It seems that every couple of years I am invited to write about contemporary women artists, and in general this has meant writing about work I admire, that has been hugely influential at the same time as writing about how underrepresented women artists (still) are. In addition to thinking about visibility or making visible, here I was specifically invited to write about public artworks by women and thus questions also come up about how women (artists and non-artists) can or cannot occupy public space: what working on the streets means and the risks it implies for women artists and therefore the first thing to note is that public works of art, or works of art that occupy the public space that are made by women take on quite different shapes and mediums and strategies than those made by male artists.
While doing research for this text, I also noticed, with great hope and enthusiasm, that things have changed a little or even a lot (in terms of visibility and representation of women artists) and, with pain, that others remain exactly the same or worse (in terms of gender violence in Mexico) since the time that Maris Bustamante and Mónica Mayer created Polvo de Gallina Negra in 1983. Their first Gallina Negra performance –done on the streets and in the context of a public protest against macho violence in the Hemiciclo a Juárez monument— was meant to cast the evil eye on rapists while invoking the well known Juárez adage, adding the body in: “el respeto al derecho del cuerpo ajeno es la paz” (my emphasis). During the performance, they mixed magic powders and gave out powder baggies to the participants to ward off macho evil (or cure machismo, I assume for male participants). Their collaborative process lasted formally for ten years and, informally, is ongoing as both friendship and work. Almost thirty years have gone by and still it seems that magic powders given out to ward off machismo are most necessary (this brief reflection closes with glitter as a tool for resistance and its possibility as a public artwork by women). But first, I want to quote Maris and Mónica’s reasons for creating their feminist performance collective: as “1. Analyzing the image of women in art and communications media. 2. Studying and promoting the participation of women in art. 3.Creating images based on the experience of being women in a patriarchal system, based on a feminist perspective and with the aim of transforming the visual world and thus altering reality.” No small feat and one that remains as current now as it was in the early eighties.
It is of special relevance, I think, that their questioning of the role and image of women in art and society at large was done by taking art into the streets (or mass media) as opposed to simply showing their work in galleries and museums. For instance, they took on television and mass media as a public space too (another visionary gesture) as two young pregnant women in ¡MADRES! an ambitious project which began with their getting pregnant together (their offspring were born only three months apart) and turning maternity itself into a work of feminist art. ¡MADRES! took the shape of mail art (not to be confused with male art), but also street performances where people were invited to become pregnant or where the two artists sawed their fake bellies, as poetry readings and even a TV performance on Mother’s Day. But the relevance and visionary spirit of their work goes back even further: before they met, Bustamante saw a work by Mayer called El Tendedero (The clothesline, 1978), in which Mayer invited 800 women to complete the phrase “As a woman what I dislike the most in the city, is…” on little slips of pink paper that were then hung on a washing line in the Modern Art Museum in Mexico City. Similar public works of art have echoed this, in their title and conceptualization, in the past few years as with #RopaSucia (DirtyLaundry) in which three poets Paula Abramo, Xitlalitl Rodríguez and Maricela Guerrero invited women to talk about micro and macro machismo and violence (quite a bit before #MeToo in 2015) then embroidered the experiences on dirty underwear and let them all hang out next to revealing statistics about women in the cultural field written with soap. Or as with Lorena Wolffer’s work, which continues the vein and pushes forward the limits of public art feminism, and what it means to be a woman (artist) in the public sphere in Mexico.
As someone who is very conscious of her feminist lineage, in the vein of Tendedero, Wolffer created Réplica (2008), a piece based on the “derecho de replica” established by Mexican law, in which dozens of women wrote down the words they would like to address to the men who have inflicted violence upon them on walls created specifically for this purpose around the main flagpost in the Zocalo square in downtown Mexico. They completed the sentence “I am a woman and I have been the victim of violence perpetrated by a man. This is my name and this is what I have to say to my assailant.” Also echoing the recipes in Polvo de Gallina Negra and inserting the collective experience of many women, not just hers, Wolffer created, Recetas contra la violencia hacia las mujeres in which women who have experienced gender violence can speak from their own experience of resistance and survival and share their “recipes” against violence (during a performance in the Zocalo square in 2011 and then as sentences printed out on lampposts in Chapultepec park during Wolffer’s 2015 exhibition at the Modern Art Museum in Mexico City). There are countless examples of Wolffer’s use of public space in her work, and perhaps the most important is her activism today, as she focuses on shifting public policies with regards to women: putting all the work, pain, love and research that her pieces embody into the letter of the law.
When thinking about public works by women in Mexico it’s impossible not to name Helen Escobedo and her public sculptures, but also the way Pola Weiss occupied public space to make her videodanzas. And somewhere in between both (not chronologically, but in her processes and practice) I think of Pia Camil, whose large-scale curtains and hanging pieces are made to be used and activated by the public but also how she’s questioned the entire market dynamics of the fair with Wearing Watching (2015) her wearable ponchos/picnic blankets for Frieze in New York, seeking a different kind of exchange, that of communication and conversation, or as in A Pot for a Latch (2016) her exchange-based public show at The New Museum and, more recently and going back to Escobedo, with the public sculpture Lover’s Rainbow (2019): two giant rebar rainbows (13 x 4 meters) one north of the border, at Desert X in the Mojave desert in California, the other a few hundred miles south in Valle de Guadalupe. While rebar in Mexico symbolizes promise and hope, inserting it into the desert landscape echoes those feelings as well as those of fertility, trust and acceptance of difference (all that is symbolized by rainbows past and present). The mirrored rainbows also comment and shed light on “current immigration policies, prompting viewers to see things from two perspectives,” as the artist herself states. Looking for rainbows in the middle of the desert, like mirages almost, bring back “its symbolic power to re-establish hope, love, and inclusiveness when we need it most.”
And that rainbow and its inclusiveness bring me back to the issue of queerness in public art, specifically glitter bombs as a political and aesthetic tool. I want to make it very clear that by making an aesthetic claim for glitter bombs I am in no way depoliticizing them—they were born and continue to exist in the field of activism— however I believe they can be read in multilayered ways, including as public art (never negating or obscuring the fact that they are political tools). A few weeks ago, women in Mexico marched because gender violence has reached an unprecedented and terrifying rate of 10 femicides per day, and an average of one woman raped every forty seconds while impunity is at a staggering 95-99%. During a protest, a few women glitter bombed Jesús Orta Martínez, Mexico City’s Chief of Security with bright fuchsia glitter. After the government attempted to criminalize this and other acts as “vandalism” or even “provocation” or violence, women responded by baking their own eco-friendly glitter, buying sacks of glitter and taking to the streets again. Glitter became the image of physical, social, political, affective and historical connections. Since women are denied traditional political means of dialogue and appeal, or if women have decided to actively reject the very same political structures which retraumatize us and are complicit in that violence, women chose a very specific means to communicate dissent and demands: glitter bombing as the language of political transformation or contestation.
A language, and activist tool that started off with the LGBT+Q community in 2011, as gay rights activist Nick Savage glitter-bombed a Newt Gingrich book signing in the US and has continued on since then. Glitter as a political and aesthetic tool begs the question: how do we use models from the past with the tools of the present to inform the creation of a new visual language to respond to our present cultural condition of extreme urgency? How does this language materialize in public space? How do we visibilize a movement for social change and for survival?
It’s interesting that the choice is a tool that incarnates some of the qualities (or “weaknesses”) machismo uses as criticism against us women (and queers, while necessarily building that alliance too): what is feminine, feminized, that which is “low” and popular, an ingredient in makeup (which then questions beauty canons), and/or which echoes nightclubs and nighttime celebrations. Thus not just as a political tool but also as an aesthetic one, glitter bombing turns “high art” in the public space on its head: giving value to cheapness, campiness, femininity (and also throwing these clichéd ideas of beauty and femininity back into the face of patriarchy) but also the resignifies the subversive quality of bodies moving together in public space armed with little more than sparkle, and righteous rage.