The decision to replace a statue of Christopher Columbus towering over Mexico City’s main thoroughfare with a sculpture of an Indigenous woman was intended to empower the nation’s Native community. But only a week since the project was announced, hundreds of artists, writers, and curators from Mexico, many of them Indigenous women, have signed an open letter in protest, opposing the selection of contemporary Mexican artist Pedro Reyes for the new commission.
“We applaud that this space of great visibility will be occupied by a monument for women, and Indigenous women in particular,” reads the missive, authored by a collective of women and allies who work in the arts.
“However, we find it inadmissible that Pedro Reyes, a male artist who does not identify as Indigenous, was selected to represent ‘the Indigenous woman’: a generalization that negates the particularities and diversity of the women who self-identify as members of Native nations and peoples, and places their image in the hands of a white-mestizo man.”
The letter has nearly 300 signatories so far, among artists Circe Irasema, Mónica Mayer, Amalia Pica, and Héctor Zamora.
Erected in 1877 in a dedicated roundabout along Paseo de la Reforma, a major avenue that cuts across Mexico City, the Columbus bronze was removed last October in advance of planned protests by Indigenous groups on Día de la Raza, the day when Columbus arrived to the Americas in 1492. Officials at the time said the sculpture required restoration, but last weekend, city mayor Claudia Sheinbaum announced plans to replace the work with a bust of an Olmec woman by Reyes. In an interview with Hyperallergic last week, Reyes said he was inspired by the Nahuatl word tlalli, meaning Earth, and its representations, which often take a female form.
But this proposal “claims to represent a generic image of ‘Indigenous women’ in line with official discourses and folklore,” said Irmgard Emmelhainz, a writer and translator and one of the letter’s authors. Additionally, the commission was assigned “by dedazo” — “pointing a finger” — she added, “a problematic anti-democratic practice in Mexico in which an official artist is chosen, privileged with projects and honors without due fair call for competing projects from other artists.”
“The image was conceived by a white male artist without consulting with representatives of Indigenous communities across Mexico,” Emmelhainz told Hyperallergic.
Some Native Mexicans — who make up around 15% of the country’s population — have expressed their desire that the funding for the sculpture be allocated for the improvement of Indigenous women’s lives. Others have taken issue with the sculpture itself; Mexican photographer Yolanda Andrade suggested replacing Reyes’s design with a reproduction of a work by an Indigenous sculptor.
Reyes, who is represented by the international gallery Lisson, is known for conceptual artworks with a sociopolitical subtext. In 2013, for instance, he transformed thousands of confiscated firearms provided by the Mexican government into musical instruments for an installation titled “Disarm.” The artist has had numerous solo exhibitions in the US and abroad, at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles; the Guggenheim in New York City; and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, among other institutions. (Reyes has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.)
Among the sculpture’s critics is Mexican artist, performer, and educator Pablo Helguera, based in New York City, who publicly posted a personal letter he sent to Reyes asking him to reject the commission.
“It’s important to recognize the type of privilege that white and male Mexican artists have benefited from, and especially the systemic racism and sexism that has prevented many Indigenous artists, as well as artists who identify as women, from having the same opportunities,” Helguera wrote. “It’s a taboo subject in Mexico that should have long been addressed.”
“A monument on Reforma Avenue is primarily a symbol for the people,” he continued. “But the symbolism of the project — a public art project, not a gallery exhibition — extends not only to the finished product but also to the selection of the artist. It’s a mistake for a white man to once again have the power of determining the image that must represent the history of Native people and, by extension, all Mexicans.”