Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985, on view at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, April 13-July 22, 2018

In a 1972 article, anthropologist Sherry Ortner famously asked, “Is female to male as nature is to culture?” Taken another way, what’s different about the relationship of men and women to public expression? Historically, men have controlled the realm of the creative, given agency to invent, improvise, and express, while women have been relegated to the role of passive caretaker, their only approved form of creation being childbirth. But in times of political upheaval and economic instability, women have been able to break through, finding new modes of inclusion in public life and expression, often through art.

Running through July 22, Radical Women: Latin American Art, 19601985 at the Brooklyn Museum considers one such period of uncertainty. Focusing on a quarter-century span in which Latin America saw rapid industrialization and development accompanied by worsening poverty and class polarization, the exhibit showcases the work of 123 artists from fifteen countries who use various mediums to reflect on their changing identities in societies rife with contradiction and injustice. While the show is divided into a series of nine themes, such as “Self-Portrait,” “Resistance and Fear,” and “Performing the Body,” the use of the female body as an agent of social change is underscored throughout.

Second-wave feminism spread across the United States through the 1960s and ’70s, but the term “feminism” was regarded in many Latin American circles as too bourgeois. Unlike many American women, women in Latin America faced widespread violence, hunger, and political corruption, the combination of which compounded their lack of agency. As a result, many artists featured in the show either ignore feminism or overtly reject the label, focusing instead on specific instances of systemic oppression.

In this vein, the exhibition opens with a video in which Victoria Santa Cruz, a Peruvian slam poet and activist, performs Me gritaron negra, or “They Shouted Black at Me.” Santa Cruz defiantly glares out at the audience, reciting her poem as a chorus of people repeatedly chant “negra,” a steady drumbeat sounding in the background. The artist comes to terms with her identity as a woman of color, an identity others used to demean and oppress her from a young age. “Finally!” she declares. “I move forward and hope… and I bless heaven because God wanted that Jet black should be my skin color, And I understood, finally! I already have the key!”

Such triumphant celebrations of God-given identity, achieved through reappropriation of the words and actions used to oppress, characterize many of the show’s pieces. One section, for example, champions colorful approaches to self-portraiture, with artists inserting themselves into famous iconography—like Lourdes Grobet’s Hora y Media, in which Grobet poses as the subject of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. By forcing established artworks to reckon with gender, Grobet suggests that the challenges women face are finally “being birthed” in the public sphere. Masterpieces no longer need be created on a man’s terms alone.

Childbirth is perhaps the most obvious of these challenges, and several artists reflect on their own motherhood as both a gift and a weapon of systemic exclusion used against them. Lea Lublin’s Mon fils (My Son) documents a performance in which Lublin cared for her son in an actual museum, thus acting as a commentary on how institutional neglect and lack of support prevent women artists from following their careers. In Autorretrato (Self-Portrait), the artist Marta Moreno Vega gazes at the viewer, her hair natural, her clothes relaxed. At her heart are her two sons; their arms crossed, they seem to defend their mother in her continued fight to confront an unjust society head-on.

Other artists incorporate themselves into the region’s mainstream Catholic narratives, but shape them to fit their own revolutionary spirit.

Meanwhile, certain pieces present unabashed critiques of the continent’s most prevalent religion, regarding Catholicism as a remnant of colonial oppression in Latin American society, charging it with homophobia, and accusing it of perpetuating corruption and inequality. In Victoria Cabezas’s Sin titulo, for instance, men pose in cruciform covered with bananas, alluding to the intersecting money-focused interests of church hierarchy and multinational corporations, for which fruit was a major commercial enterprise.

Other artists incorporate themselves into the region’s mainstream Catholic narratives, but shape them to fit their own revolutionary spirit. In prints from Yolanda Lopez’s Tableaux Vivant, the artist is at the center of a painted backdrop invoking the famous image on St. Juan Diego’s tilma of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a shrine to Our Lady at her feet. Lopez is smiling, playful, dressed in shorts and a worn tank-top—a humble attempt at insinuating herself into an institutionalized narrative through the harmless reappropriation of an age-old image. Similarly, Judith Baca’s Las Tres Marias triptych invokes the three Marys of the Crucifixion. A simply clothed Chicana woman is on one side and a heavily made-up woman on the other, but the central panel is simply a mirror in which the viewer is made to picture her own role in the Biblical narrative’s modern reimagination. (Unsurprisingly, this work is also the show’s most selfie’d.)

Gloria Camiruaga, Popsicles, 1982–84 (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (MAC), Facultad de Artes Universidad de Chile. © Gloria Camiruaga)

But if the show’s first few sections are triumphantly defiant, the second half of the exhibit is markedly more austere in both subject matter and tone. Many of its pieces deal explicitly with violence and political corruption, a shift that is apparent upon entrance. Visitors are met with audio of the Hail Mary prayed in Spanish, resounding throughout the entryway and paired with an eerie video of young girls licking popsicles until they reveal frozen army men figures inside. Entitled Popsicles, the video installation is the brainchild of Chilean artist Gloria Camiruaga, who created it between 1982 and 1984—the height of the brutal Pinochet dictatorship. As “Dios te salve Maria...” echoes in the gallery, viewers are reminded of the pervasiveness of Chile’s military dictatorship throughout civilian life, which among other things stripped away any sense of childhood innocence.

Popsicles sets an appropriately dark mood for what follows, works that tend toward the overtly disturbing with their inclusion of blood, references to death, and depictions of violence and oppression. These remind the viewer of the horrifying human rights abuses committed in Latin America during these decades. Photographs from Colombian artist Maria Evelia Marmolejo’s Anonymous 4 piece, for example, depict shocking images from a private performance in which Marmolejo filled a triangular hole in the ground with sewage water and placentas from births in Cali’s public hospitals, which she gathered on the day of the performance; she also tied placentas to her body. Her aim was to meditate on “the fear of coming into the world in a society in which survival is not guaranteed.” This work is understandably unsettling, and Marmolejo’s use of repurposed placentas as a mode to express desanctified life certainly raises its own set of issues. But the confrontational power of her piece is unquestionable: onlookers in photographs from the performance can be seen covering their mouths and crying, visibly aghast.

The show ends on a somewhat lighthearted note, with pieces that explore the female body’s capacity for exploration, playfulness, and sensuality. Sylvia Palacio Whitman’s Passing Through, a series of prints from a performance, depicts untrained dancers engaging with larger-than-life props, like giant green hands.

But even amid such levity the more serious point still stands out: women can use their natural gifts to act in times of crisis. One of the show’s later pieces, Ester Hernandez’s Weaving of the Disappeared, depicts a bloody textile stitched with symbols of skulls and bodies reminiscent of the arpilleras women stitched in Chile during the Pinochet regime. During this time in Chile, the Catholic Church provided women whose husbands went missing with textiles and embroidery supplies to create colorful arpilleras, patchwork pictures on which women would often weave narrative scenes and pictures of their missing family as acts of resistance and collective memory. The church would then sell the arpilleras, returning all profits to the women and providing productive means for families affected by political corruption to support themselves.

Each of the works in Radical Women serves to remind us of women’s importance during these tumultuous years. Out of their ability to critique, grieve, and heal through the same modes used to oppress them—their identities, their bodies, and their hearts—the 123 artists exhibited present women as Latin America’s most powerful forces. They are dynamic agents, authors of both nature and culture: not just mothers of the next generation, but autonomous individuals capable of acting and creating on their own terms.

Nicole-Ann Lobo, a PhD student at Princeton University, was Commonweal''s 2019 John Garvey Writing Fellow. She currently helps organize the Democratic Socialists of America’s Religion and Socialism Working Group and lives in New Jersey.

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