"Most importantly, we have to keep in mind that a decolonizing standpoint relies on the perspective and the strategy we adopt to interpret these practices. Such approach at times surpasses the artist’s intentions." – Interview with art historian Dr. Lara Demori on the artistic practices of Latin American women 1960-1980

In the work of Latin American women artists, the approaching of postcolonial concerns manifests itself in different media and heterogeneous references that reveal different ways to challenge and report upon these issues. In occasion of the symposium "Latin American Women Artists (1960-1980)" taken place at Haus der Kunst, July 6, 2018 and the current exhibition "Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1965-1985" at the Pinacoteca de São Paulo, we talked to Dr. Lara Demori, art historian and organizer of the symposium at the HdK.


Munich, September 2018

MS: As an art historian focusing on postmodern art practices from a transnational perspective, how do you relate yourself to this topic?

LD: The symposium related to this project have included artist Barbara Carrasco, Professor Esther Gabara, Professor Andrea Giunta, Dr. Sophie Halart and Dr. Giulia Lamoni. For the organization of the symposium I want to thank my colleagues at Haus der Kunst, especially Andrea Saul and Dr. Damian Lentini, whose help has been invaluable. I started researching around this topic during my one-year fellowship in the museum. The fellowship aimed for scholars to concentrate on the research for a comprehensive exhibition project on the global art historical developments of the postcolonial era, covering the period 1955-1980. This project, conceived by Okwui Enwezor, is the second of a trilogy of exhibitions, the first of which, Postwar, opened at Haus der Kunst in October 2016. One of the main tasks that fellows have to undertake is the organization of seminars or colloquia in preparation for the project as part of the institutions’ events. After already examining in my PhD thesis the work of artist Hélio Oiticica and the Brazilian Neo-Avantgarde of the sixties and seventies, and during my fellowship under the guidance of Okwui Enwezor, I decided to expand my horizon and look at Latin American post-war practices from a gender-based perspective, focusing on women artists who – with the exception of some more popular figures like Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, or Marta Minujin– got less recognition and were less internationally visible. It is important to be aware of the fact that feminism in Latin America didn’t have the same connotations as in the United States or in Europe and coincided with years of political unrest and armed conflict, therefore merging anti-imperialist with anti-patriarchal struggles. With the exception of Mexico in the late seventies, no other Latinx or Latin American country witnessed the presence of organized feminist movements comparable to those in Europe or the United States and several artists did not acknowledge their practice as ‚feminist’.

MS: Where does your research come from?

LD: Following on from these premises, I started my enquiry by reviewing some landmark international exhibitions of the last twenty years or so, which aimed to exhibit feminist artists from all over the world: Inside the Visible: in, of and from the Feminine, 1996, Wack! Art and Feminist Revolution, 2007, and Elles@centrepompidou, 2009, just to name a few. Some of these global projects made the following mistakes: to privilege again the display of western artists – despite their opposite intent – and to label them under the definition of ‘feminist’, even if some of these artists’ practices didn’t intentionally deal with a feminist agenda. It seemed to me that being a woman artist and being a feminist artist was theorized as one and the same. As Andrea Giunta suggests, it is important to establish a difference between feminist artists, who deliberately attempted to build a feminist artistic repertoire and language, and artistic feminism, which denotes the position of art historians whose research stems from a feminist perspective. Among the exhibitions reviewed, two foregrounded the theoretical approach of my current research: Global Feminism, Brooklyn Museum, 2008, curated by Linda Nochlin and Maura Reilly, and Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1965-1985, curated by Giunta and Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, is currently on view at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo until the 19th of November 2018.

MS: What does this exhibition offer that hasn't been before?

LD: Taking transnational feminism as its main subject, the former aimed to reflect upon feminism as a ‘multi-voiced arena of struggle’, examining the complex relations between racial, class, sexual and gender-based struggles displayed by women artists on a global scale. Conversely, ‘Radical Women’ focuses on Latin American women artists only and examines the notion of the ‘political body’- that is the body entangled with dictatorship, imprisonment, exile, torture, violence, censorship and repression. The exhibition unravels around interconnected themes: the self-portrait; the relationship between the body and landscape; the mapping of the body and its social inscriptions; references to eroticism, the power of words, to the performative body; fear of repression and resistance to domination; feminism; and social places. It questions essentialist feminist positions by considering the specificity of the contexts in which these practices flourished, and displays a great variety of artists, whom have been neglected by scholarly criticism and still lack a fair international appreciation.

MS: If dealing with Latin American Feminists, why to focus on maternity?

LD: First of all, not all the artists I am researching upon consider themselves ‘feminists’. The aforementioned exhibition Radical Women inspired my current research on the iconography of pregnancy. Several of the artists on view displayed a violent side of motherhood through different media – an aspect which greatly contrasts with the blissful depiction of the pregnant Virgin Mary that crosses the entire western art history and to which we are used to. ‘Where is this dystopic, often horrific, representation of pregnancy coming from?’ was my first research question. There is a great deal of literature on the maternal body in psychoanalytical terms. However, not much has been written about the maternal body in contemporary art history. For example, Rosemary Betterton’s book ‘Maternal Bodies in the Visual Arts’ (1999) investigates the practices by which the maternal ‘becomes embodied’ in European visual traditions. Betterton considers maternal bodies in the Christian icons of the Virgin, anatomical illustrations in Renaissance and Enlightenment science, monstrous imageries from early popular culture, and in works by artists across the centuries. With a strong interest in the psychic development of the maternal subject, Betterton draws upon Adrienne Rich’s ‘Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution’ (1976) and, most importantly, on Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection, which gives useful accounts of psychoanalytical theories of the maternal subject. Despite the importance of Betterton’s book, which deals also with miscarriage and abortion, her investigation privileges a focus on the ‘white maternal body’ , embracing an exclusively western perspective. Betterton establishes essential precedents for my research: however, prior the acknowledgment of the importance of a psychoanalytical discourse concerning every study on motherhood, my project aims to separate from her positions, fostering an inquiry into the iconography of the pregnant body as emerging from specific histories, religious values, and socio-political conditions in Latin America.

MS: In which terms then is motherhood being approached?

LD: Approaching motherhood in terms of legislation, social issues, and contemporary art history respectively, both Angela Davis and Andrea Liss constitute important points of departure for my study. Davis argues that the deconstruction of mothering is caused by new reproductive technologies and reproductive issues that necessarily oppose affluent, older, and infertile women with poor, fertile, young women of color. Interestingly enough, in the U.S. the latter are denied affordable abortion, but the government still funds sterilization, while in most Latin American countries abortion was and still is illegal. According to Davis these women ‘bear the evidence of colonization’. In 2009 Liss published ‘Feminist Art and the Maternal’, reflecting on motherhood in contemporary visual feminist art, problematizing issues of reciprocity and intersubjectivity of the mother/feminist, and the relation between the mother and the new born and expanding the spectrum of her research to Jamaican-American artist Renée Cox and black British filmmaker Ngozi Onwurah. Liss wittily addresses issues concerning the pictorial legacy of slavery and maternity and the exoticization of the black body among others, but her focus remains on ethics of care and maternal narratives. In a similar vein my research examines the iconography of the maternal body. However, in contrast to Liss, it focuses on unfolding historical and cultural varieties with the context of Latin America appraising political issues (such as the illegality of abortion) or anthropological questions (structures of patriarchal power among the Chicano family) that feature within the practices of Latin American and Latina artists cross-culturally and transnationally. I therefore aim to see through a dystopic representation of pregnancy, reckoned as symptomatic of certain patriarchal structures of power, the lack of reproductive rights, and mythical superstitions embedded in local folklores. These themes demand to be unpacked from different perspectives: religious, cultural, racial, and socio-political.

MS: What methodology you adopt in the analysis of post-colonial countries?

LD: Here, I take a similar position to that of several feminist and postcolonial thinkers of the eighties. Scholars like Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Gayatri Spivak, and Gloria E. Anzaldúa, among others, have advocated for a more extensive and comprehensive paradigm of feminist analysis that could go beyond Euro-American borders by considering women from postcolonial countries who are doubly colonized by both imperial and patriarchal ideologies. Western Feminism was indeed seen as hegemonic, dominant and colonizing; while feminism, they argued, is an unstable, fluid and context-related category. Also, African-American feminist intellectuals such as Angela Davis, Alice Walker, and Kimberlé Crenshaw among others criticized and withdrew from the discriminatory rhetoric of hegemonic ‘white’ feminism, developing an idea of black feminism that also includes the non-mestizaje black women of Latin America and their affiliated indigenous people. The risk implied in the adoption of a western feminist perspective is the development of a feminist critique which assumes that ‘women share the same common female experience’. Such critique therefore does not consider racial, cultural, sexual, class, religious and other differences among women coming from different parts of the world. Another issue is represented by a stereotypical understanding of the idea of ‘Third World’. In this respect, Mohanty’s discussion of the construction of what she calls ‘the average Third World Woman’ appears quite remarkable. This notion is built upon both her feminine gender – hence sexually constrained - and her being ‘third world’ – therefore ignorant, poor, uneducated, family-orientated, victimized etc. Mohanty suggests that this is in contrast with the self-representation of the Western woman as educated, emancipated from a hierarchical set of patriarchal values, and as having control over her body and sexuality. This approach does not only reinforce a binary line of thinking and the creation of dichotomies, but also the construction of a hegemonic understanding of ‘Third World’ as homogenous.

MS: By using the “lens of feminism” the symposium aims to look beyond the gaze of 'Third World' stereotypes. Could you explain this concept of feminism?

LD: The concept of ‘Third World’ emerged during the Bandung conference in 1955 that sanctioned the formation of the non-aligned movement, which included those countries that did not align neither with the capitalist West not with the Communist East. It therefore denoted a political stance embraced by countries undertaking a process of decolonization. This term later shifted to identify an economic position, establishing a dichotomy between the West and ‘underdeveloped’ countries, which prompt the emergence of a biased and homogenized view on the ‘Third World’ as culturally and economically inferior. Feminism as a site of resistance, as a struggle against patriarchal and imperialist values, helps to challenge these dichotomies. As Maura Reilly and Linda Nochlin argue in the introduction of the aforementioned exhibition Global Feminism, Feminism cannot be restricted to a monolithic concept, but marked by a plurality of vectors that led to the confluence of Feminism with anti-racist and postcolonial theory, therefore forging a more inclusive and broader spectrum of analysis.

MS: What does it mean to you to work on decolonization as an academic influenced by western European scholarship?

LD: This is not the first time I have been asked this question and faced this criticism. There is always the risk to adopt – unwillingly - a Eurocentric and colonizing perspective when dealing with non-western cultures that are initially less familiar to our European background and education. I am very aware of this risk. Conversely, being embedded in an European educational and scholarly system but researching upon non-European practices, I hope to succeed in making these practices visible outside their context of origin, giving them the international scholarly appreciation they deserve. To rewrite that ‘western history of art’, which we study at school, by including art practices and aesthetic theories from postcolonial countries is a crucial task that European and North American scholars have to face and embrace.

MS: Latin American women face a double oppression. They have to resist “against patriarchal hierarchies and against hegemonic forms of feminist identification”. How is this double 'deliberation‘ visualized in their works?

LD: To answer this question I will briefly discuss a work by Cuban-born artist Marta María Pérez Bravo (Havana, 1959) and her series Para concebir (To Conceive, 1985-86). This series includes five black and white photographs; self-portraits that challenge the taboo of motherhood as something ‘that shouldn’t be seen’ (in Medieval representations the pregnant Virgin always hides her swollen womb) patently displaying features that distinguish a changing body at the very last stage of pregnancy. At the same time, the title and composition of each photo challenges a set of popular superstitions rooted in Cuban culture. The artist creates unexpected paradoxes in her depiction of maternity: a carnal pregnant body, rendered with realism and portrayed naked in its visceral entirety, appears as solemn as a place of worship; it is enriched with sacred associations, since it bears references to traditions of Santería and Palo Monte - two Afro-Cuban religions that draw from Yoruba (Western Africa) and Kongo/Angola (Central Africa) practices respectively. This view that considers the body as a divinely inspired work of art exists in opposition to the Judeo-Christian conception of the body as corrupted, impure and so forth. This anti-romantic representation of the maternal body greatly contrasts with a set of patriarchal beliefs that reckon pregnancy as something sacred and cheerful and as the natural outcome of a woman’s life. However, the inclusion of elements referring to national religious traditions, dated back to the presence of African slaves on the island until the end of the nineteenth century, draws this work out of the possibility of a global feminist identification, since it reflects a specific cultural background that affects Cuban women’s position in society and among those religious communities, and it is entangled with political issues that concern Cuban Revolution as well as its colonial past.

MS: So a transnational comparison is not possible?

LD: I am not saying that a transnational comparison is not possible, but we have to bear in mind that Pérez Bravo’s Para concebir cannot be combined with, for example, Susan Hiller’s Ten Months (1976-77) or Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1983), since they stem from diverse contexts in which women face different kind of struggles given by heterogeneous power structures. Such struggles cannot be assimilated in a single form of ‘Feminism’. This is the reason I believe it is essential to unfold the presence of multiple ‘Feminisms’ and I argue against the notion of a ‘universal sisterhood’ which assumes a universal unity and identification among women based on a generalized understanding of gender subordination and identification across ethnicities and nations.

MS: The Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña says in the Skype-interview you showed at the symposium that she started to decolonize herself at the age of nine. What different practices of decolonization do you see in the work of other Latin American women artists?

LD: It is not only a matter of a patently displayed and tangible difference that characterizes the practices of Latin American women artists between the sixties and the eighties, but also the way we interpret those practices. Adopting a decolonizing approach implies that these practices are culturally, historically, and geographically grounded in relation to their context of origin, thereby allowing a consideration of intersections of race, gender, class, identity, ethnicity, exile, migration, etc. Having said that, there are artists who engage with their colonial past and explore postcolonial concerns more or less directly. Brazilian artist Anna Bella Geiger’s (b. Rio de Janeiro, 1933) work is emblematic and provocative in this respect. In Declaração em retrato No. 1 (Statement in portrait no. 1, 1974), a black and white video portraying the artist talking to the camera while stroking a white cat, Geiger openly reports the legacy of Brazil’s colonization stating: “I am Latin America. I am Brazilian. They take a position of colonizing us. They always come to dictate ideas.” The artist uses the present tense, hence denoting a situation that continues even nowadays. Equally visually striking is Geiger’s work Brasil native, Brasil alienígena (Native Brazil, alien Brazil, 1977), where the artist recreates iconic photos portraying indigenous Brazilian populations, mimicking their gestures and their poses but in contemporaneous settings, therefore enhancing oppositions and highlighting contradictions. The work refers to Brazil’s multi-ethnic identity and questions the use and significance of labels such as ‘native’ and ‘alien’; it has often been interpreted according to a postcolonial perspective and through a feminist ‚lens’. However, Geiger herself gives a less radical interpretation of it: “In the ’80s and ’90s, I read and taught about feminism. But I always thought these postcards were more simply the work of a Brazilian artist living in that difficult moment in which we were deprived of liberty, the right to vote, etc., more than a feminist approach. Some people saw an anti-colonialist position in that work, but to me it was more about drawing a relationship about the deprivation of democratic possibilities on a very simple level.” (http://terremoto.mx/article/anna-bella-geiger/). In a more nuanced way, Cecilia Vicuña also refers to her colonized position by including elements in her practice that pertain to the Andean region and the mestizo culture, particularly evident in her use of textiles, like in the installations Quipus on view at the last Documenta (Kassel, 2017).

MS: What has changed for women (artists) in Latin America since the 1960s?

LD: Problems addressed by the feminists and female artists from that time are still affecting contemporary society. For example, the legalization of abortion, which was recently denied by the Argentinian government (on August 9th, 2018) after being publicly demanded by Argentinian women. But, of course, every government in the continent is different, so to make general comments would be inappropriate.