Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985 represents the culmination of a herculean research project that resulted in a major traveling exhibition and substantial catalogue, led by Cecilia Fajardo-Hill and Andrea Giunta. The title is as provocative as it is descriptive and begs the questions: What is radical? How are women radical? Where is Latin America? And why 1960 to 1985? The term “radical” comes from the Latin radicalis, which refers to the root, base, or foundation of something. In contemporary usage, radical changes are those that significantly affect or alter those foundations. In this sense, the works selected for the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue represent those made by Latin American and US Latinx women artists who have contributed to radical social change by deploying equally radical materials, forms, media, and contents. By conjoining “radical” with “women,” the title provocatively hints at artistic interventions that interrogate and transform normative constitutions of “womanhood” along with patriarchal social structures as a whole. The configuration of these variables sets them into productive and even contradictory tensions, and thus opens paths for discussion that pose crucial questions about power relations, the body, and social transformation. The categories of the title, “radical,” “women,” “Latin America,” and “1960–1985” are embedded within aesthetic, political, historical, and social landscapes that cannot be reduced to any one narrative. The catalogue, thus, fosters these multiple dialogical reads that emphasize the contextual process of meaning production.
In deploying the idea of “radical women,” Fajardo-Hill and Giunta, as well as twelve other contributors, confront the problematic history of feminism in Latin America. Since the 1960s, many women on the left joined their male peers in revolutionary activities. Suspicious of the US model, they considered feminism a neocolonial divide-and-conquer strategy and often disavowed the term. Many intellectuals believed sexism, along with elitism and racism, to be superstructural manifestations of a capitalist base that could only be resolved through revolution. We have since learned that in order for revolutions to deliver on emancipatory promises, they must contend with patriarchal and authoritarian structures. The contributing scholars show that the critique of patriarchy offered by these radical women was not at odds with the revolutionary ideals of their peers, but rather challenged the foundational social structures that govern economic, race, and gender relations.
The exhibition and catalogue complement each other by allowing readers to relate artistic practices to struggles common to women throughout the hemisphere. In the book, the artworks are repositioned through three different frameworks, expanding their interconnections and dialogical potential. Of the seventeen illustrated texts, twelve discuss artworks with respect to each nation’s specific historical, cultural, and political landscapes (221–311). The plate section and resourceful appendix of 120 biographies are organized alphabetically, while a spread dedicated to the nine curatorial themes, with lists of artists underneath, provides yet another perspective.
There is a corporeal thread running through the works and essays. Women’s bodies have been the subjects of visual culture and subjected to oppression for millennia. During the period under consideration here, bodies were further implicated in political violence as the Cold War generated bloody dirty wars throughout Latin America. Detained, tortured, disappeared, or disposed bodies appear conspicuously in many artworks, such as Luz Donoso’s Endless Band (1978) and Sonia Gutierrez’s We’ll keep saying homeland (1972) and And they lifted me up with rope (1977). Others make connections between militarism, death, and eroticism, such as Feliza Bursztyn’s Bed, (1974) and Gloria Camiruaga’s Popsicles (1982–84). These works give image to the myriad forms of resistance and denunciations of atrocities committed under military dictatorships, guerrilla warfare, and counterinsurgency operations.
Many authors call attention to artworks that summon not only violated bodies during dirty wars, but also women’s bodies as strategic battlefields. During this period, governments and elites throughout the Americas considered women’s reproductive rights matters of national security and patriotic duty. The Population Council and the Panamerican Assembly on Population proclaimed the need to combat overpopulation and the misery it generated in order to avert the appeal of the Cuban Revolution. Scholars are just beginning to uncover the scope of the forced sterilizations that ensued. According to Carla Stellweg, Mexican American women also fell victim to federally funded nonconsensual sterilization in East Lost Angeles, painfully connecting the experiences of women across the hemisphere. Meanwhile, the Vatican declared its position against birth control through Pope Paul VI’s encyclical HumanaeVitae (1968) and the Communist left denounced contraceptives as forms of neocolonial control that accompanied forced sterilizations. Very rarely did public debates consider women’s own desires or rights. These radical women gave form to critiques and positions on sexuality and reproduction few dared to voice publicly. For instance, Venezuelan artist Margot Römer’s powerful assemblage Woman’s Reproductive System (1972) connects the productivity of small businesses to the reproductivity of female bodies. Mexican artist Monica Meyer decouples women’s sexual desire from their maternal or patriotic duties in The normal (I want to make love) (1978). Karen Cordero Reiman concludes in her analysis of Meyer’s work that there is no such thing as “normal” in sexual fantasy.
This sense of “normal” owes much to five hundred years of Catholic Marian ideology in the Americas. During the period under consideration, oligarchic and military regimes sought to uphold these traditional Catholic values against a purportedly atheist and amoral Communist threat. Judith Baca and Yolanda López tackled this powerful marianismo imposed on women throughout the Catholic world. Baca’s The Three Marias (1976) consists of a mirror flanked by two images of women that defy ideals of “good” femininity. The viewer’s reflection completes the Three Marias, forcing him or her to confront where on the Marian spectrum they fall. Stellweg calls out Yolanda López’s sacrilegious self-portraits as the Virgin of Guadalupe from the series Tableaux Vivant (1978). López, like the Virgin who crafts her own image on the cloak of the mexica Juan Diego, makes her own modern apparition as artistic self-affirmation.
Throughout the essays, radical women consistently rebel against the Marian baseline used to measure women’s propriety. Some of the most radical propositions confronting normative conceptions of feminine propriety were the performances by Colombian artist María Evelia Marmolejo. According to Carmen María Jaramillo, Marmolejo turned taboo into totem in March 11—ritual in honor of menstruation, worthy of every woman as a precursor to the origin of life (1981) by disobeying social conventions of corporeal prudence and exposing menstrual blood in an Indigenous-inspired ritual that celebrated vaginal discharge as an integral part of women’s life-giving force. This work points today’s scholars toward artists who turned to Indigenous worldviews in search of alternative pathways distinct from the messianic and paternalistic models that have dominated the political arena.
While Marmolejo’s performances could be considered radical in most contexts even today, the geographic structuring of the essays illustrates the contextual nature of what is radical. In her essay, Rosina Cazali discusses contrasting reactions to the same paintings when displayed in different environments. When Guatemalan Antonia Matos Aycinena displayed her nude paintings in Paris they generated favorable critical reviews, but when they were exhibited in her native Guatemala they caused uproar and scandal. Critics charged that the works were inappropriate for a woman of her social station. In this way, the geographic emphasis of the essays provides readers an avenue for understanding radicality as a position vis à vis regional circumstances, be they military dictatorships, dirty wars, or oppressive social hierarchies.
Not all radical positions adopted overt strategies. Indeed, many artists working within perilous situations addressed local audiences with coded messages in order to reconstitute broken social bodies through veiled or clandestine activities. Andrea Giunta’s “Poetics of Resistance” describes some of these multi-coded strategies as “palimpsestic” language (252). Under these conditions of repression and censorship, even subtle messages alluding to corporeal limitations nipped at the heels of oppressive regimes. Rodrigo Alonso discusses spectators’ entrapment in Graciela Carnevale’s Lock-Up Action (1968) in the context of military detentions in Argentina. Yet in dialogue with other works displayed, this sense of experiencing “no way out” can also express women’s limited options. The editors were careful to respect the ambiguity, and multiplicity, of the works by giving us multiple structuring principles: thematic, geographic, and even the arbitrary alphabetical organization.
At the Hammer Museum, the first work to confront visitors was a large-scale projection of Victoria Santa Cruz’s Me gritaron negra (They Shouted Black at Me, 1978). Placing this powerful performance by an Afro-Peruvian artist—a reaffirmation of her strength as a black woman in an exclusionary and prejudicial society—was a stroke of curatorial genius that haunted the rest of the exhibition with the conspicuous absence of Afro-Latinx and Indigenous women artists. Unfortunately, the catalogue does not accomplish this same level of candid self-reflection. Aside from a few passing comments, issues of race and class are absent from any in-depth discussion, even though certain works beg to be critically unpacked, such as Anna Bella Geiger’s Native Brazil, Alien Brazil (1977) or Sandra Eleta’s series Servitude (1978–89). These series point to the complex layers of racial and economic subjugation in the Americas. Nonetheless, some compelling avenues for exploration can be found in the margins or footnotes of the essays. For instance Carla Stellweg mentions US Latinx artists having to confront issues of race and class injustices (296n1) or those who joined the Chicano punk-chera music movement as forms of radical disobedience that guide the reader toward alternative sites of liberation, for instance the important role of nightclubs for women and members of LGBTQ communities (297n29).
With a few exceptions, such as the Chilean arpilleras, the majority of women artists included can be considered both subaltern and privileged as urban, educated, and middle class. Their access to domestic labor, as with their male counterparts, facilitated their artistic professionalization. Some artworks reflect on these connections and point toward future discussions about the privileged status of professional artists and public intellectuals. For instance, Lea Lublin’s My Son (1968), a self-portrait with her infant child while trapped in her Paris apartment during the May 1968 protests, poignantly laments her inability to participate in such a historic event because of her maternal responsibilities.
Of course, no one project can address all the complexities of this inexhaustible subject. Already the tremendous accumulation of artworks and scholarship that (re)present women artists working throughout the hemisphere for two decades is nothing short of heroic. I first became aware of the scope and impact of this historic event prior to the exhibition’s inauguration when one of my students mined the online preview to craft a provocative seminar paper on women performance artists from Colombia, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. Some of these artists are little known in the United States or Brazil, where the Radical Women exhibition took place. Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985 promises to catalyze countless research projects and exhibitions that will help level the playing field for women artists worldwide. More importantly, this catalogue preserves and amplifies the legacies of many women who have received too little attention outside their home countries. It joins the radical women’s feminist critique and challenges society to uncover mechanisms of oppression detrimental not only to women but to all.