PRINT May 2019


Pro-choice rally, Buenos Aires, February 19, 2019. Photo: Tomas F. Cuesta/AP/Shutterstock.

RESISTANCE IS FUTILE: This is the lie authoritarianism always tells. No matter how absolute the regime’s power may seem, there are always ways to push back, to refuse, to subvert—although finding the interstices where action is possible may require immense courage and creativity. In a conversation focused on Latin America’s traditions of resistance, art historian JULIA BRYAN-WILSON and curator MIGUEL A. LÓPEZ survey queer, feminist, and indigenous practices that nullify the distinction between art and activism and locate spaces of possibility under conditions of impossibility. 

 Randolpho Lamonier, Toma posse primeira presidenta negra do Brasil 2027 (For the First Time a Black Woman Is Sworn in as President of Brazil 2027), 2018, sewing and embroidery on fabric, 72 7⁄8 × 61". From the series “Profecias” (Prophesies), 2018.

JULIA BRYAN-WILSON: In May 2017, you and I both spoke at a conference at the Museu de Arte in São Paulo (masp); that same weekend, we attended a trans-rights rally on Avenida Paulista that included many exuberant public expressions of gender variance. Jean Wyllys—the only openly gay member of Brazil’s parliament—was one of the other speakers, and we heard him talk about how theorists like Stuart Hall influenced his policy approaches to structural racisms, class stratification, and sexuality. In the intervening two years, the far-right, homophobic Jair Bolsonaro has been elected president; Rio’s black queer councilwoman Marielle Franco has been assassinated; and Wyllys, after receiving serious death threats, has abandoned his seat and gone into exile.

MIGUEL A. LÓPEZ: The far right is on the rise across Latin America. Recent electoral results in countries including Argentina, Colombia, and Chile clearly show an ultraconservative turn, supported by neoliberal economic policies that attempt to assume total control of art, culture, and education. Inevitably, people feel that we’re going back to a time of state repression and censorship. Bolsonaro himself has publicly lauded the use of torture under Brazil’s military dictatorship [1964–85].

 Q’eqchi’ women hide their faces during the trial of a former military officer and a former paramilitary fighter accused of sexual violence against indigenous women during Guatemala’s civil war, Guatemala City, February 25, 2016. Photo: Moises Castillo/AP/Shutterstock.

JBW: Maybe one way to begin this conversation is to start to think together about the range of feminist, queer, and anti-racist activist efforts, within Brazil and elsewhere, that are putting pressure on Bolsonaro’s regime and other nationalist consolidations of power, and to assess artistic work produced in previous times of crisis in Latin America. Are there specific models or collective practices that you find yourself returning to these days?

MAL: Not precisely artistic work, but one way to think about those previous moments would be to attend to the reappearance of certain symbols, such as the handkerchief in Argentina. White cloth diapers, which were transformed into handkerchiefs worn by the Mujeres y Abuelas of Plaza de Mayo starting in 1977, were a powerful expression of women’s demand for the return of those forcibly detained and disappeared during that country’s military dictatorship [1976–83]. Now the green handkerchief is the main aesthetic marker used by hundreds of thousands of women demanding legal, safe, and free abortions as part of the #NiUnaMenos feminist movement, which began in 2015 and has led to enormous demonstrations.

JBW: Similar fabrics, when worn on many bodies at the same time, can turn a crowd of disparate individuals into a unified visual field—a pussy hat no less than a MAGA cap. It’s a gesture whose impact translates well for the perpetual scrolling of social media. Beyond the political handkerchief worn during demonstrations, many queer and feminist artists across Latin America—really, all over the world—turn to cloth in their practices. One example is Randolpho Lamonier, who in his Profecias (Prophecies) [2018–] creates prophecies for wishful futures (the first black woman president of Brazil takes office; a queer army burns churches and inaugurates a secular state) that echo the tradition of sewn protest banners.

MAL: In addition to feminist and queer activism, indigenous communities are fighting against the colonial impositions of structures of governance and the erasure of the memory of the racist, genocidal violence on which the nation-states of this hemisphere and much of the Global South are founded. In 2016, fourteen Q’eqchi’ women won a guilty verdict against former military officers tried for crimes of rape and murder in Guatemala. According to Maya K’iche’ sociologist Gladys Tzul Tzul, this case was a turning point in judicial history: the first time that a national court ruled on charges of sexual slavery during an armed conflict. Throughout the trial the plaintiffs kept their bodies and faces covered with Mayan perrajes (shawls). After the verdict, they removed them. That gesture was, I believe, not only a means of protection from retaliation (which was a significant reason, for sure), but also a way of taking shelter under the Mayan legacy. It was a strong affirmation of a communal fabric that had not been entirely broken, despite the violence.

Work from Mujeres Creando’s La Banca de las Mujeres (The Women’s Bank), 2014.

JBW: It is imperative to see the interrelationships—and the discontinuities—among queer, feminist, and indigenous activism, as discussed by Macarena Gómez-Barris in her recent book Beyond the Pink Tide: Art and Political Undercurrents in the Americas [2018]. The far right certainly understands that these movements are related, that all of them are about who is counted as fully human.

MAL: The encounter of feminisms with anticolonial indigenous struggles is especially threatening for conservative political groups, because at that intersection, the focus becomes not only eradicating patriarchy, but also dismantling the persistent racist structures that organize society and the neoliberal, extractivist development model. Three years ago, in Honduras, the feminist and Lenca indigenous activist Berta Cáceres was murdered in her bedroom. People and communities that live outside or try to escape the Western model of life and capitalism’s productive demands are being assassinated with impunity.

JBW: Some of the first actions Bolsonaro took after being inaugurated were to begin rescinding gay-rights protections and to disenfranchise indigenous communities in the Amazon.

Giuseppe Campuzano, Museo Travesti del Perú (Transvestite Museum of Peru), 2003–13, mixed media. Installation view, Parque de la Exposición, Lima, 2004. Photo: Claudia Alva.

MAL: Which were among his campaign promises. We are talking about a history that goes back to the first indigenous women who resisted colonization—in 1492. Those forces of resistance are still present in many performative experiments that go beyond the dominant elitist structures of contemporary art. I’m thinking of the enraged public interventions of Bolivia’s Mujeres Creando, who define themselves as “indigenous, whores and lesbians; together, mixed in sisterhood”; or the transgender counter-history of the Museo Travesti del Perú [Transvestite Museum of Peru, 2003–13], a project by the late philosopher and drag queen Giuseppe Campuzano. Campuzano also created and used textiles—weavings, Andean dresses—and nongendered masks to reclaim a nonidentitarian, non-Western memory of sexually dissident bodies.

JBW: The aesthetic force of the perrajes in the Guatemalan courtroom crucially depended on the use of handiwork to register connections between the oppression of women and of native peoples. In a similar way, many contemporary feminist artists are incorporating historical textile methods into their work. In Teresa Margolles’s series “We Have a Common Thread” [2013–15], she enlisted artist-embroiderers from Brazil, Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua, Mexico, and the US to sew designs on fabric that had been in contact with people who suffered violent deaths (mostly women but also some men, including Eric Garner), or with the sites of their death—for instance, the work about Garner was embroidered on top of a cloth that was dragged across the sidewalk on which he was killed. Their techniques of embroidering were not all the same, just as the violent acts they refer to are local and specific.

Giuseppe Campuzano and Germain Machuca, Las dos Fridas—Sangre/Semen—Línea de vida (The Two Fridas—Blood/Semen—Lifelines), 2013, ink-jet print, 18 7⁄8 × 12 3⁄4". Photo: Claudia Alva.

MAL: I know how central the forms of political resistance unraveled in textiles, threads, fibers, and fabric are to your recent writings. Amateur textile crafts highlight narratives of affiliation and affective belonging. I’m wondering how these handmade pieces of cloth, their wearable dimension, and their capacity to acknowledge a collective memory can help us rethink or confront the different kinds of hierarchies that are usually present when we talk about art, politics, and activism.

JBW: Absolutely. Extra-institutional, amateur, and non–fine artmaking are all key to my theorizations of what is too often a very simplistic yoking of the terms art and activism, with no interrogation of the presumptions around those terms. So many practices of resistant visuality—including, in some contexts, “craft”—have in the past been pushed out of the category of art. But I also don’t want to give up on this strange, troubled thing called “art” as a specialized realm of creation that puts ideas into circulation, nor do I want to completely dismiss museums as possible sites where new narratives can emerge. We see this emergence in Campuzano’s Transvestite Museum.

 Berta Cáceres with demonstrators against the Agua Zarca Hydroelectric project, Rio Blanco region, Honduras, January 27, 2015. Photo: Tim Russo/Goldman Environmental Prize via AP.

MAL: I’m with you on not giving up the category of art. What I’m saying is a reflection on the structure of valorization that usually reinforces white, male, Western privilege. We both touched on related themes in our contributions to the symposium at the opening of “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985” at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in 2017. You talked about Cecilia Vicuña and mentioned the Chilean tradition of handcrafted arpilleras (burlap-backed appliqués). I called into question a notion of artistic “radicality” solely premised on a Western understanding of the avant-garde and the political body. In that framework—that is, an existing hierarchical relationship between art forms—mixed languages and representational systems related to popular, rural, or indigenous culture and knowledge are usually not present.

JBW: Yes, it’s illuminating to place Vicuña’s work next to the usually anonymously sewn Pinochet-era arpilleras, because the comparison shows the flexibility of textiles: They can signify as both industrially produced and handmade—they are understood as looking backward at the past and as glancing ahead at the future. You are curating a Vicuña retrospective at the Witte de With in Rotterdam opening later this month. How are you approaching these debates?

Teresa Margolles, Dylegued (Entierro) (Dylegued [Burial]), 2013, mola and blood on fabric, 39 1⁄2 × 90 1⁄2". Created with the Rosano family.

MAL: In the process of organizing the show, I’ve found it revealing to explore why Vicuña’s work—her ephemeral sculptures, her textile-based practice, her performative poetry—was mainly absent from narratives of anti-dictatorship art during Chile’s military regime [1973–90]. In 1979, in a solo show in Chile, she exhibited a number of her paintings (influenced by indigenous art produced in the colonial America of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) that combined Andean philosophy, feminist eroticism, and folklore and popular myths.

JBW: Indeed—and the exhibition I cocurated with Andrea Andersson, currently on view at the Henry Art Gallery, emphasizes how Vicuña’s ecological concerns are in dialogue with indigenous Andean philosophies. Because of her folkloric style and her use of textiles, her many practices were not often viewed as “advanced” Chilean art. 

 Cecilia Vicuña, Guardián, 1967, mixed media. Installation view, Concón, Chile.

MAL: Exactly. The paintings she exhibited then were incomprehensible in an environment dominated by performances and public art actions; they didn’t fit in with what was labeled as “political art” according to the prevailing aesthetics of metropolitan centers. Most of them were perceived as archaic or primitivist and even classified as merely bad painting. In the retrospective, which is titled “Cecilia Vicuña: Seehearing the Enlightened Failure,” we are presenting a wide range of materials that could help us reframe ideas of political engagement, including documentation of the spontaneous actions of Tribu No, the poetry group founded by Vicuña in the late 1960s; an important selection of her paintings produced in the ’60s and ’70s; and the silk-and-cotton banners she made in response to the Vietnam War.

JBW: Seeing all this work of hers together will make the case for Vicuña not only as a theorist of text and textiles but also as a pioneer in her advocacy for what she called a “sensuous politics.” My essay in your show’s catalogue describes her commitment to an erotic socialism and to a style that could be called deliberate or defiant amateurism.

Cecilia Vicuña, Vaso de leche (Glass of Milk), 1979. Performance view, Bogotá, 1979.

MAL: Yes, her attention to what she called “the other poetry”—anonymous, nonprofessional creative practice—and its capacity to fertilize new forms of life offers a conceptual model that’s very different from those generally articulated by Western, masculine aesthetics of activist art. This is something that you also stressed in your book Fray: Art and Textile Politics [2017], where you highlighted the fact that Vicuña’s work was dismissed or not considered serious art because of its ethereal quality and small size.

JBW: Vicuña ranges across so many different scales—often she works with what I think of as polemical smallness. Since 1966, she has made very diminutive yet extraordinarily potent sculptures: her precarios. It is useful to keep in mind that sometimes economic or political circumstances impel one to work small—maybe becauae of a lack of resources or materials, maybe because the work needs to be able to be quickly hidden to fly under the radar of censorship. A show you recently co-organized, currently on view at TEOR/éTica in San José, Costa Rica, about the indigenous painter Rosa Elena Curruchich, whose canvases are quite tiny, is a case in point.

 Cecilia Vicuña, Arco arrayán 2 (Myrtle Arch 2), 2000–15, wood, thread, seeds, plastic buoy, 16 × 16 × 4".

MAL: Rosa Elena was the first known female painter in San Juan Comalapa, Guatemala. She was part of a family of painters (her grandfather Andrés Curruchich became renowned in the ’50s). However, her pictorial work, produced since the mid-’70s, has not been well received because of the prejudices associated with the strongly masculine tradition of painting in her community. The miniature format was necessary because much of her work was done in secret. But the smallness also allowed her to transport the paintings discreetly during Guatemala’s civil war [1960–96]. Rather than offer an exoticized image modeled for tourist consumption, her paintings propose a situated representation that vindicates the role of women within indigenous social organization and acknowledges the social value of feminized labor usually ignored by male painters.

JBW: I was recently appointed adjunct curator at MASP, and we have had a lot of conversations about an upcoming exhibition that focuses on women artists before 1900, and about how the institution called “art” has itself been structured to omit craft and native and female makers. So to only include oil paintings or sculpture would be to overlook massive contributions made by women in terms of ceramics, weavings, or things like botanical illustrations. Of course, gendered divisions of labor were not the same in every location across time—dismantling these assumptions is vital.

Cecilia Vicuña, La falda de la momie (Mummy’s Skirt), 1987, cotton, string, paper, shells, 16 1⁄2 × 8 3⁄4 × 8 3⁄4".

MAL: I agree. Going beyond the colonial vision of Western art history is crucial to reclaiming the cultural value of important creators who worked beyond the radar of institutional attention and outside of official languages of artmaking. That repertoire of aesthetics formed in the shadows of hegemonic art-historical rhetoric points to divergent ways of understanding and constructing the contemporary. This applies to time-based work as well as to objects. How do you perceive the issue of resistant art through the lens of ephemeral or live events?

JBW: The materiality and smallness of Vicuña’s work is riveting, but at the same time I continue to be compelled by certain time-based interventions that were monumental, even epic, in scope—like the 1981 action ¡Ay Sudamerica! [Oh South America!] by the Chilean group Colectivo Acciones de Arte (CADA), in which six airplanes flew in formation over Santiago and dropped four hundred thousand leaflets. The choreography of this event blows my mind: almost half a million pieces of paper! Raining down from a squadron of planes! The text was about the necessity of imagination during Pinochet’s dictatorship, though it did not directly mention Pinochet. It read, in part: “We are artists, but everyone who works for the enlargement of their spaces in life, even mental ones, is an artist.” Here is a complete reformulation of what an artist is, and of the transformative role art can play during times of repression. I understand that CADA’s piece has been heroicized, to the detriment of the little crafty works of someone like Vicuña. Still, I find it indispensable.

Rosa Elena Curruchich, Presentando a las mujeres que construyen casitas (Introducing  the Women Who Build Houses), ca. 1980s, oil on canvas, 5 3⁄4 × 6 3⁄8".

MAL: Similar in terms of scale and impact, but with a very different strategy, was a recent project by Tzutujil artist Benvenuto Chavajay, who succeeded in changing the name of Guatemala’s national stadium to Estadio Nacional Doroteo Guamuch Flores. After Mateo Flores won the Boston Marathon in 1952, the stadium was named in his honor. But Flores was born Doroteo Guamuch, not Mateo. Chavajay helped to recover his original, indigenous name. In August 2016, after two years of bureaucratic wrangling and long meetings with civic groups and local authorities, the name change was officially approved. This marvelous intervention in the country’s social memory, its public space and institutions, was a clear demand for the right of self-determination. The debate around this work called attention to the racist structures of Guatemalan society, emphasizing the performative relation between racism and language—how language shapes subjectivity and organizes the world in different ways.

Three views of Colectivo Acciones de Arte’s (CADA) ¡Ay Sudamerica! (Oh South America!), 1981. Performance action over Santiago, Chile, July 12, 1981.

JBW: That was an important renaming. But just as we need to complicate the category of “art,” let’s also remember that “activism” is not always progressive. It can come from the reactionary Right, and there is a developing visual culture around it—like the 2017 protests in Brazil in which virulently anti-queer, antifeminist demonstrators burned an effigy of Judith Butler.

MAL: Totally. That is very clear from some recent campaigns launched by religious and “pro-life” groups against abortion and women’s reproductive rights, such as representing in public space images of fetuses that are named as a “person” to construct a false analogy between abortion and murder. The conservative Right knows how to use symbols and their effects in the production of the social body. 

Benvenuto Chavajay with his tattoo of Doroteo Guamuch’s photo ID at the newly renamed Estadio Nacional Doroteo Guamuch Flores, Guatemala City, 2016.

“Rosa Elena Paints” is on view at TEOR/éTica, San José, Costa Rica, though May 18. “Cecilia Vicuña: About to Happen” is on view at the Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, though September 15. “Cecilia Vicuña: Seehearing the Enlightened Failure” will be on view May 26–November 11 at the Witte de With, Rotterdam. “Histories of Women”and “Feminist Histories” will be on view August 23–November 17 at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo.

Julia Bryan-Wilson is the Doris and Clarence Malo Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at the University of California, Berkeley, and an adjunct curator at the Museu de arte de São Paulo. She is a 2019–20 Guggenheim fellow. 

Miguel A. López is codirector and chief curator of TEOR/éTica, San José, Costa Rica. He is the author of Ficciones disidentes en la tierra de la misoginia (Dissident fictions in the land of misogyny; Pesopluma, 2019).