sand)” (1986), a color video of the artist covering herself in sand and tumbling across a stretch of beach. While this work is situated in the landscape section of the show, watching the video of her tumbling away from us toward the water suggests the act of being born into the world.

Silvia Gruner, “Arena (Sand)” (1986)

There are Johanna Hamann’s “Borrigos (Bellies)” (1979-83), incredible casts of pregnant bellies hanging by meathooks on a freestanding metal rack. Seen from the other side, the interior resembles a woven basket.

Johanna Hamann, “Borrigos (Bellies)” (1979-83 ) (detail)

There is Maria Evelia Marmolejo’s “Il de morso-ritual a la menstruacion, digno de toda mujer como antecedente del origin de la vida” (March 11 — ritual in honor of menstruation, worthy of every woman as a precursor to the origin of life) (1981), documentation of a performance in which the artist’s body and head are covered with sanitary napkins and in which she is seen to bleed through the one covering her genitalia.

There is Lygia Pape’s color video “O ovo (The egg)” (1967) in which she is “born” from a white box sitting on the sand with the pounding surf in the background.

Lygia Pape, “O ovo (The egg)” (1967)

There is Marta Maria Pérez’s “No matar ni ver matar animales (Do not kill animals or watch them be killed)” (1985-86) that depicts the very pregnant torso of a woman in profile holding a large kitchen knife that menaces her belly.

Marta Maria Pérez, “No matar ni ver matar animales” (Do not kill animals or watch them be killed) (1985-86) (detail)

There are Sophie Rivera’s two photographs of a blood-soaked tampon floating in a toilet bowl, leeching red into the surrounding water, from the series Rouge et noir (Red and black) (1977-78).

Sophie Rivera, “Rouge et noir” (Red and black) (1977-78)

There is Yeni y Nan’s “Integraciones en agua I (Integrations in water I)” (1981), a performance in which two women burst out of a large, plastic bag filled with water.

And there is Celeida Tostes’s “Passagem (Passage)” (1979), showing the artist first covered in clay inside a large vessel, her head crowning out the top, and later her clay-covered body fallen to the ground.

Celeida Tostes, “Passagem” (Passage) (1979)

Images of childbirth are generally tucked away in most cultures, even if symbols of fertility abound. It is not by chance that men decided that these images have little value or that they should not be seen. Menstruation, nicknamed “the curse,” has often been treated as a form of defilement, while childbirth is the body at its most unruly. After all, once the process of labor begins, it is both violent and unstoppable, culminating in birth, or death, or both.

There are many other works in the show that address, for instance, the conditions of domestic life and women’s work. And there are serious and thoughtful works that are directly engaged with political events. I have chosen to focus on the works above not only because they are striking in the context of art making, but because they indicate a consciousness of the way in which they both express and symbolize defiance in an authoritarian and patriarchal culture.

Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985 continues at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Pkwy, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) through July 22. 

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