Strokes of Incognito: Mexican female painters, past and present

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In a 1966 lecture titled “Women and Creativity”, Simone de Beauvoir addressed the issue of gender inequality in the art world. She held that women’s creativity has been historically hindered by their gender status, even though their capacities and inventive viewpoints should be as note-worthy as men’s.

Thus, it is at times unusual to find the name of a woman on the walls of museums and art galleries. Even more so in a male dominated country such as Mexico. Frida Kahlo is an exception, having become a figure of national pride and an acclaimed painter internationally. Her art, however, benefitted from being born in a period of great change; Mexico was experiencing a deep political and social revolution during the late 1930s. Nonetheless, some of her female contemporaries were more strongly victimized by the condition de Beauvoir characterised. One such woman, unknown not only in the wider world, but even in Mexico, was Nahui Ollin.

Born Carmen Mondragón in 1893, she was the daughter of a high-rank general in the army of Porfirio Díaz. She lived a privileged childhood, part of it in Paris, and later amongst members of the Mexican upper class and influential expatriates. She was a poet and a painter, officially part of the naïf art movement. She lived tragically, her youth tainted by her violent affair with the famous Mexican painter Gerardo Murillo (more commonly known as “Doctor Atl”), and was prematurely aged by the death of the man she held to be the love of her life. She died alone in 1978 in Mexico City. Few of her art-works survive, and her image can only be found in some faded photographs, Doctor Atl’s portraits and the corners of Diego Rivera’s murals.

Almost a century later, has women’s art reached a more respectable place in Mexican society? And has that small flash of influence left by revolutionary figures such as Frida and Nahui played a part in presentart movements?

Mexico City’s Museum of Modern Art displays a section specifically titled “Frida and I”. This corner renders tribute to the life of this unforgettable woman, while adopting her vision to explain and criticise social contexts, portray sexuality and its transitions, and to reinterpret popular Mexican traditions.

Thus, although current artists cannot experience the revolutionary atmosphere that the first female surrealists lived in, it seems the current role of women’s art in Mexico is to describe the roots and conventions of this complex country. Contemporary Mexican art work is reminiscent of the bright colours that depict pre-Hispanic Mexico, of its flowers, fruits and beautiful traditional attires. Yet, contemporarily, it denounces the country’s present condition and the loss of authenticity it is gradually experiencing.

An example of this is the unique kind of nostalgia in Dulce María Núñez’ paintings. Her portrayals of Mexican religious icons, overtaken by European and American influences (such as “Pietá” or “Dutch Huitzilopochtli”), speak directly to one’s conscience. The naïf genre can again be seen in Magali Lara’s paintings, “Dead Nature”, which shows a vivid depiction of a vase of flowers and a snake―above it, the legs of a woman who has just hung herself. The features of this piece are simple, yet so many components of Mexico’s soul are present within them: the intense chromatics, the rustic depiction of material elements, and the playful and ironic portrayal of death.

Mexican female photographers are not to be overlooked. Lourdes Grobet denounces previous governments and globalization through her photographs titled “Mexican Flags”; Judithe Hernández exposes “chicano” art by crossing the Mexico-USA border; and Graciela Iturbide reminds the public of the mystic aspects of Mexican folklore in portraits such as “Ladama de las iguanas”. These artists have strong inspirational figures to learn from. One of them is Tina Modotti, an Italian expatriate in Mexico, contemporary of Frida and Nahui, and author of some of the most powerful testimonials of life during the period of the Mexican Revolution.

Mexican art is thriving, as it always has; there is so much to be inspired from. Yet, while Mexican male artists follow the footsteps of world-renowned virtuosos such as Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco, women painters are gaining respectability contemporarily to their predecessors. This is a long process. Yet, hopefully, in some years’ time, Mexico will see many more female names in its museum collections, alongside those of other important Mexican painters, like Nahui Ollin, who do not deserve to remain incognito any longer.

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