When I met with Patricia Quijano Ferrer in October, sitting in the café by a monument to (male) muralism, I described to her the chapters in my thesis. “I will start with the conflict at Rockefeller Center, and its formation of ‘Man Controller of the Universe’ in Mexico City today.” “Why ‘Man’”? She asked point blank. I stammered, “Well yes it is a vision of Man but perhaps it means community?” She laughed, and told me, of course she knows I am not trying to be exclusive, but this is indeed the question, no? That we assume public art, monumental art, is made by and representative of, men.
Patricia’s comment, which gave way to an extended talk about her work with other women artists, and their political concerns, gave me pause. At that point, 2011, it seemed to me pretty much a given that public art, especially communal mural art, was a fairly inclusive, communitarian and liberal genre. Having studied muralism in Chicago’s Pilsen, Logan Square, and Humboldt Park neighborhoods and in Philadelphia’s city center, what I had seen was largely an art which sought to “take back the streets” from corporate control. As a woman raised Feminist (if there is such a thing) I was of course aware that most, if not all of the muralists I had encountered were men, and that the practice of mural production is in some sense a very macho task: physical, intensely demanding, and involving great scale. However my belief was that the social effects of many murals still reached many parts of communities, whether or not they participated in the mural’s production.
The public face of Mexican art is dominated by the visage of Diego Rivera, Tamayo, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco, and more recently, Frida Kahlo. With the release of the film Frida increased interest has been attracted to Mexican art on the part of American art lovers, but this fascination is framed by a problematic understanding of the place of women in public art: that they have no place.
The Frida/Diego dialectic is a simplistic one. She painted intimate, personal, emotional scenes, and he painted grand, historical, public ones. She was emblematic of the exotic, the native, the home, and he the cosmopolitan, the political, the global. What is lost in this binary is the fact that there are a large amount of female contemporary artists in Mexico today working on public art, and that the impact that Frida had on the art is not confined to “feminist” circles: it impacts broader counterculture practices, particularly artmaking inspired by the “Neomexicanismo” movement of the 1980s.
Art that is often called “peoples’ art” easily obscures the fissures and exclusions at work when talking about works meant to represent an entire “people.” In the opening of a fantastic documentary called “¡Women Art Revolution: A Secret History” by Lynne Hershmann Leeson people are interviewed in museums, parks, and other public places and asked “What women artists do you know?” and the answer inevitably is not much more than “Frida.”
While laudable that Frida’s work has such cache it also marks a serious deficit in public knowledge about the mere existence of women in art today. Patricia argued that this lacunae is even more pronounced in Mexico. She argued that to many art is understood to be a hobby for women, not a career. However, there are many talented women artists, of all ages and from all backgrounds, they just lack a public space to exhibit their work. She described muralism as communication in “voz alta,” in a strong voice, but that without space, there is no voice at all.
Mujeres en el Arte is an organization that has exhibited in a small sala in the Palacio de Bellas Artes for the last ten years, across from the monumental works of Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco on the second floor. These exhibitions, once a year, are themed, and display the skills of women in visual arts across genres. However, the ability to exhibit in Bellas Artes is not a given. It is a fight, Patricia explained, and in this fight you learn that feminism is not a given if you are a woman. Confronting bureaucracy, gendered standards of artistic excellence and professionalism, and costs, she elaborated that the exhibition has grown, poco a poco, over the years, but is not guaranteed. However, when they do occur, it is amazing to see the broad range of people that are brought into the famous Palacio that would not normally be there. By opening up the doors of the “public” a little bit to a new kind of gendered female public, it becomes more dynamic.
In my trip back to Mexico this march I hope to speak with graffiteras, academicas, artistas and curatoristas about the fights, successes and goals they have for mujeres en el arte in Mexico today.