Book Review: Women Made Visible: Feminist Art and Media in Post-1968 Mexico City

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Gabriela Aceves Sepúlveda’s Women Made Visible: Feminist Art and Media in Post-1968 Mexico City is an important addition to the growing body of scholarship focusing on women artists/activists during a tumultuous period in Mexico’s history. Indeed, recent curatorial and art historical efforts have brought new levels of attention to feminist artists working in Mexico throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Most notably, the exhibition Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985 (2017), curated by Cecilia Fajardo-Hill and Andrea Giunta, showcased the innovative and experimental artistic projects developed by women and feminist artists in Mexico, positioning these efforts within a larger Latin American context. Aceves Sepúlveda contributes to these emerging examinations by employing an interdisciplinary framework to study four women—Ana Victoria Jiménez, Rosa Martha Fernández, Pola Weiss and Mónica Mayer—examining their work in relation to the artistic and activist context of late twentieth-century Mexico. Echoing the multifaceted approaches favoured by her subjects, Aceves Sepúlveda does not solely conceptualise them as ‘artists’ or ‘activists’. Instead, the scholar analyses these individuals as visual letradas, ‘self-identified women who, by the second half of the twentieth century, became more openly concerned with performing and recording audiovisual information about how their bodies were visually constructed and politicized’ (p. 6). Women Made Visible thus considers a wide variety of image-making practices, including Mayer’s participatory artistic projects, Jiménez’s photographs, Fernández’s genre-disrupting films and Weiss’s work with video technologies. Building on feminist and media studies scholarship that considers the gendered dynamics of cultural production and spectatorship, Aceves Sepúlveda underscores how each one of the visual letradas created a rich corpus of images that explored shifting definitions of the city, the gendered body and the nation in Mexico. To interpret the significance of individual media projects developed by each one of the visual letradas, the scholar draws on personal interviews, as well as artist archives and government documents. In short, this book illustrates the significant ways in which Mexican women actively participated in an ongoing history of feminist art and activism, even if these efforts have been sidelined by existing histories solely focused on artists working in the Euro-American region. Scholars interested in the development of feminist activisms in Mexico will find the historical analysis in this text particularly useful, as the book challenges mischaracterisations of 1970s feminisms as solely concerned with gender, or led by white, middle-class, university-educated women. Aceves Sepúlveda underscores how the diverse goals of her visual letradas coalesced with other Mexican political movements, including union efforts across the country. As an example, the scholar details Jiménez’s participation in the Communist Youth League, which led to her arrest in 1965. Additionally, the scholar’s in-depth analysis of the first United Nations Women’s Year Conference in Mexico City (1975) reveals the complexities of how transnational feminisms operated in the Cold War era. Indeed, Aceves Sepúlveda elucidates how tensions and disagreements emerged not only between First and Third World activists but also between Latin American participants. Moreover, she explains the ways in which tactical coalitions emerged in Mexico between different feminist organisations, prompting collaborations to focus on sexual violence and reproductive rights. Aceves Sepúlveda’s complex analysis of the different social positions occupied by the visual letradas in these feminist networks underscores the importance of constructing histories of feminist activisms through a multifaceted lens that emphasises the intersections of race, class, nation and political affiliation. One of the book’s most exciting features is the way it considers the records of the extensive surveillance carried out by the Mexican state against leftist political groups, including feminist activists. As explained by the scholar, these espionage reports—first made available in 2002, after the presidential election of Vicente Fox—include numerous photographs, meeting notes and biographical profiles of individual activists. In some cases, these state archives detail specific events also documented by the visual letradas, such as a public protest at the Miss Mexico 1978 pageant photographed by Jiménez. By reading these disparate archives in relation to each other, Aceves Sepúlveda elucidates the different regimes of knowledge embodied by these records, highlighting the gendered dimensions of images and historical narratives. Aceves Sepúlveda ends her book by discussing Lorena Wolffer’s public artistic projects that focus on sexual violence and street harassment, suggesting how new generations of visual letradas intervene in current regimes of visuality in Mexico. These discussions are all the more pressing given the large-scale feminist protests that took place in Mexico throughout the summer of 2019, a form of collective mobilisation that denounced the prevalence of violence against women in the country. Aceves Sepúlveda’s study is thus mandatory reading for anyone seeking to understand the ways in which multiple generations of women in Mexico have challenged understandings of race, class, gender, power and violence through art and media.


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