In the decades after 1960, the authoritarian regimes and dictatorships that towered above most of Latin America fortified the role of women as dependent while inequality was fortified. With these happenings, various femme artists brought the female body to the foreground as a means of expressing themselves. These works were experimental and had a tendency of favoring photography, film, and performance. Introducing a shift in how the female form was represented in art during that time, they questioned regional politics and patriarchal structures. All this considered, not many of these artists would have labeled their work as “feminist” despite the fact that it addressed similar concerns as feminism such as sexual violence. Mexican femme artists, however, were making feminist driven work at this time as they were not governed by a dictatorship (Loiseau 2017). This piece looks at the history behind what I like to think of as a movement for re-contextualizing the female body under femme artists from this region and period of time and how it relates to artists identifying as intersectional feminists’ work within the African diaspora.
Latin American femme artists creating work focused on the female body and its representation were unswervingly influenced by the widespread resistance of their respective countries as well as the revolutionary struggle. These works were made to indicate the potentiality of the female body as well as reframe the notion of what a body is. Many of these artworks dealt with emancipation and the reconceptualization of the body – a political process in itself.
The first feminist art collective in Mexico was started in 1983 and was titled Polvo de Gallina Negra (“Black Hen Powder”). For a period of 10 years the collective created experimental, subversive works that questioned the role of women in not only Mexican society but their representation in mass media as well as the effect of machismo. Chicana and Latina artists based in the U.S were using their art as a response to the oppressive patriarchal politics in America and a second wave feminism that was associated with indifference towards the issues faced by women of colour (Loiseau 2017).
The above information gives us context on what femme artists were expressing and how they were utilizing their bodies as a form of activism in their respective countries during that time. Keeping this in mind I will take a look at two femme artists who deal considerably in performance, photography and use their bodies as a voice.
Cape Town based artist Jana Babez is recognized for her moving and sometimes unsettling performance-based works dealing with topics such as womxnhood, feminism, and celebrity culture. A recent performance, ‘Bound’ is described by the artists as, “A performance of struggle and perseverance”. She explains it in more detail “The use as stockings as a stand-in for rope is an intentional, as a symbol of women’s oppression. It symbolizes how female bodies are restrained, and restricted from accessing power. Restraints on a female body can also evoke sexual connotations. It’s a meditation on of how women’s bodies are treated violently but simultaneously sexualized. Even though womxn have more visibility now than ever before, it’s not enough. We have thousands of years’ of oppression embedded in our skin.” Earlier this year we spoke to Jana about another performance ‘Nightfall’ in which she navigated a public space at night while bricks tied to her feet arrested her movement. This performance was focused on the irony of the apparent safety of public spaces and the difficulty with which womxn have to navigate spaces specifically at night time opposed to how men are able to navigate them. These two performances led to physical pain for the artists as in “Bound” her body was bruised by rope and in “Nightfall” she hurt herself and bled. Jana’s physical pain speaks of the pain and oppression that womxn endure to this day.
The Namibian artist Julia Hango, aka JuliART came into the public eye for her provocative feminist art that challenges notions of gender and sexuality. Using her naked female form and the camera as her weapons Julia’s work confronts society on issues surrounding bodily anatomy, identity, and gender. Living as a nudist she has made some arresting artworks around her own body. Julia has spoken of the conservative nature of Namibian people before and I believe that her work is aimed at challenging not only the position of womxn in society but how the female form is regarded. When looking at some of her works such as ‘Queen Fifi’ we see Julia with her naked frame sitting on top of a white male’s naked body. A powerful work that can mean many things to many people, this man is, in fact, Julia’s lover and there is definitely taste of power play within this body of work.
What can be taken away from all this? Currently, Latin America is confronted with an increase in femicide and the U.S. is experiencing some of the most oppressive immigration policies seen within their history. This is not effecting a singular community though as womxn today all over the world are still facing prejudice and oppression. It is everywhere, in every country and in every industry. Today still femme artists make up only 30 percent of artists represented in galleries. Shocking, if you don’t believe me, go to the website of any established gallery and press on the ‘artists’ tab. It is time to move forward and not to exclude but to be inclusive of all the voices. “When you see that these women are being empowered, that they’re present, and they’re saying important things—these are important references for the next generation,” – Fajardo Hill.