Interview with Adriana Almada
Juan de Salazar Cultural Center, Spanish Cultural Center Pinta Sud Asu, August 2023, Asunción
How did the idea for an exhibition like "The Land of Women" come about? How long has the project been in the making, what was the process like, and who is part of the team behind it?
The invisibility of women's artistic production is a long-standing phenomenon that both academia and the art world have paid great attention to in recent decades. This can be seen in the emergence of names of artists who have passed away or are now much older, whose work is only just starting to enter collections, museums, and art history. Paraguay is not exempt from this situation. Studies on the condition of women, approached from both macro and micropolitical perspectives, have provided transversal and transdisciplinary readings that enriched the understanding of the activities and knowledge of more than half of the country's population at a specific moment. The militaristic governments that arose in the 1930s, in their interpretation of the War of the Triple Alliance, perpetuated the essentialist myth of the "Paraguayan woman" - strong, suffering, self-sacrificing, a heroic rebuilder of the country in the absence of men, but always respectful of the established patriarchal order. "The woman's place," across all social classes, was "the home." A home in which she was the undisputed head, as she was responsible for the support and care of children and the elderly. (Precisely, a history of caregiving today accounts for the immeasurable contribution of women to the reproduction of society). However, political power and symbolic power remained in the male sphere. The struggles for women's equality in Paraguay were overshadowed in the national imagination by the heroic narrative of the war, focused on military events. More recently, in the political arena, and especially within the traditional parties, with few exceptions, women's participation is limited to being listed as supplementary or mere logistical support.
All of this comes into play when thinking about a new proposal from the Mendonca Collection of Contemporary Art for the upcoming edition of Pinta Sud Asu, which will take place this August. Together with Daniel Mendonca, the collector, we have been imagining an exhibition of women artists from Paraguay for many years, and now we see the opportunity to materialize it with an exceptional partner: the Juan de Salazar Spanish Cultural Center. We have assembled a broad and diverse team, with specific professionals for each area of work, from documentation and artwork surveying, historical research, restoration, exhibition design and installation, fabrication of devices, communication, press, and, of course, curation. Moreover, this curatorial discourse has motivated specific acquisitions for the exhibition. Also, as has happened on previous occasions, there will be a comprehensive photographic and audiovisual record of the exhibition, with a view to publishing a book and creating a short documentary.
What is the background behind the exhibition's name? What does it connote and contain for you in that denomination?
The exhibition takes its title from a seminal book on the social history of women in Paraguay, written by German researcher Barbara Potthast in 1996: "¿Paraíso de Mahoma o País de las Mujeres? El rol de la mujer y la familia en la sociedad paraguaya durante el siglo XIX" (Asunción, ICPA). For me, her approach to the condition of women based on lateral instances has always been very inspiring. She sought to find answers in elements seemingly irrelevant, unlike official documents, but which revealed the domestic universe and micropolitical actions of women across all social classes in the country. As another Paraguayan historian, Ana Barreto Valinotti, graphically explains, when European travelers and artists arrived in Paraguay in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they found, quite literally, "a country of women." That's what they saw. Perhaps that is the intimate reason behind this exhibition: to shake up memory and lay bare this "country of women." And of women who are key figures in culture and art.
How was the process of selecting the artworks (and artists) that are part of the exhibition? What criteria/narrative/sensitivity, what quality did you seek in the selected works?
We can say that the Mendonca Collection began to take shape in the early 2000s, and from the outset, it included works by Paraguayan women artists or residents in the country, or those whose work is linked to its imagery. With this exhibition in mind, we conducted a survey of the female artists already present in the collection and considered the narrative that could be constructed from their names, to which we added many more. However, it is important to note that this exhibition is not limited to bringing together artists solely because they are women, but rather it seeks to raise, from women themselves, social and cultural issues related to their condition. Nevertheless, we introduced an element that destabilizes this taxonomy: there are works by three invited artists who, from their own perspective, enter this feminine territory with intense poetics.
What variety of artistic formats can be seen in the selection of works? How do you think these formats contribute to the narrative of the exhibition?
There are pieces that date back to the beginning of modernism in Paraguay up to the latest contemporary expressions. The exhibition includes painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, objects, installations, photography, photo-performance, video art, sound pieces... I believe that this diversity not only enriches the curatorial narrative but also allows multiple accesses to issues that can be read as a network of communicating vessels. I always remember a quote from Didi-Huberman: an exhibition is not only seen with the eyes but with the whole body. I think this diversity precisely contributes to that: the possibility of a self-perceived bodily practice in the exhibition space.
In your opinion, what historical importance does a collective exhibition like this hold? I believe that this historical importance can be considered from two interrelated variables, not separate but interconnected. On the one hand, the reflection that this proposal can generate in different academic and even political spheres about the social condition of women in Paraguay. On the other hand, the way this survey can impact the specific field of art historiography in the country. I should note that I do not consider this exhibition as a "state of the art" or an exhaustive presentation of the production of women artists, as we continue to search for works that we consider important but are not available or are already included in other collections, such as some pieces by Irma Gorostiaga, who recently passed away. However, I believe it is a very comprehensive story, and as a collection is a living organism that constantly renews itself, there will undoubtedly be new additions soon.
How do you think the volume and importance of the entire artistic production involved in this exhibition speak to the unique vision that these women have of (their) reality here in Paraguay?
There is no unique vision. I believe that in this exhibition, it is possible to find the diverse interests of women artists in Paraguay, their different realities, and conditions. I think that is one of the merits of the exhibition.
What kind of changes do you notice in the works of the artists as the years go by, from the 60s to the present?
The changes are many and significant. They reflect the changes that humanity has experienced in the last six decades. However, certain elements persist, habits, and prejudices regarding women that have not receded and are still a concern in many works. For example, there is an engraving by Miguela Vera from 1964 that reflects an issue women experience every day. Today, a contemporary artist might use video or photo-performance to address the same issue, but the core problem remains. In this sense, it is very enriching to observe the transformation in the use of artistic languages. Despite the evolution, it does not necessarily mean progress, as many seemingly traditional mediums like painting or drawing still prove to be very effective tools for addressing relevant issues.
Will the exhibition have complementary activities that delve into its theme? If so, how will they be conducted?
Throughout the exhibition, which will run until the last day of August, there will be guided tours and dialogues in the gallery (or other spaces) with researchers in the fields of history, sociology, and art.
Fidela Álvares, Nancia Álvares, Mabel Arcondo, Olga Blinder, Rosa Brítez, Bettina Brizuela, Claudia Casarino, Leonor Cecotto, Milena Coral, Leonor De Blas, Ruth Diego, Doriana Falcón, Floriberta Fermín, Adriana González Brun, Mónica González, Teresita González, Yuki Hayashi, Sara Hooper, Julia Isídrez, Edith Jiménez, Estela Juliuz, Angélica Klassen, Francene Keery, Guillermina, Sara Leoz, Laura Mandelik, Laura Márquez, Mónica Matiauda, Esperanza Mayor, Nélida Mendoza, Silvana Nuovo, Cucherane Marina Picanere, Josefina Pla, Susana Romero, Lotte Schulz, Mabel Valdovinos, Miguela Vera, Mayelí Villalba, Karina Yaluk, and Keka Zaldívar. The list is completed with works by José María Blanch, Arnaldo Cristaldo, and Joaquín Sánchez, as well as visual documentation from Confines del Paraguay, which refers to the issue of women in Paraguay.