In Argentina, the feminist movement converges with the art world. One group of activists, Nosotras Proponemos, is demanding representation and reform for female artists. I spoke with two women from the group about their work and the state of Argentine feminism in 2019.
Andrea Giunta meets me at the door of her home in San Telmo and quickly leads me inside.
The walls are plastered with art. The decorations are like something out of an interior design magazine.
—Are you an artist? —I ask.
—No, my husband.
Artist or not, Andrea Giunta is an integral part of the Argentine art world. She has worked as an art historian and curator for thirty years. She is a professor of art history at the University of Buenos Aires and she just finished writing her latest book, Feminismo y el arte latinoamericano.
The book addresses the question of representation in art and the history of corresponding activist movements. In the first chapter, she writes, “the art world is predominantly white, European/ north american, heterosexual, and above all, male… the percentage of women’s artwork in the art world has never exceeded 10%, and on average it has constituted around 5% of the total."
Throughout her book, Giunta not only confronts the unjust realities female artists face worldwide, but also tells stories of fortitude and activism. But I did not come to her house to ask her about her book, instead, I came to learn about the group of female artists in Argentina that are demanding change—the women that are proposing representation, diversification, and visibility in the art world. They call themselves Nosotras Proponemos, We Propose.
I ask Andrea to tell me the history of the group.
Before the 2017 death of Graciela Sacco, Nosotras Proponemos did not exist. Andrea describes that time as “a preactivist context”. In 2017, Giunta had been helping curate the exhibition Radical Women and was researching gender representation statistics in art. Despite her work, she recalls the fact that, at the time, “there wasn’t an organizational spirit”.
When Graciela Sacco passed, however, that spirit emerged. Sacco was an Argentine artist whose work was highly recognized and widely criticized. According to Andrea, Graciela was attacked by her critics.
—Just as she started to gain international recognition, she was attacked from a machista perspective. For example, people would say, ‘oh yeah, her work is in the Sao Paulo gallery because she’s sleeping with the curator.’
Sacco’s treatment was far from unique, rather it is reflective of a harsh reality in the art world.
—There has always been this idea that when a male artist is successful, it’s because he’s talented. When a female artist is successful, it’s because of sexual favors she’s done for
someone. Those are the ideological and discursive matrices of machismo. And that happens here and it happens everywhere in the world.
Although Sacco’s experiences were mirrored by countless female artists, she became a special kind of martyr.
—When Graciela Saco died, an artist named Leticia Obeid made a post on Facebook with ten points of desirable conduct to change the machista nature of the artistic medium. I saw it and thought, ‘wow, how great’. From there, I copied the ten points and put it on my Facebook page.
Andrea was not alone. Other women followed suit.
—Lots of female artists started adding points. There was a collective dynamic.
It was at this time that Andrea, along with another female activist, formed the document titled
—We put all the points in a Google Doc and we edited it until it reached its current form.
The document was published on Change.org where thousands of people signed it. A small group of devoted women transformed a Facebook post into a movement and a proposal for the world.
Today, that document is called the compromiso, or declaration, and can be found on the NP website. The title reads “We Propose: Commitment to feminist artistic practice”.
The declaration consists of thirty-seven points divided into five categories. Each point calls for reform of distinct elements of the art world, from the eradication of negative stereotyping of female artwork, to the inclusion of more women in art history.
The first category, for example, addresses the structure of the art world. The section calls for equal representation for both female artists as well as female curators.
I read the compromiso before visiting Giunta. The structure is specific and intentional. It is inclusive and aware. In her book, Andrea comments that the declaration is not a manifesto. During the interview, I ask why?
—[The manifesto] is a patriarchal genre. We prefer the concept of a declaration because it requires personal involvement. You must take part in something you declare.
NP's declaration reflects the idea of inclusive participation. There is an entire category of the document, "On the inclusive nature of this proposal." The section makes it clear that the group welcomes all people, regardless of race, class, or gender. Moreover, the struggle is inclusive. NP is not concerned exclusively with equality for women, but equality in general.
NP’s activism is hardly restricted to their declaration. In fact, the group meets and participates in several nation-wide activities.
While the compromiso was signed by thousands of people, the core of Nosotras Proponemos consists of one hundred or so women who meet monthly. This smaller group is responsible for all of NP’s events in recent years.
All of NP’s activism shares a common objective: to increase awareness and re-educate.
The group often participates in women’s rights marches. For example, each year NP joins in International Women's Day, on March 8.
—For the eighth of March, 2018, we started with actions for the general strike. That day, women all around Argentina went on strike—they didn’t go to work, they didn’t do their household duties—they took to the streets. There were similar strikes all around the world.
Female artists from NP also joined the spring demonstration, marching through the streets of Buenos Aires. On that day, they recited poems in the street and carried a huge poster signed and decorated by fellow protesters.
In 2019, Nosotras Proponemos organized three activities.
—One was called banderazo. Together we painted hundreds of bandanas green, the color of the women’s movement here, then hung on balconies all over the city. On the night of March 7th, we had an action we called proyectorazo: a collaboration with project with other feminist groups in the city. We used projectors to display phrases on the sides of buildings. The city became a canvas for our message. And then for the International Women’s Day March, a group of NP artists NP made something they named trensazo (the braid). They constructed a twenty-meter- long green braid that they then carried in the protest. It became the image of the march.
Beyond the protests, the women of NP attend conferences, offer workshops, and promote the representation of women artists throughout the country.
Recently, NP’s project that has garnered the most attention is in museums. This year, almost thirty Argentine museums and art galleries collaborated with Nosotras Proponemos in order to highlight under-representation of female artists. On March 6th, the museums turned off the lights on work by male artists, only illuminating the work of women.
The photos of the blacked-out museums are moving—entire exhibitions shrouded in darkness. Andrea mentions some of the statistics in her book: in the Buenos Aires National Museum of Fine Arts, of the 47 main exhibitions, two presented the work of women.
At one point during the interview, I ask Andrea why museums are such an important facet of the movement. As Andrea explained, museums are an integral in creating our conception of who artists are.
—If you don't fight for museums, then when you take your children to the museum, the only artists they see are men. Young people aren’t predisposed to believe that most artists are men. We shouldn’t give them reason to believe so.
Additionally, museums are representative of the economics in the fight for equality.
—We’re also fighting for economic equality. When female artists’ work is underrepresented in museums, they’re much more unlikely to receive compensation for their art. At the end of the day, we want access to all sources of work.
Andrea Giunta’s personal ideology closely resembles that of Nosotras Proponemos in that she values self-evaluation and growth. According to her, feminism is a form of consciousness, and not only for men. In fact, she believes we all have internalized machista thoughts.
—I’m a feminist and I consider feminism is a pedagogical mission, that is, I believe we all have an inner patriarchal spirit, and therefore, we all have to be re-educated to transform that patriarchal disposition.
Like Giunta, Nosotras Proponemos addresses the issue of feminism from a teaching perspective.
—We don't do what’s called escraches. That is fundamental. That is, we don't go out to say ‘well this is an abuser’ calling out a person by name. It’s not that we never did. Initially, we did some but we realized we don’t identify with punitive feminism. We believe that punishment is not transformative.
This ideology has not been entirely well-received. In fact, NP received complaints from other feminist groups, citing a lack of firmness. Nevertheless, members of NP have maintained their position.
—We listen to our critics and we support them. We support them in pursuing changes to the law. That is our ultimate goal.
Despite broader legislative struggles falling flat for feminist movements in Argentina, NP has found success in their legal struggles concerning the art world.
The women of NP have been working with the office of the Secretary of Culture to ensure equal distribution of national art awards.
Last year, NP proposed a change to the National Hall regulation.
—We introduced an article ensuring equal distribution of awards in the regulatory document of the National Hall.
The National Visual Arts Salon is a federal art contest in Argentina. Various art disciplines participate, including photography, drawing, and ceramics. Ever since the contest was first held in 1911, most winners have been male, with few exceptions. Among the ninety-seven painters who won between 1911 and 2017, five were women.
Those statistics are subject to change, however. In 2018, the government accepted the NP proposal, and amended the contest regulations to ensure equal participation and recognition of women.
The law now says, “In the National Exhibition of Visual Arts, gender equality will be respected, both in the election of the jurors, and the selection and awards of the works, as in the nomination and awarding of the Awards National to the Artistic Trajectory.”
According to Andrea, the change is significant for the movement:
—It's super important because it's the law. It’s hard to go back on the law. Furthermore, the new law is unprecedented.
—Something like this hasn’t happened anywhere else in the world. Only here.
—Are you ready to write it down?
—I’m ready— I say.
—Down with the patriarchy. It’s going to fall, it’s going to fall. Up with feminism. It’s going to win. It’s going to win.
A few weeks after my interview with Andrea, I meet Hersilia, an Argentine artist and member of Nosotras Proponemos. We meet at a cafe in Palermo on a Saturday afternoon. Prior to the interview, I didn’t know anything about Hersilia nor her art, but I wanted to talk to her about her experience as a woman and feminist in the Argentine art world.
During the two hour interview, Hersilia shows me her work and describes her experience as an artist and art curator. She shares several anecdotes of her activism - including the lyrics of “se va a caer,” a song that women shout during marches.
At the beginning of the conversation, she tells me about her work.
—Fundamentally, I am a visual artist.
Hersilia tells me that she experiments with different artistic medium.
—I do installations, I do street activism, I do performance art.
She has worked as an artist for more than twenty years. I ask her how her art has transformed over time.
—The aesthetic has changed.
Hersilia began her artistic career as a photographer. She tells me that she is now experimenting more with Latin American surrealism. Despite the difference in aesthetics, the themes of her work have not changed much: Hersilia always focuses on the body and feminism.
—My art engages with bodies, feminicides, and all the problems that have to do with women and consumption. I work in a militancy to free the body.
She brought me a book of photographs— a publication called "Putas”, or whores. She describes the work as performance photography.
The book’s photos show naked women wrapped in plastic. Their makeup— red and black smears on their faces— creates the illusion of blood and bruises. Hersilia leaves it up to the audience to determine whether the women resemble dead bodies or packaged products.
—When people look at these images, it can produce a type of shock or something that provokes us to think.
"Putas" is one of Hersilia’s first pieces dedicated to feminicide. The phenomenon is a serious problem in Argentina.
As we talk, Hersilia reminds me that the rate of feminicides in the country is one per day. "Putas” attempts to make that reality palpable. Specifically, Hersilia wants to show the escalation of violence characteristic of feminicides.
—The work is an imagination of the act of feminicide. It shows the build-up—aggression, aggression, aggression until it reaches the final point. The point where a woman is killed.
Hersilia hopes to inspire people with the collection.
—This image, what is it for? It exists in hopes that it remains in the memories of thousands of women and wakes them up. Art produces images that mobilize people.
Hersilia describes another piece: "Lo sagrado, el cuerpo " —a street performance dedicated to feminicide. I watched a video of the performance on her Instagram. In the video, a young girl is lying on the grass of a park, covered in white and surrounded by flowers.
—I had a singer laying on the ground with a plaster cast, a casket-like model of her body. I put on music and then stuck flowers in the grass around her. The girl began to sing an agonizing song as if she were dying. I started to pick the flowers and handed them to onlookers. People then threw the flowers on the woman. People cried, it was tremendous. This type of scene interests me because it permits profound reflection.
As I looked at more and more of Hersilia’s pieces, I was impressed by the complexity of her work — she wants to represent the nuances of consumption — from feminicide to capitalism.
For example, her work poses the question of the body in capitalism.
—I believe we are controlled by capitalism. Our bodies become governed — we are told how to eat, how to dress, how to live, what to love, what to do. It is a repressive system.
According to Hersilia, under capitalism, people become preoccupied by the gaze of others. She mentions the use of the body as a measure success. She references anorexia and bulimia, and even the idea that a woman's body is a failure if she turns forty without having had children.
Like Andrea, Hersilia's conception of feminism is broad and inclusive.
—Feminism isn’t just equal rights, it is a system that can lead to societal change. It offers a better life, one with more equality, more responsibility, and more empathy for one another. We do not just demand change for women—we’re fighting for the man who sleeps there on the street — for everyone.
Hersilia’s conception of feminism is evident in her art. That is, she tries to produce art that makes us reflect on all the systems of oppression we must live with.
Hersilia has experienced inequality in the art world first-hand. She works as a curator's assistant and collaborates with five museums in Argentina.
According to her, curatorship is a battlefield. Historically, curators have almost exclusively selected the work of men. According to Hersilia, the problem is persistent in Argentina and around the world. There are many curators who do not identify with feminism. Moreover, women are forced to compete for recognition.
—What the patriarchy seeks is to generate competition between women so that there is a tension between them. I try to disarm that tension.
Hersilia wants to increase the visibility of female art, the work hidden in the “bowels” of the museums. Moreover, she wants to rescue the discourse and pay tribute to unseen women in art history. As she described to me, whenever she can, she uses her position to equalize representation.
—As a curator, I always try to select an equal ratio of work by male and female artists.
During our interviews, I asked both women why they think Argentina is experiencing such energetic activism. Their answers were similar: though the current social situation in Argentina drives its feminist movement, the feminist wave is global.
At the end of our conversation, Andrea Giunta told me:
—Machismo is everywhere. But at this moment in Argentina, there is a unique level of activism. There is much more awareness. The organization is impressive, the marches are incredible, and the truth is, marches and protests don’t only happen once a year here.
Hersilia believes that the “feminist spark” in Argentina is due to the current government’s repressive nature. She mentions the 2018 failure to legalize abortion and the fact that one million women marched through the streets of Buenos Aires demanding change. Despite the uniqueness of the situation in Argentina, Hersilia sees this surge of militancy as a worldwide phenomenon.
—What’s happening is that right now, at a global level, women in all societies are waking up. They’re waking up and deciding to fight for a better life.