Hammer Museum

"An Exercise in Stubborness": the making of Radical Women

By Hettie Judah

The Hammer Museum has Uncovered an Untold Story for Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA

Los Angeles – Over the seven years of research that went into Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985, curators Cecilia Fajardo-Hill and Andrea Giunta were often told that the story they wanted to tell didn’t exist. As their investigations took them around Latin America, colleagues (mostly male) questioned the whole idea of the show. This was, initially, Latin American women’s contribution to both Modernism and conceptual art. “People said: ‘Which women? What women? There are none. I don’t know of any video artist who is interesting.’ It was maddening, honestly,” says Fajardo-Hill. “This has been an exercise in stubbornness on mine and Andrea’s side.”

As it turns out, the 116 artists from 15 countries included in Radical Women – opening on 15 September at the Hammer Museum – represent only a taster of the substantial body of work uncovered by Fajardo-Hill and Giunta. Starting with a shortlist of known figures such as Lygia Clark and Anna Maria Maiolino, and access to libraries at the Getty and the University of Texas, they worked their way through increasingly obscure catalogues from Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina. “We started finding all these strange things that we didn’t know about,” Fajardo-Hill says.

Marie Orensanz, Limitada (Limited) (1978)

Digging Through the Archives

They soon uncovered some 400 artists whose work they felt merited further research and perhaps exhibition – an encyclopaedic but unwieldy figure. In light of the blossoming interest in Latin American Modernism over recent decades, Fajardo-Hill and Giunta decided to narrow the focus of their research to art from 1960–1985. “For us, the big mystery was: how did contemporary art as we understand it – video art, conceptual art, photography – come to be?” says Fajardo-Hill. “What was the role that women played there? Andrea and I, we are art historians, both of us. And this is a chapter of art history that was missing.”

Going Out Into the Field

Writing this new story took the curators out of the archives and into the field, making multiple visits to countries throughout Latin America, using local networks to piece together a picture of what was happening during those decades. “In every country, we usually found solidarity through women, through artists themselves,” explains Fajardo-Hill. “Let’s say we go to Mexico and talk to Mónica Mayer; she is a feminist artist and she has a group of artists she is friends with. She introduces us to her friends, and these friends introduce us to other friends and so forth. Basically there has been a component that is word of mouth.”

It is one challenge to piece together a new chapter of Latin American art history, but quite another to stage an exhibition presenting it. Here, the issues faced by the curators were threefold. Firstly, conceptual art of this period is by its nature often ephemeral, mutable, fragile; rendered in outmoded video formats or analogue film; executed in situ; or animated by live performance or action. Secondly, works by these undervalued (or unvalued) artists working beyond the market had not been lovingly preserved and archived, and their movement as they changed hands had not been well documented. Thirdly, conflict and political turbulence, current and historical, had resulted in huge movements of people around and beyond the region.

Hidden Stories Close to Home

The curators decided early on to include works by Chicana and Latina artists based in the US. If anything, their work was seen as “even further down the echelon of art importance,” says Fajardo-Hill. “I finally met artists after looking for them for years. They might be in New York, and I’d ask them where their work was, and it’s disappeared. There is no work. Then, slowly, under the bed there is something, and then a call to someone in Colombia, and the recovery of a video or negatives.”

Fajardo-Hill reels off a list of artworks that have not survived. Sylvia Salazar Simpson had a fire in her house and lost almost everything. Other artists had to leave their work behind them when they fled their home country. The issues are not only historical: the loan of a major suite of large ceramic sculptures by Tecla Tofano from the National Gallery of Art in Caracas was made impossible by the current situation in Venezuela. The curators eventually tracked down three smaller works in collections in Miami that ensure, at least, that Tofano’s work is present in the exhibition.

An Invisible Generation

And then, too, there is simple human tragedy. Visiting Neide Sá at her home in Rio de Janeiro, the curators were told by the artist that she didn’t have any works. They heard nothing more from her. It was only when her gallerist got in touch after seeing the press release for Radical Women that the curators discovered that Sá had developed Alzheimer’s. “I felt it was such a tragedy – this woman has been so invisible, and now simply because she’s sick she will be invisible forever,” says Fajardo-Hill, who subsequently fought for a work by Sá to be included in the show at the last minute.

Rather than staging an archival exhibition, the curators wanted to present the works as far as they could in the spirit in which they were made. The scenography of Radical Women emulates the work of the Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi. Instead of fetishising (damaged) vintage objects for their own sake, fresh prints on archival paper have been made of the photographs.

For all the formidable effort that went into putting together the research and catalogue behind the show, the curators felt they would have failed if the actual exhibition didn’t communicate the excitement and energy they read in the work. “For me as a woman and as an art historian, the biggest transformative thing has been to meet all of these women,” says Fajardo-Hill. “Powerful, intelligent, brilliant, creative – it’s all there still.”

Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985, is showing at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 15 September – 31 December as part of part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA

Image Credits:
Marie Orensanz, Limitada (1978). Collection of Marie Orensanz; courtesy Alejandra Von Hartz Gallery.
María Evelia Marmolejo, Anónimo I (Homenaje a los desaparecidos y torturados dentro de los hechos violentos) (1981). Courtest of Maria E. Mamolejo and Promoteo Gallery di Ida Pisani, Milan. Photo: Fabio Arango.
Sandra Eleta, Edita (la del plumero), Panama, from the series La servidumbre, 1978-1979, (1977). Courtesy of Galeria Arteconsult S.A., Panama.
Ana Vitoria Mussi, A Arma, from the series, Trajetoria do osso. (1968). Collection of Ana Vitoria Mussi.
Regina Silveira, Biscoito arte (1976). Collection of Fernanda Feitosa and Heitor Martins.

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