Mexican Feminist Artistic Activism, Promoting an International Feminist Network
Written by Natalia Stengel Peña
Coming from a Latin American background, I've directly witnessed the impressive growth of the regional feminist movement, marked by active collaborations that exchange resources, narratives, artworks, and invaluable experiences across borders. These connections have significantly improved the lives of women and girls while combating gender-based violence. From the impactful NiUnaMenos movement in Argentina (2015), inspired by Mexican poet Susana Chávez, to globally resonating performances like LasTesis' Un violador en tu camino (2019), the women's movement has thrived through these interconnected networks. Access to essential references, tools, concepts, and cultural touchstones has become widespread across the region.
My recent research has centred on how feminist artists engage in protests, adapting their methods to amplify feminist demands and support activist causes. Among the artists I have been examining is Cerrucha (Mexico, 1987), one of the most active feminist artists whose work has become frequent during feminist demonstrations. Upon inviting her to exhibit her work at the Centre for Contemporary Latin American Studies (CCLAS) Cultural Colloquium during an event named 'Feminist Art: Weaving Sororidad in Latin America,' Cerrucha suggested showcasing her piece Victorias aladas (2019) as a suitable artwork for the occasion.
The CCLAS Cultural Colloquium serves as a platform to convene Latin Americanists from various academic stages, from PhD candidates to scholars, fostering engaging discussions on diverse facets of cultural production. In 2023, the colloquium centred around the theme of weaving, encompassing references to weaving techniques, activities, and products prevalent across Latin America and their metaphorical interpretations. Inspired by dialogues with and by Latin American feminist artists, I decided to explore the possibility of claiming that Latin American feminists have ‘woven’ an international empathetic alliance to exchange experiences, resources and perspectives on the main issues women face.
The event began with a roundtable discussion led by Dr Sophie Stevens, an expert in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at ILCS, and Elizabeth Rosales Martínez, a PhD student at University College Cork, Ireland. Dr Stevens delved into analysing Hekatherina Delgado's Montevideo performances in 2019, framing them as powerful artivist protests against feminicide. Rosales Martínez explored her recent research in Mexico, focusing on mothers of the forcibly disappeared. She highlighted their use of weaving and painting over fabric as an activist strategy, imprinting or embroidering details of their missing loved ones.
Following the discussion, we inaugurated Victorias aladas, which remained on display for a month at 50 George Square, the University of Edinburgh. My goal behind including this exhibition as part of the event was to provide the university community with a tangible experience, allowing them to witness the interconnected narratives of activism and artistic expression in the ongoing battle against gender-based violence.
Cerrucha's Victorias aladas, initially a street art intervention at the Monument to Mexican Independence, highlights the contrast between safeguarding women's lives and preserving state monuments. Located at Mexico City's Monument to Independence, it reinterprets the four Greek goddesses at the monument's base, incorporating impactful phrases from feminist protests since 2019. This mix illuminates two key issues: the State's skewed priorities favouring monument preservation over women's safety and rights, and the disparity between the goddesses' ideals and the harsh realities faced by women. In essence, Victorias aladas cleverly challenges societal norms, prompting reflection on the Mexican State's choices regarding monument protection versus urgent women's safety and rights concerns.
Victorias aladas conveys explicit feminist messages akin to slogans denouncing gender-based violence in protests and enduring as graffiti tags. These slogans demand justice, envision a violence-free life, and reject silence in the face of gender-based aggression. Cerrucha ingeniously repurposes the monument goddesses' symbolic representations to challenge prevailing norms affecting women in Mexico. In her work, I have identified that two distinct elements emerge: everyday women defying cosmetic stereotypes and a symbolic layer intertwining photographic elements with words. The installation questions who is being represented in public art, challenging the significance of national symbols for women in a country lacking access to justice. It prompts reflection on the true protectors of women, as authorities may be involved in perpetuating gender-based violence—a thought-provoking commentary on Mexico's societal dynamics regarding representation, justice, and the role of authorities in ensuring women's safety.
The installation becomes a thought-provoking commentary on the complex dynamics at play in Mexico’s societal fabric, addressing issues of representation, justice, and the authorities' role in ensuring women's safety and well-being. The first set reimagines the goddesses of war and justice into assertive feminist statements. War embodies a woman challenging societal norms, boldly confronting law enforcement for perceived negligence. Meanwhile, Justice portrays a steadfast woman advocating relentless resistance against gender-based violence until 'NotOneMore' woman is murdered.
In the second group, the goddesses of law and peace are reinterpreted to question governmental solutions to gender-based violence. Law features a woman stating that Mexico is a feminicidal country, shedding light on the alarming rate of daily female murders and the authorities' perceived inadequate response. Lastly, Peace portrays a woman whose mouth is obscured by the word 'peace' in question marks, symbolising women's refusal to live in fear and demanding safety amidst a nation with high violence levels. In essence, Victorias aladas intricately utilises the visual language of the monument's goddesses to challenge societal norms, critique governmental responses, and articulate women's relentless demands in Mexico in their fight against gender-based violence.
Particularly relevant for the international audience, Victorias aladas centres on the intricate nature of monuments, historically erected by governments to perpetuate national narratives and honour significant figures or events. However, recent social movements, including feminist, ethnic, indigenous, Black Lives Matter, and others, have shed light on how certain monuments uphold unequal systems or glorify figures linked to slavery and gender-based violence.
While each of the problematic monuments carries a different discussion coming from diverse social groups, for me, it is obvious that the underlying statement is that every member of society deserves to navigate cities free from narratives reinforcing inequality and injustice or remaining indifferent to it. One of the first Mexican feminist artists, Mónica Mayer, spotlighted how the monuments in Avenida Reforma perpetuate stereotypes, neglect women in history, and institutionalise symbolic violence. It was precisely there that Cerrucha exhibited her photographs. As a researcher who has walked several times across Reforma, I became aware, thanks to Mayer, that if one approaches Mexican history through its monuments, then women’s role seems at least irrelevant. Meanwhile, the few monuments representing women reinforce beauty standards that reassert colonialism and women’s objectification.
I did not intend for the audience in Edinburgh to be particularly knowledgeable about Mexico’s history. Instead, I wanted to share with them how Cerrucha transformed with art a monument that presents the two problems Mayer spotlighted. The Monument to Independence only names the male heroes, while it is decorated with semi-naked sculptures of women inspired by European cultures. So, Victorias aladas visually conquered the space and confronted the female representations with images of actual Mexican women. At the same time, she questioned the meaning of the values supporting independence by reflecting on women’s living conditions in Mexico. This intervention aligns with the feminist movement's ethos, challenging conventional monument narratives and advocating for a more inclusive representation of history.
The exhibition's relevance in Edinburgh extends beyond its display, provoking a profound challenge to conventional monument ideologies. It questions historical narratives, gender representations, and societal disparities entrenched in monuments, making it a compelling subject for global reflection.
Crucially, Victorias aladas serves as an invitation to scrutinise public art's role, challenging the notion that gender-based violence is solely a historical issue. As part of teaching Spanish, I also have to teach about cultures from the Hispanic world. Victorias aladas was a way of showing how Latin American feminist resources may stimulate essential conversations about public art's role in perpetuating symbolic violence against women. It prompts critical examinations of how art's imagery inadvertently normalises violence, urging a deeper understanding of symbolic representation's profound implications and its correlation with societal attitudes toward gender-based violence.
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The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the position of CLACS, ILCS or the School of Advanced Study, University of London.