In the First Person

Poetics of Subjectivity in the Work of Colombian Women Artists, 1960–1980
Carmen María Jaramillo

This antiquated world, which stinks everywhere of dead flesh, horrifies us and convinces us of the necessity of carrying the revolutionary struggle against capitalist oppression into that territory where the oppression is most deeply rooted: the living body. . . .

Women in revolt against a male power—a power that has been forced on their bodies for centuries—homosexuals in revolt against the terroristic "normality," young people in revolt against the pathological authority of adults: these are the people who, collectively, have begun to make the body a means of subversion, and have begun to see subversion as a means for meeting the "immediate" needs of the body.#
—Félix Guattari

The Body in Revolt

In the 1970s the question of the body was a concern across many spheres of knowledge. Authors such as Félix Guattari, Suely Rolnik, Gilles Deleuze, and Michel Foucault understood that revolution involved not only social, political, and economic issues but also corporality. Women's bodies had been shrouded in taboo for centuries, especially in a country like Colombia, with its Spanish colonial heritage and generally conservative worldview. In the face of traditional and restrictive conventions, the body functions as a foundational and decisive element in the work of the women artists featured in Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985. It acts as medium, instrument, trace, and object of representation. This is a body that speaks of sex, gender, identity, landscape, and political violence. It is the place of oppression and of pleasure but also of dissidence and of transgression.

During the period encompassed by the exhibition, 1960 to 1985, young people became an independent social group. Some of those young people were women who demanded rights, upheld the body as a territory of freedom, and undermined the rigid moral codes of older generations. Women artists formed part of the avant-garde that helped make way for future generations.# To better understand and appreciate the impact of their contributions on their own historical moments as well as on those that would follow, it is useful to consider pivotal examples of such expressions by Colombian women artists who began producing during a privileged historical period, one that witnessed ruptures with existing paradigms, reflecting on how those artists acted in accordance with that period while resisting the vertiginous art market and the institutionalization of their proposals.#

Karen Lamassonne (b. 1954) spent part of her youth in New York before arriving in Cali in the late 1970s. "I had accepted and embraced the body in the United States . . . . I was a liberated woman compared to my female friends in Cali, and I had influence on them," she recalls. During this period Lamassonne produced the Baños (Bathrooms, 1978–81) series, in which, as she explained, "fragments of my body appear. . . . The bathroom is like oneself. These are scenes of my most intimate life."# Lamassonne borrowed a term from film, explaining that, thanks to the "point-of-view angle" of her watercolors, her gaze and the gaze of the viewer—made party to the intimacy of her body—come together.

Delfina Bernal (b. 1941) lived in New York from 1968 to 1973. When she returned to Barranquilla, she began translating art reviews published in the United States for the local press as a way of contributing to the city's avant-garde movement, producing, for example, Declaración de amor a Jeff Perrone (Declaration of love for Jeff Perrone, 1979). According to the description on the poster that disseminated the work at the time, "Jeff Perrone is an art critic for Artforum magazine. Bernal translated some of his articles and wrote to him to request authorization to reproduce those translations in Colombia. Jeff Perrone agreed, but requested an advance payment of one hundred dollars for each text. Bernal paid him with this work and published the translations."# The work is a kind of ironic fotonovela in nine scenes. In it, Bernal removes her clothes in a ritual and gets into a bathtub with a meditative and romantic attitude. Before falling asleep, she writes a letter: "Dear Jeff, Since I am unable to pay what you ask, I am sending you a declaration of my love. Love and my best regards, Delfina." The payment was of course figurative, and the work never left Barranquilla. Bernal explains that when she made the work she "had already experienced the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and I considered myself the owner of my body."#

Bernal's Paisaje de mar en cuerda (Seascape in rope, 1966) shows a mélange of body fragments floating in an aquatic environment like the one in which life begins. In the lower portion of the work, sperm sails through female sex organs. Skin and membranes are drawn in a gradation of red and pink tones; the work combines microscopic cells with organs connected in a seemingly random fashion. The artist explains, "This work is visceral. I had a notebook in which I would write, for instance, 'I feel my spirit through my body.' And that was true. In the end, these are inner visions, a sort of age-old memory."# This landscape forms part of a series of works that could be connected to terrible images of bodies torn to pieces, images characteristic of art from the 1960s, when Colombian civil society reflected on who was responsible for La Violencia, the civil war that lasted from 1948 to 1958, determining that both Liberals and Conservatives were culpable.#

Excerpted from Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985. Copyright © 2017 by the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, Inc. Published by DelMonico Books, an imprint of Prestel. The full essay can be found in the exhibition catalogue, available here.

Epigraph: Félix Guattari, "In Order to End the Massacre of the Body" (1973), trans. Jarred Becker, in Soft Subversions: Texts and Interviews, 1977–1985, ed. Sylvère Lotringer (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009), 30.

Colombia, unlike other countries in South America, is a nation of cities. Though Bogotá has played a hegemonic role in centralized cultural policies, it is not the dominant center of artistic production. In the 1970s Cali, Barranquilla, and Medellín were decisive to the definition and consolidation of new proposals. It is telling that of the fifteen Colombian artists in Radical Women, five are from Cali (Alicia Barney, Karen Lamassonne, Sandra Llano-Mejía, María Evelia Marmolejo, and Patricia Restrepo), three from the Caribbean coast (Delfina Bernal, Sara Modiano, and Rosa Navarro), two from the Andean region known as Paisa (María Teresa Cano and Clemencia Lucena), two from the provinces of Norte de Santander and Santander (Beatriz González and Sonia Gutiérrez); only two were born in Bogotá (Feliza Bursztyn and Nirma Zárate).

Before embarking on writing this text, I interviewed the artists, eager to learn their perceptions in subsequent years of themes that run through their work, including the body and its relation to politics, feminism, and subjectivity. In the cases of the artists now deceased, I looked for interviews and documents that contained their own words so that their voices would attest to their art and creative processes.

Karen Lamassonne, in Carlos Duque, "Karen Lamassonne: Cuando la pintura se mete al baño," El Espectador: Magazin Dominical, no. 6 (April 24, 1983): 22.

Text from a poster provided by Delfina Bernal.

Delfina Bernal, correspondence with the author, April 28, 2014.

Delfina Bernal, interview with the author, January 25, 2016.

La Violencia resulted from the conflicts that emerged in Colombia in the second half of the 1940s between supporters of the Liberal and Conservative parties. To try to appease this violence, the so-called Frente Nacional, which I discuss in more depth in the "Body and Dread" section of the essay, was established. The Frente Nacional was an alliance between the Conservative and Liberal parties in effect from 1958 to 1974, during which time they alternated control of the government. Despite a few political achievements, the Frente Nacional ended up becoming a means by which the country's economic and political booty was divided between the leaders of the two sides that had once been archenemies. During the governments that preceded this alliance (Mariano Ospina Pérez, 1946–50; Laureano Gómez, 1950–53; and Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, 1953–57), the press—largely inhibited by government censorship— prevented the systematic dissemination of images of violent events, in stark contrast to the media saturation of today. Beginning with the photographs in the book La violencia, published in Colombia in 1962, the representation of the body changed dramatically and irrevocably in the art of the country. Deformations, mutilations, and repeated images of the bodies of dead children became the focus of many works of the period. This imaginary coexisted with the representation of the immediate violence of the day, which was related to the Frente Nacional; many of the artists considered here developed work related to persecutions and torture carried out by the military and intelligence agencies of Latin American dictatorships against left-wing groups and civil activists of the time. These artists also addressed the macabre practices that, in the press, were chronicled as crónica roja, a red (bloody) report.