Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 1, 2024
Andrea Giunta The Political Body : Stories on Art, Feminism, and Emancipation in Latin America Trans Jane Brodie 1st Edition. University of California Press, 2023. 304 pp.; 85 color ills.; 52 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780520344327)

The Political Body: Stories on Art, Feminism, and Emancipation in Latin America is the translation of an influential book originally published in Spanish as Feminismo y arte latinoamericano: historias de artistas in 2018 in Argentina. Since its publication, Andrea Giunta, a professor of art history at the University of Buenos Aires and curator of influential international exhibitions, has updated and expanded the book in six subsequent editions. Giunta frames the study as a complement to the wide-ranging and pathbreaking exhibition, Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985, which she cocurated with Cecilia Fajardo-Hill. In contrast to the one hundred twenty artists and collectives from across Latin America and the United States included in Radical Women, here the author delves deeply into the works of key artists and draws out one of the many narratives that crisscrossed the exhibition. These “stories,” as she calls them in the title, tell of the reinvention of bodies claimed as “women’s” by artists even as they denaturalized images of the feminine and the masculine. In so doing, Giunta argues, these artists introduced a “dissident subjectivity” (1) into the political sphere in the last decades of the 20th century. Thanks to the broad success of its Spanish original, we can state that the book achieves the goals Giunta sets out: the introduction of new subjectivities into the field of feminist thought, greater attention afforded to pan-Latin American art histories, and increased public discourse about gender, race, and sexuality in the region. The introduction makes a case for the relevance of radical and experimental women artists from the 1970s and 1980s to the recent mass demonstrations by women and queer activists whose demands for bodily autonomy carried Argentine green kerchiefs and a compelling song and dance by Chilean collective Las Tesis across the globe.

Giunta distinguishes her study from art histories focused on male artists as much as the related methodology of organizing the field according to the logic of the nation-state. The political interruptions these women subjects enacted required Giunta to abandon that organizing logic, even as she rejects a single or settled definition of the category of “Latin American art.” Like the recent edited collection, Culturas visuales desde América Latina (Visual Cultures from Latin America) edited by Deborah Dorotinsky Alperstein and Rían Lozano (UNAM/IIE, 2022), Giunta notes the importance of seminars directed by Mexican art historian, Rita Eder, and supported by the Getty Foundation, which allowed specialists from different countries to appreciate both differences and echoes in the diverse linguistic and cultural spheres of the hemisphere.

In the introduction and first chapter, Giunta helpfully clarifies that she defines the artists who contribute to the titular political body as “women” not as a fixed and stable identity, but instead in what she calls an administrative sense. The very administrative order that sustained discrimination against those artists it classified as women allows Giunta to call for what she frames as an operation parallel to affirmative action for minority groups in the United States. Furthermore, this definition allows her to include the many women artists in Latin America of the 1970s and 1980s who rejected the term “feminist,” but who nonetheless contributed strong critiques of that patriarchal order and visions of the titular political body.

The subsequent chapters offer attentive analyses of works by important women artists, often with exhibition history that enriches our understanding of the context of their display, as well as archival materials and information gleaned in interviews that allow the artists’ voices to be heard. Chapter two takes on art and activism in the work of Colombian Clemencia Lucena and Argentine María Luisa Bemberg, revealing certain tensions between feminism and left revolutionary politics of the sixties and seventies. In chapter three, Giunta examines experimental films by Argentine Narcisa Hirsch, and argues that her work is feminist as much for its abandonment of the familiar progressive time of narrative film, as for the world of women pictured throughout her oeuvre. Chapter four looks to performance art instigators Mónica Mayer, Lourdes Grobet, Pola Weiss, and Magali Lara, presenting Mexico as a unique case of an explicitly feminist art movement in the region. Giunta provides detailed descriptions of events, exhibitions, art publications, and political and social activism around the United Nations Year of the Woman conference held in Mexico City in 1975. Of particular interest is her examination of the journal Artes Visuales edited by Carla Stellweg, which included cutting-edge essays against the biological definition of female being inscribed in concepts of femininity, and debates over representation and power, and race and patriarchy.

Chapters five and six focus on the centrality of the experience of military dictatorship, especially for artists in the Southern Cone, with attention to the theme of archive and resistance in installations by Uruguayan Nelbia Romero and Chilean Paz Errázuriz’s photographs. In the waning years of the regime, Romero created Sal-si-puedes (1983), named after the genocidal campaign against the Churrúa peoples in the town of Salsipuedes in 1831. Giunta shows that the artist connected the violence of that repressive regime with the original sin of Latin American national independence, the extermination of Indigenous peoples, and reveals the importance of the body in experimental art spaces. Her close analyses of Errázuriz’s work and especially the groundbreaking series, La manzana de Adán (1990), for which she and author Claudia Donoso lived with trans prostitutes in a brothel in Santiago, reveal sensitive and intimate representations of a marginalized and vulnerable community. Giunta argues for the potential of art to operate as political resistance to dictatorial regimes through the constitution of what she calls interpretive “reading communities” of conspiratorial images (159).

Chapter seven is the most important addition to the first Spanish edition, as it introduces Brazilian mixed-media artist, Rosana Paulino, who is of a younger generation than the artists featured in the other chapters but is by now a leading international figure in Afro-diasporic art. Paulino puts her finger in the wound of the feminist project, revealing ongoing weaknesses long after well-recognized critiques of racism and exclusion following the 1970s movements. Giunta quotes the artist describing the São Paulo feminists in whose houses her own mother had worked, who “could be feminists because they had someone to clean their houses, to take care of their children” (202). The chapter provides a welcome opportunity for hemispheric Black studies guided by an artist from a country where, as Paulino frequently reminds her interlocutors, more than half of the citizens do not consider themselves to be white. Her art demands that feminist thought in Brazil and Spanish America embrace the complexity and fluidity of racial and ethnic self-identification as central to its methods. Giunta follows Paulino’s interventions into the historically and still predominantly Euro-descent world of fine art in Brazil to call attention to important new actors in the field. She traces a recent history of exhibitions that have displayed the crucial distinction between the representation of Black bodies and participation by Black artists, curators, and scholars, citing important contributions by curators Faviana Lopes and Diane Lima and artist-run spaces such as Atelie Oço. Giunta similarly acknowledges the distinction between European-born photographer Claudia Andujar’s intimate and longstanding work with the Yanomami people of the Amazon region, and actual participation by Yanomami artists in the art world. Awareness of this issue is slowly making its way into the mainstream. For instance, revisions to the traveling exhibition, Claudia Andujar—The Yanomami Struggle, sponsored by the Cartier Foundation, between its first edition in 2020 and the version in New York three years later, made significant corrections by naming and more fully including Yanomami artists and filmmakers André Taniki, Ehuana Yaira, Joseca Mokahesi, Orlando Nakɨ uxima, Poraco Hɨko, Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, and Vital Warasi.

Giunta closes the book with her home scene and the demands by the Nosotras Proponemos (NP) group in Argentina for greater representation of women in the art world and in the world of politics. She describes women’s general strikes in Buenos Aires taking place the year she first completed The Political Body, massive and diverse convocations that called for bodily autonomy and protested economic austerity, as well as NP meetings in artists’ studios, museums, and cultural centers that crafted a collaboratively written “Commitment to Feminist Art Practices.” This last chapter is particularly poignant today, given promises by the newly elected president, Javier Milei, to repeal the right to abortion won by this movement and to implement the most radical austerity measures in recent history.

The book is beautifully produced, with full-color photographs throughout that offer access to important contemporary artworks. Clearly written and with a helpful glossary of feminist keywords, this translation of Giunta’s influential book should be adopted as a textbook in global contemporary art and feminist art courses in the Anglophone world and will undoubtedly spark further research in Latin American art and feminist thought.

Esther Gabara
Professor of Romance Studies, and Art, Art History & Visual Studies
Duke University