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13.05.2019

Contemporary Artistic Practices, Insubordinate Bodies, and Self-Representation Policies

Through the analysis of the work of Jenny Jaramillo, Karina Aguilera Skvirsky, and Saskia Calderón, the curator Eduardo Carrera inquires into the body explorations around dissident subjectivities in the Ecuadorian artistic field, artistic productions which dislocate the concepts of race, identity, and gender.

One of the central objectives of the feminist art movement of the late sixties and early seventies was, within the artistic field, to gain recognition for women artists. However, during its early years, the feminist art movement privileged white artists, who fit and reinforced the Western canons of art. The struggle for equality extended to the Global South only thanks to the decolonial activism and the intersectional recognitions of racialized women.

Politics of representation, technologies of the body, post-identities, are topics of interest nowadays. The activism of the movements #MeToo [1]and #BlackLivesMatters [2] in North America, the Pañuelo Verde [3] and Nosotras Proponemos [4] in Argentina, the migratory reform, and the fight for the equality of the trans * people, without a doubt, they have turned the debate on freedom of identification into a driving force. Although divisive, these movements are redefining ways of doing politics around the world.

In Ecuador, the 2008 constitution guarantees the rights of its inhabitants. However, because these rights are interpreted from a patriarchal logic, it makes the autonomy of women’s bodies impossible. In this process, there have been important moments (of occupation and citizen participation) in public sphere. For example, the march against gender violence on January 21, 2019, was carried out nationally by hundreds of people to protest the violations and femicides that occurred in Ecuador earlier in the year. For writer and curator Miguel A. López, this type of citizen mobilization places in the public sphere a broad reflection on how the spaces of feminism face the social inequality existing in different areas of life. This work makes evident how the actions of the state institutes a patriarchal tradition, that shapes statements on laws and justice, defines public space, and is part of the symbolic and cultural world, among other aspects. In doing so, they are also questioning the ways in which the narratives of art are constructed in the present. [5]

In the institutional artistic field of Ecuador, according to Archivas & Documentas: Mujeres Arte Visualidades en Ecuador [6], “the participation of women artists, is markedly reduced in front of the presence of male artists.” According to the research carried out during 2017 and 2018, only 0.10% of the works that form part of the part of the collections of the Ministerio de Cultura y Patrimonio y la Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana (the most important collections in the country) are women. The same disparity happens in art galleries and with temporary or trajectory exhibitions. This imbalance is evidence of inequality and the lack of opportunities and recognition for women artists in a cultural ecosystem that responds to a patriarchal system.

Here, the analysis presented proposes to explore the position of the body and identities in contemporary art in a time of political turmoil and cultural disputes. This intergenerational group of Ecuadorian artists explore being a woman beyond the heteropatriarchal binary and introduce more fluid, ambiguous, and experienced representations of identities that stress what is understood by mestizaje.

Many times women artists are labeled kitsch if they do not have a canonical production and if it is, it is a conventional artist.

This text focuses on the production of three artists: Jenny Jaramillo (1966), Karina Aguilera Skvirsky (1969), and Saskia Calderón (1981). Within the contexts of the individual artists, this work relates how the body has significantly molded their artistic production, particularly in correspondence with experiences of racism, class, gender, and cultural identity. In this sense, enunciation from the body implies a way of positioning oneself in relation to the world. How have the terms of racial and gender identity influenced the artistic production of these creators? What condition is given to the body in a contemporary artistic production that positions itself as being a woman? What critical or subversive uses have artists found to dislocate the stereotypes of race, gender, and sexuality attributed to women from the Global South? What questions do the productions of these artists place on the traditional canon of art history?

The artists work in a variety of media and genres. They embrace the use of the body as a political strategy and deliberately reject conventional representations, resorting to poetic languages such as docu-fiction, performance, photography, and lyrical singing; in relation to other lines of exploration such as pedagogies, visual narratives, ancestral knowledge, and the body as a tool to activate language, share experiences, articulate other ways of seeing the world, affirm ambiguities and reflect the changing physical incarnation. Likewise, they examine the relationship between identity, space, memory, imprint, and the tensions resulting from the coexistence between these elements.

Jenny Jaramillo 

From the beginning of her artistic practice in the early nineties, Jenny Jaramillo ventured into a little explored area throughout the history of art in Ecuador: the revindication of the body of the woman artist in articulation with materiality and spatiality, as means for her production through drawing, painting, and subsequently, performance, video, and installation. The central aspects of the work of Jenny Jaramillo refer to, according to the artist, “cultural difficulties related to representations of gender and difference, kitsch and popular culture; [having] as priority objectives, both to advance the knowledge and understanding of cultural elements and historical processes constituted of subjective operations linked to the production and consumption of images; as the appropriation of tools and methodologies suitable for the development of new production possibilities and artistic education”. [7] These questions are approached from the study of mechanisms and processes related to the production and consumption of images and the bias of the viewer.

In Sin Título (1999), Jenny Jaramillo reveals the impossibility of creating spaces so that certain corporeities can inhabit them in specific temporalities through light and subtle gestures. On the one hand, it evokes the image of a woman who rests in a naked chair smoking a marijuana cigarette, and that wanders in a mobile office chair. The other video shows, in a close-up, a dance in which the artist moves her body to the rhythm of the music, with one chest uncovered and the other covered by a burned shirt. Both actions are set in an artificial landscape of a beach at sunset, installed as a wallpaper. The video is accompanied by Latin tropical music to reinforce the archetype of women that the Western culture imposes. The body of the artist is wrapped in symbols that refer to different stereotypes granted to the female/Latino body: the analogical cultural connection of women with the earth, nature, exoticism, the Caribbean, fertility; references from which possibilities of meaning are opened that relate sexual identifications, gender roles, experiences, representation technologies and systems of artistic production.

In her work, action and experience are elements that are intimately identified with others or with some particular reality; and, at the same time, states the difference, based on the observation of their experiences and the way in which they are transformed symbolically. It is undoubtedly an artistic production distanced from formalisms and modernist criteria in relation to quality, to register in a contemporary and conceptual practice that seeks to raise concerns about aesthetic sensibilities and their possible materialities. Many times women artists are labeled kitsch if they do not have a canonical production and if it is, it is a conventional artist.

Operating also from the field of art education and with a Dadaist sense in her performative practice, Jaramillo denatures socially constructed categories—body, time, gaze, among others—that normalize our existences, inviting us to imagine other ways of being, that transgress the precise profiles of representing the body. Through her work, we explore a seductive fascination for the ambiguous layers of representation of the female identities and bodies.

Karina Aguilera Skvirsky

Memory can be used as a way to contrasts spaces, geographies, borders, routes, displacements, and diasporas, among themselves and in different temporalities. This contrast can be considered as a playful use of memory since the subjects slide between different moments of individual and collective history based on what one currently is. Consequently, future virtualities are glimpsed, enabling an unexpected movement to dislocate the story that gives coherence to the space. The space, the body, and the particular relationship between subject and landscape are a fundamental part of Karina’s artistic practice. In her production, she has systematically worked with gender approaches, nuanced with issues of racial discrimination and migration, associated with her own condition of being a migrant woman.

In El peligroso viaje de María Rosa Palacios (2016), Karina Aguilera Skvirsky takes on the production of a video performance, in which she reconstructs—as much as possible—the route taken by her great grandmother who, in 1905 when she was 15 years old, left her hometown (El Valle del Chota [8], Ecuador) go to Guayaquil, traveling several weeks along an arduous road with the intention of working for a wealthy family in the great port. While touring the town where her great-grandmother lived, the artist explores her ancestral roots and reviews the journey that started from rural Ecuador to the largest and most prosperous city in the country. The relationship that the artist initiates with her great-grandmother is essential to understand the generational processes to which the female body has been subjected: economically, socially, and historically.

The significance of the body, in her work, is closely related to the desire that she has to understand her own identity, mixing intimate memory and a wider social context linked to her ancestors and that has defined her place in society. Karina frequently examines what it means to have a migrant, Black body, stressed with the construction of mestizaje. The artist affirms that these links “are related to having grown up in a bicultural home. I am in a transterritorial situation, since I have assumed my mother’s experience. I do not know why it became really important, but somehow it had an impact on my way of thinking, my life and my interests in art”. [9] The result is a work that brings to the surface reflections on the processes of colonial acculturation and mestizaje, a process in which the artist embraces her Afro-Ecuadorian culture and through the memory of the body constructs a divergent story.

Today “femininity” is recognized as a social construction and as a process when conceiving their creations, deterritorializing the female body towards a multiplicity of identities.

Saskia Calderón

Saskia Calderón is an artist known for interpreting funerary songs from the Ecuadorian Amazonian communities in the style of great opera. She uses the language of indigenous groups to expand the field of action of their struggles. Her academic background has allowed her to link music, lyrical singing and plastic arts to produce performances, video-performances, and sound art. Saskia uses the opera as a tool that stresses the criollo whiteness that forged the ideology of mestizaje as an identity that amalgamates the ancestral and the Western. It retakes ancestral knowledge and invokes practices close to oblivion. She performs visual translations finding sound possibilities, using body and sound as narrative tools to address socio-environmental and ethno-cultural problems. [10]

Saskia Calderón brings to the present, from the locus that her voice occupies, natural and mystical elements—water, oil or the spirit of the forests—acquire their own languages in an act of translation through lyrical singing and its scores. The symbolic reappearance of nature occurs within spaces humanized by colonial logics and, on this occasion, from the performances implemented by the artist, these elements obtain an updated meaning from their own being, but intersected by the values of an identity, cultural and environmental setting.

In Requiem Huao, Calderón interprets funerary songs of the Ecuadorian Amazonian culture; with her face painted with vegetable dyes, a characteristic hairstyle of the woman in the Huaorani community [11], and an elegant black dress. The set of accessories contrasts the threat of modern development that the indigenous people are faced with in light of the exploitation of nature and extractivism, which is the outcome of the intervention by oil and mining companies in Amazonian territories of Ecuador. Like other performances by Saskia, her voice speaks strongly about environmental, socio-political, and identity issues, such as the rights of indigenous peoples and nature. Besides making evident the processes of westernization when singing an ethnic melody with lyrical voice, at the same time, Requiem Huao communicates the burdens identity for racialized women, inviting each to question the notions of beauty.

Within the field of art history, the tension between the recognition of difference and the demand for equality is perhaps most visible when reflecting on the impact of gender on the production and reception of art made by women. Artists such as Jenny Jaramillo, Karina Aguilera Skvirsky and Saskia Calderón, are open about the relationship between their work, and their personal experiences as women. The stereotype that all artistic production made by women necessarily has common characteristics, such as sensibility, aesthetic languages, and the normative construction of taste has already lost its validity. Today “femininity” is recognized as a social construction and as a process when conceiving their creations, deterritorializing the female body towards a multiplicity of identities. This process presumes a resistance before the processes of normalization, a production of identities that resists, that distrust the totalitarian power of masculinity, as Paul Preciado points out, “it is about attending identities traditionally left aside and combating the causes that produce differences in class, race and gender”. [12] Faced with a world of masculinized and patriarchal territories, these artists propose visions of possible non-hegemonic worlds that start from alternative ways of thinking about their environments and their bodies.

Notes

  1. It is the name of a movement initiated virally as a hashtag in social networks. In October 2017, to denounce sexual assault and sexual harassment, following accusations of sexual abuse against film producer and American executive Harvey Weinstein.

  2. International political movement that campaigns against violence against black people. BLM regularly protests against the death of black people in homicides committed by police officers, as well as for broader issues of racial profiling, police brutality, and racial inequality.

  3. Had its origins in 2003, in Rosario, and during the National Campaign for the right to Abortion. Eight thousand scarfs were distributed per year throughout the country. In 2018, its production exceeded 200 thousand. The details of a piece that took its color by chance and was forged as a banner of women’s struggle for equal rights.

  4. Nosotras Proponemos (Asamblea Permanente de Trabajadoras del Arte) raises the awareness about the patriarchal and macho behaviors that dominate the world of art and that regulate the ways of positioning of cultural agents. It surged in Argentina at the end of 2017.

  5. Miguel A. López, Robar la historia. Correlatos y prácticas artísticas de oposición, Santiago de Chile: Metales Pesados, August 2017.

  6. Archivas & Documentas. Mujeres Arte Visualidades en Ecuador is a project that seeks to make visible the lack of presence and participation of women artists in collections, archives and exhibitions of national and local governments of Ecuador; the investigation was carried out by the artists Tania Lombeida and Gary Vera.

  7. Statement of the artist Jenny Jaramillo (Ecuador, 1962), interviewed by Eduardo Carrera, December 2018.

  8. El Valle del Chota is an Ecuadorian region located in the basin of the Chota River, in the middle of the Andean highlands and characterized by having a population of inhabitants of African origin.

  9. Interview with the artist Karina Aguilera Skvirsky (Ecuador, 1969) by Gabriela Rangel and Christina de León in Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas, 2013.

  10. Statement by the artist Saskia Calderón (Ecuador, 1982), interview Eduardo Carrera, December 2018.

  11. The huaorani or waorani is an Amerindian town that inhabits the northwest of the Amazon, east of Ecuador and which retains its isolation and language.

  12. Beatriz Preciado, “Multitudes queer. Notas para una política de los ‘anormales’”, in Revista Nombres del Centro de Investigaciones “ María Saleme de Burnichón,” Facultad de Filosofía y Humanidades, Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, n. 19, 2005.

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