Rosa Martinez, Independent Art Critic and Curator – SPAIN – 1995
The prestigious Belgian anthropologist Levi-Strauss said that, looked at over the millennium, passions have not changed substantially and to omit at random ten centuries wouldn’t effect significantly our knowledge of human nature; the only irreparable loss would be the works of art that had been produced. Artistic creations reflect thought structures, conserve memory, and translate the existential and aesthetic preoccupations of their time allowing the projection of ghosts, the solidification of beliefs and the outlining of utopias.
Women Beyond Borders is an exhibition that began its world tour the 5th of December 1995, at the Contemporary Arts Forum of Santa Barbara (California). It conveys, in a very specific way, the global desire for dialogue and the need for connection that inspires many women on this planet who are preoccupied with establishing new lines of collaboration and interchange which widen established channels, in order that our voices can be heard. Taking off from this base, a group of artists from Santa Barbara began to enlarge the project and have succeeded in weaving a wide international network that is spreading through many continents and which has welcomed, up to now, women artists and curators from the United States, Kenya, Mexico, Cuba, France, Spain, Austria, Israel, Argentina, Japan, Sweden, and Finland, to mention a few of the first countries included in the convocation.
The inspiration has been a small wooden box, copies of which have been sent from California to the curators of each country who in turn have been responsible for selecting 12 artists and asking them to freely transform this common object. The format, the design, the material of the box and the requirements for installation condition enormously the creative possibilities. However, these have not been obstacles for the creativity of the artists who have taken off in many directions with statements that go from the ethnic to the philosophical passing through nostalgic origins, religion, memories of journeys and questions of sexual roles and generic identities.
One of the most surprising conceptions is that of Victoria Gal, who presents a funeral ritual by putting a dead hedgehog in her box. She buried it for 4 months in the countryside of Extremadura and then dug it up; provoking reflection on the effect of the passage of time on the living and the dead. One of the most ironic was that of the American, Ana Jonsson, who has a woman dressed in red hanging over a simulation of a tampon box alluding to a reality that women cannot escape, that of the role of wife and mother.
While the majority were willing to work within the limitations that the box imposed, respecting the measurements and just adding color, small objects, photographs or other materials, some artists went further, questioning the physical aspect of the object itself. The Catalonian artist, Eulalia Valldosera, for example threw away the original box and put in its place another of transparent plastic into which she placed phalanges of the ring finger of a dead woman on which she put a ring, alluding dramatically to the symbolic death of love. The Valencian woman, Ana Navarrete, took the box apart and after carefully recording the measurements of every part of the box put the six pieces into a plastic bag along with instructions on how to put it back together. The ideas of play, destruction and reconstruction are implicit in this operation while underscoring the question of closed structures and a will to rethink reality, even though the possibilities of creating new situations appear limited. This same type of questioning appears in the work of Ciel Bergman from New Mexico, who interprets the box as a metaphor of human logic, valuable for organizing and systematizing, but capable also of repressing and shutting up the pulses or impulses of the body. Ciel Bergman filled her box with translucent wax, having previously put a needle, blood, and thread inside. According to her, the needle under the skin symbolizes the effort of women to cure, to sew up the wounds of a world based on war and conflict. Wax also appears in the project of the woman from Andalucia, Carmen F. Sigler, who reflects upon how formalities that institutionalize our identity limit us and close off possibilities. The idea of existential and aesthetic traps that hover over women as mother and as artist are present in the piece of the Israeli, Deganit Schocken, whereas the Argentinean, Gloria Priotti, in her work “The challenge” alludes to the effort that we still have to make and the walls that still need to come down.
One of the most unsettling pieces is by the Basque artist, Begona Montalban, who has placed, on the inside top of the box, a photograph of the eyes of a woman whose eyelids are drooping drastically because of a nervous disorder. In an attempt to overcome this situation she has fixed a hairpin on one eyelid to hold it open. Turning the box around, we see that Begona has converted it into a hairpin container, expressing the will to fight. The Mexican artist Lilian Ribeiro, from Oaxaca, transformed her box into a baroque jewelry box, a container in which silver relief images and decoration allude to a past that is remembered with nostalgia. The Argentinian, Mirta Tocci, who has been working with the poetry of the heart, converted her box into a metaphor of this organ encircling it completely with a cord to allude to the frequent impossibility of extending itself to another.
The Spanish artist, Akane Asoka, presents a very delicate work on the myth that is told to the little girls of her country that says that each one is tied to her future husband by her little finger with an invisible red thread. Akane has created a suit where a masculine shirt (coming out of the box) is joined to a feminine dress (lying on the floor) uniting the two with a red thread.
The quality of small miniatures that all these works share speaks of the need for facilitating the transport of an exhibition that has been made without counting on institutional financing and that has only been possible thanks to the interested collaboration of artists and curators. It reflects also the confinement to which women have been submitted artistically. It speaks of boxes in which secrets are guarded. It suggests the generosity of the offerings. It alludes to closed worlds, to small objects in which meanings are condensed, and to a domestic tradition in which decoration and handicrafts have been the pillars on which feminine creativity has been sustained. Departing from this reality generates conflicting emotions. On the one hand, women enjoy the diversity of approximations and styles, on the other hand, we demand other spaces and other formats which permit us to grow artistically.
The show will continue to receive new contributions. It will then begin in New York and go on, among other places, to the Contemporary Gallery of Jerusalem, the Kunstterhaus of Grasz, the Contemporary Gallery of the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi, the Kulturhuset of Stockholm and the Centro Wifredo Lam in Havana. In Spain conversations have begun with Maria Luisa Lopez, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Seville.
The transcultural character of the show, like the connections through “Femail” and the Internet, contributions to establishing modalities of dialog that permit us to continue to profile the feminine perspective which, as the art critic Suzi Gablik says, has been absent not only from politics and scientific thinking but also from aesthetic philosophy. Questioning the power of big exhibitions and the hierarchy that separates great art from small works, this exhibition of Women Beyond Borders will contribute to the articulation of the theory and the practice of a new social construct of reality and play an important role in creating other anthropological visions.