The Influential Generation

Gabriela Jaregui takes a look at the many avant-garde, overlooked and wholly underrepresented Mexican women artists from the 1970s and 80s

By Gabriela Jauregui

Pola Weiss dancing with her camera, 1980. Courtesy the artist and Fondo Pola Weiss at the Centro de Documentación Arkheia, MUAC-UNAM Mónica Mayer, El Tendedero (detail), 1978, installation. Photo: Víctor Lerm Maris Bustamante with other (male) members of the No-Grupo collective, Mexico City, 1982. Courtesy Maris Bustamante Pola Weiss, Retrato Cíclope de Pola Weiss (Cyclops Portrait of Pola Weiss), 1987. Courtesy Fondo Pola Weiss at the Centro de Documentación Arkheia, MUAC-UNAM Sarah Minter, Nadie es inocente: 20 años después, 2010. Courtesy the artist

Not so long ago a British curator wrote to me wanting to discuss Mexican female artists that I might recommend for a show she was putting together. I emailed her a big list of women whose work I have long admired and younger artists whose work I continue to discover, but it was only after we had met to discuss it that I realised that everyone on the list had something in common other than their gender and nationality: they were truly underrepresented in the Mexican contemporary art scene, not just because they aren’t represented in terms of exhibitions, but because most of them aren’t represented by commercial galleries. “She doesn’t have a gallery here,” I kept responding to the curator when she asked how to get in touch with individuals on the list, all the while thinking that one could open a great gallery with these artists alone.

That conversation made me anxious, sad – even angry – and served as inspiration for this text. Due to space constraints, I’ve decided to focus on a generation of artists who started working during the 1970s and 80s, and who have been all but forgotten despite the fact that they have been influential on or in dialogue with artists who are now better known than they. I wish I could have included the previous generation of pioneering women, such as sculptor Helen Escobedo, or the publications of Martha Hellion, or Magali Lara and her collaborations with photographer Lourdes Grobet, or even those of the generation following the one discussed here, including the delicate work of Perla Krauze, or slightly later, Silvia Gruner’s erotic and beautiful use of materials, to mention only a few. But the common trait in the work of the artists discussed here is also its distinct edge or avant-garde aesthetics – the works are seldom conventionally beautiful; rather they have a raw, hardcore quality – its current influence on younger artists and the fact that, despite being underrepresented, most of those artists continue to make work today. Nevertheless, it is clear that their work should have greater exposure, and there is a much-needed survey waiting to happen in Mexico in the vein of MOCA’s wonderful WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution (2007), spanning several generations of local female artists, from the better-known Frida (Kahlo), Tina (Modotti) or Leonora (Carrington) to the underground post-riot-grrrls of today.

So now picture yourself in Mexico City. The year: 1979. You kick off your platform boots and happen to turn on your television set as an attractive young woman who holds a taco appears during a news programme. Is this advertising? Is this a documentary? Is this a joke? No. The woman’s name is Maris Bustamante and she, or rather the taco she has just patented, invites us to “commit an erotic act, eat a taco!” (La Patente del Taco, 1979). Full of a sense of parody, her patent not only includes the taco as an ‘Element of cultural penetration’, the taco as a literary and creative act, but also the possibility of its kidnapping. Along with the other (male) members of the collective / group / antigroup No-Grupo (to which Bustamente belonged from 1979 until its disappearance six years later), she is one of the pioneers of happenings and performance art, mail art, installations and non-object-based art in Mexico. Working during a historical period that is now known to have been a ‘soft’ dictatorship, like the other women discussed here, Bustamante not only managed to question her place as a woman in society but also the role of art, what it could ‘look like’ and mean in a conservative and relatively closed society; and, of course, to question the myth of the (male) artist. She was part of what is now finally being recognised as a genuine avant-garde that took place in the shadow of the official art that was being paraded by the government and commercial galleries but was of little art historical value. She has asserted that art never began and does not end with an easel. This may sound obvious today, or even back then in some other places, but in a country whose avant-garde Modernism was either architectural or based on the very macho and painterly muralism, it was almost sinful.

Bustamante has been known to call herself as a ‘stridentist neopostransconceptual visual artist’ or the ‘queen of performance’, which is a tongue-in-cheek way of giving the whole establishment (and its need to establish her) the big finger

Her work spans from avant-garde theatre and what she calls ‘counterspectacle’ to television (she has collaborated on designing props for her brother, who is a popular comedian in Mexico called el Güiri-Güiri) and even advertising. Still, in recent interviews, with her characteristic sense of humour, Bustamante has been known to call herself as a ‘stridentist neopostransconceptual visual artist’ or the ‘queen of performance’, which is a tongue-in-cheek way of giving the whole establishment (and its need to establish her) the big finger. She has been teaching as part of her practice for the past 30 years, and throughout its various media, her work strives to bring art down from its pedestal and back into everyday discourse, activating the possibility for nonconnoisseurs to become a part of her works and participate in a world that might otherwise seem foreign and distant. This was clear from No-Grupo’s very earliest work, in which the group members sent masks of themselves as an act of sabotage for the 1977 Paris Biennale, so that people could wear them and embody the absent and not-invited artists, a work that, in light of the recent ‘disappeared’ students in Mexico and the demonstrators who wore masks of their faces, takes on a new and powerful layer of meaning. And it’s also clear in her more recent actions photographed in her kitchen, which share and open private space and intimacy with a touch of the absurd.

After the dissolution of No-Grupo, Bustamante began collaborating with fellow feminist artist Mónica Mayer: they called themselves Polvo de Gallina Negra (‘Black Hen Powder’ – named after a black dust sold in local markets to ward o. the evil eye and formed to protect the artists from the ‘patriarchal magic that makes women disappear’). Their objective was to question the role and image of women in art and society at large by taking art into the streets to shake up the macho art establishment. So now you are in Mexico City once again; it’s 1987. Some of the buildings that were destroyed by the 1985 earthquake are still ruins littering the landscape. The city has outgrown itself, just as you’ve forsaken those worn platform boots for some creepers as you walk around and find yourself face-to-face with Bustamante and Mayer, two young women who are pregnant (or is that a pregnancy suit?). One of their most ambitious art projects, ¡MADRES!, began with their getting pregnant together (their offspring were born only three months apart) and turning maternity itself into a work of feminist art. ¡MADRES! (in Spanish the exclamation means both ‘mothers’ and something like ‘holy shit!’) took the shape of mail art (not to be confused with male art), but also street performances where people were invited to become pregnant or where the two artists sawed their fake bellies off, poetry readings and even a TV performance on Mother’s Day, where the male TV anchor, Guillermo Ochoa, was deemed Mother for a Day and given an apron with a huge belly and several other basics for surviving maternity. Their complicity started even before they had met, when Bustamante saw a work by Mayer called El Tendedero (1978), in which the artist invited 800 women to complete the phrase ‘As a woman what I dislike the most in the city, is…’ on little slips of pink paper that were then hung on a washing line in the Modern Art Museum in Mexico City. When she saw the work, Bustamante felt an aªnity and a need to express herself as a feminist as well. Simultaneously Mayer had seen and was interested in No-Grupo’s work. When they finally met, they began a friendship and collaborative process that lasted formally for ten years and that, informally, is ongoing. Prior to this collaboration, Mayer had participated in the Feminist Studio Workshop in Los Angeles from 1978 to 1980 and is the only Mexican artist to be included in the aforementioned WACK! Like Bustamante, her work is also multifaceted and varied, and she not only is a practising artist but has also worked as a curator and cofounder, along with her partner Víctor Lerma, of Pinto Mi Raya: a process-oriented minigallery / artist-run-project filled with a similar sense of humour to that which characterised Mayer’s work with Bustamante.

On a separate but parallel track, and approaching feminism, femininity and working as a female artist from a different angle, Pola Weiss’s psychedelic experimental ‘televisual performances’ are composed of layers and screens with various images as well as choreographies jump-cutting or dissolving into one another. Weiss had travelled to Europe and New York during the mid-1970s, where she met Nam June Paik and other video artists and realised that her preoccupation with TV as an artform, which in Mexico had found little if no echo, was an established part of the scene elsewhere. Back in Mexico, she made her first video in 1977: Flor Cósmica was a brief but ironic ‘visual fiesta’, as it was called when it was first shown at the Carrillo Gil Museum in Mexico City, where the rhythms of her TV-created kaleidoscope were accompanied by the electronic music of Isao Tomita, creating a video choreography of sorts that announced her ongoing interest in dance and video.

Weiss affectionately called her camera La Escuincla (the kid, the daughter). She committed suicide in 1990, and legend has it she shot herself in front of her Escuincla, although this is disputed. Long forgotten or relegated to footnotes, her pioneering work, which can find echoes in those of Pipilotti Rist or Kristin Lucas’s early works

In 1979 Weiss had her first international exhibitions (in Venice, Paris and elsewhere), which, while a mark of success, also underscored the fact that her work was better appreciated or understood abroad. In Mexico she primarily worked in educational television and as a teacher, all the while saving up her meagre earnings to produce her videos. During 1979 she created the first works that really blended her choreographies with video, as in Videodanza, viva video danza, a type of ‘video-event’ in which the camera is as alive as the choreography itself, rather than operating as a static observer, and where her body, wrapped in a sheer dress, confronts the city (for these works are not shot in a studio) and the observers become characters in a plotless narrative. In January 1980, while her work was shown at the Pompidou Centre, Jean-Paul Fargier wrote in the Cahiers du Cinéma that her work verges on enthnofilm as she dances with the backgrounds of a pyramid, a pauper, traditional dancers, people on the streets of Mexico, and as she ‘glides around with her camera-butterfly… creating a hypnotic effect’. Her preoccupations and her work as a female artist are perhaps best encapsulated in one of her many self-portraits, Autovideatos (1979–), which express her many fears, likes, dislikes and so on, revealing her as both producer and subject, behind the camera and in front of it; or in the 1978 video Somos Mujeres. But there are dozens of videos one could cite as well. The female body is ever-present and multilayered, always moving. The camera is pointed at herself but at the spectators as well. She is viewer and viewee. For instance Ejercicio con Mo (1985) employs all these aspects of her work and intersperses them with a good measure of mythology (Aztec, Hindu and Western): an eye peeks out of a mouth, a woman dances, writhes, alternating with a Tanka, then a painting of Mughal lovers, a body thrashes, a mouth kisses its reflection and then almost kisses its way out of the screen, an apple is an ass, that is then a pair of lovers. In all her works she creates textures and layers, and transforms the recorded medium into a live one.

Weiss affectionately called her camera La Escuincla (the kid, the daughter). She committed suicide in 1990, and legend has it she shot herself in front of her Escuincla, although this is disputed. Long forgotten or relegated to footnotes, her pioneering work, which can find echoes in those of Pipilotti Rist or Kristin Lucas’s early works, was finally recently exhibited in Mexico during a retrospective at the MUAC, La TV te ve (2014).

Suddenly you notice a Beta tape that seems interesting. There’s a title carefully handwritten in Gothic script with a marker pen: Nadie es inocente. The guy at the stand mumbles something about it being a bootleg copy of an essential film by some pioneering chick

Since I can only gloss over a few examples of female artists and their work, I ask for the reader’s forgiveness and hope that this text is an invitation to look into these artists’ work with greater detail. As a coda, please jump to 1988. You are in Mexico City, walking around in military-style boots. You are at the Chopo market, ready to trade a bootleg album by the Clash. Since NAFTA has not been signed yet, you can mostly find foreign music in the form of pirate albums, or some that have been painstakingly imported on the downlow. Suddenly you notice a Beta tape that seems interesting. There’s a title carefully handwritten in Gothic script with a marker pen: Nadie es inocente. The guy at the stand mumbles something about it being a bootleg copy of an essential film by some pioneering chick. Back at your place, you slide it into the player and you see the director’s name – Sarah Minter – which appears with the credits over a shot of people walking around a train station.

Then the film begins: sitting in a train, its protagonist watches the slums slide by as he waxes poetic on his life. Minter began working in 1982, but this, her groundbreaking 1987 docudrama, focuses on a gang of kids who live in Ciudad Neza at the periphery of Mexico City. The video is not only beautifully scored with classic punk anthems, it also reveals the deep poetry found amidst the trash, the huffing, the stark misery. Minter’s videowork started off focusing on urban youth, as with Nadie es inocente (followed by Nadie es inocente: 20 años después, 2010), and Alma Punk (1991), its female-oriented counterpart, to mention just three among her many works, and moves with ease into video installation. Always simple and direct in its aesthetic, as Minter explains, her work reflects her own human condition, “a being amongst beings”. Her works have been shown in Mexico and abroad, but like all the women mentioned here, it would seem as if it is often forgotten in more official (commercial?) art-historical discourses. Like the artists mentioned above, Minter has also taught for many years, and I believe it is no coincidence, for all of these women have a vision and a politics to share. Appropriately, then, Minter is now creating a work that focuses on utopian communities in the world. 

This article was first published in the January & February 2015 issue.