Santa Maria Llena de Gracia
“Radical Women” Latin American Art, 1960-1985 at the Brooklyn Museum
I just lamented the modesty of a MoMA show for its portrayal of a Latin American artist, so I applaud the Brooklyn Museum for the scope of Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985, on display until July 22. The show is massive, far larger than you initially suspect, but better too ambitious than too narrow in scope. Though it covers a lot of ground, it never rambled; and while it took me across a quarter century in the history of a dozen countries, it is never freewheeling. At times biting, at times tongue-in-cheek, and at times sickening, it is always defiant—and how could it not be? These “radical women” found their voices within a machismo culture, often under dictatorial rule.
While I don’t encourage generalizations about Latin America (like the ones I just made), they did help me approach this exhibition, especially when faced with so many unfamiliar names (I only recognized four artists out of the one hundred twenty on display), and while you certainly will not emerge from the galleries with a detailed understanding of the individual art histories from Venezuela to Chile, the show manages to avoid generalities by allowing each artist her own space.
Sylvia Salazar Simpson, Sylvia Salazar Simpson, 1970s
Often the space allotted is not of a physical nature, but rather of an auditory one, as the exhibition’s greatest and most surprising success is in its presenting and mingling of sound clips. One of the two entrances (the one you would enter through if you came directly from the lobby) has you issue straight on to the foot of a video recording of Victoria Santa Cruz, an Afro-Peruvian poet, as she and a chorus of performers chant—her staccato speech punctuated by unison shouts of “Negra!,” recalling the abuse a black woman shoulders in a country to where her ancestors were shipped unwillingly.
This video, which is placed subtly but significantly, brings the marginal to the fore, but mingles it with the universal, as to the right of the door is Teresa Burga’s recording of her heartbeat, reminiscent of a muffled sonogram, human vitality pulsing through the static of machinery. Hearing Santa Cruz overlaid with Burga (who is also Peruvian) calls to mind words from the last exhibition I saw in this space, in which Sojourner Truth wonders if her blackness precludes her femininity. “Ain’t I a woman?" she allegedly asked, echoing Shakespeare (albeit in reference to a different sort of persecution): “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
These two works together set up an essential relationship between the individual and the human, asking us if there is a way to honor both simultaneously. This is certainly relevant in the context of Latin America, as its history is fraught with the struggle between internal factions, as well as between the colonizers and the colonized. It is an achievement of this show that the answer is certainly yes.
But here we are five paragraphs in and I have only discussed the first two works– a testament to how badly we need a show like this, as much of this content is new to museum goers and is deserving of particular attention. Here is where I recommend that you make two trips to the Brooklyn Museum to give this show its due (or at the very least break for a long lunch and come back) because the two sections of this exhibition are too much to take in at one visit and different enough in tone that your visit might benefit from a mental break.
The first section is conspicuously (but appropriately) set up in the triangular gallery space surrounding the Sackler Center for Feminist Art’s Dinner Party. Initially I was skeptical of this decision, wondering what light Judy Chicago would shed on the art of women living under dictatorships and military juntas, but it gradually became clear to me that the themes presented in these galleries were in line with the Dinner Party’s: motherhood, identity, the public and the private—in other words, universal themes of womanhood. It wasn’t until moving on to the galleries to the left of the elevators (far from the glow of Chicago’s second wave feminist paradise) that the (often bracing, chilling, and upsetting) art works pertaining to the political histories of Latin America were exhibited.
Sound, however, is the common link across these rooms. Part two begins Catholic and confessional as the echoes of young voices reciting their Hail Marys (santamariallenadegracia) ebbs and flows around you as Gloria Camiruaga’s footage of prepubescent girls licking popsicles is displayed high on the wall. The tone of illicit eroticism and exploitation is laid for the next galleries, which focus on the political violence done to women under dictatorship. To say this gallery is physically disturbing, often eliciting shudders, is to communicate its power and effectiveness. Particularly poignant is the work of Ana Mendieta, who sought political asylum from Cuba in the 1960s under Operation Peter Pan in order to escape the Castro regime. Her infamous untimely death, surrounded by rumors that her husband, American artist Carl Andre, pushed her out a window, serves as a disturbing reminder that the dangers facing women know no political borders.
But even if you don’t get this far in the exhibition, any visit (even if you walk through after “David Bowie Is”) will serve as an important reminder of the voices we hardly ever hear, the Hail Marys uttered privately behind closed bedroom doors.
Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985
Until July 22