Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Paola Villaseñor: Transborder muralist and The Savagery of Women

Paola Villaseñor is a San Diego-born and raised artist with her studio based in Tijuana. Living the life on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border in sufficient measure helps cultivate a transborder sensibility, a transborder mindset - in affect, a transborder aesthetic. El otro lado / the other side becomes less of a wall and more of a semi-permeable membrane. Paola, or Panca, is one of those artists with that transborder aesthetic.

Panca (Paola Villaseñor) on exhibition: Border City Blues, Roots Factory, San Diego (L); Zoofilia, 206 Arte Contemporanea, Tijuana (R)

The San Diego Art Institute (SDAI), located in San Diego's Balboa Park, has drawn on Villaseñor's artistic energy - her art can be seen on cultural treks through Tijuana or on Main Street in Barrio Logan/San Diego. Panca/Villaseñor has composed a multi-walled mural across from the entryway to SDAI's art gallery. The gallery currently features its semi-annual C-Note exhibition allowing individuals to buy original art at low prices. Villaseñor's mural will be featured as  part of the Institute's Winter Benefit and continue its exhibition until March 30, 2015. 

The Savagery of Women / El Salvajismo de Mujeres
The title of the image traversing multiple walls across from the entryway at SDAI is The Savagery of Women. (The completed image has been posted as a YouTube fast motion painting by the artist.)

Paola Villaseñor / Savagery of Women (incomplete as of Dec 4, 2014 / artist painting in lower right / split image with mural across from entryway 
and with gallery shown below as one descends the stairway

What comes to mind when you view this mural? An extension of the zombie fascination, including movies such as Teeth? The concept of the demonic female deity in folklore, fantasy and mythology? The tradition of Mexican muralists? Changing gender relationships in our own and other's society - expressed in how men and women view their social and psychological strengths (and weaknesses)? Some would argue that the discussion should be about savagery against women rather than by women, but that would another mural, not this one.

Will the San Diego Art Institute use the opportunity provided to Paola Villaseñor to foster collaboration between her and  artist members? Read a complementary article that imagines how an opportunity might look at future exhibition: What if small paintings became murals.

Here are some ideas to ponder in thinking about Villaseñor's Savagery of Women.This is a non-exhaustive list and your commentaries are welcome. I will post those that expand upon this discussion.

The Mexican muralist tradition
One immediate comparison would be considering Paola Villaseñor to Aurora Reyes Flores - as part of the female muralist tradition. Aurora Reyes Flores was the first female exponent of Mexican muralism, beginning her exhibition career in 1925. She, like her male counterparts (Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros), was quite political and was known as the fiery magnolia. 

Aurora Reyes Flores' painting, Attack on female teachers (shown below), was the first mural done by a female artist in Mexico. If anything, this might be  called the Savagery of Men - the opposite of Villaseñor's. Different styles, different content in the thematic presentation of gender savagery, while both speaking to the inherent beast within every culture's concept of gender.

Aurora Reyes Flores / Atentado contra las maestras rurales (1936)
In San Diego's Chicano Park, we are familiar with the contemporary Chicano continuation  of the Mexican muralist tradition in the art of Salvador Torres, Abran Quevedo, Tomas Castaneda, Victor Ochoa, and Mario Torero. Their art is closer in style and temperament to the Mexican muralists while Villaseñor's artwork veers off into the sense of fantasy and the modern surreal. 

From an interview in Tierra Adentro: 

No podría decir cuál es el estado del arte en México. No le presto mucha atención a eso, pero por el estado del país siento que va a ponerse muy denso. Existen dos tipos de arte en México: el que exhibe realidades o el que muestra falsedades. En temas de los que tampoco podría hablar mucho, siento que la tecnología es sólo una herramienta de difusión. Todo lo que hago es a mano. Me inspiro en lo casual, lo extraño y lo complejo de cada día. Imágenes fuertes con colores tenues, intento lograr un contraste y balance. Las imperfecciones son reales y no tengo por qué ocultarlas: la sociedad está acostumbrada a no lidiar con ellas y hasta a modificarlas. No todo es bonito.  Paola Villaseñor

Demonic women deities - folklore, fantasy and mythology
The Savagery of Women reaches into the widespread cultural phenomenon of cannibalism. In terms of folklore, fantasy and mythology, we find a wide array of frightening figures: "The concept of cannibalism, its ethical encumbrances, and its cultural expression in history and myth are unquestionably universal. To be human is to think about the possibility of cannibalism. Anthropophagy is hard-wired into the architecture of human imagination. Cannibal giants, ogres, bogies, goblins, and other 'frightening figures' populate the oral and literate traditions of most cultures, summoning images of grotesqueness, amorality, lawlessness, physical deformity, and exaggerated size. The Homeric tradition of the Greek Cyclops, the Scandinavian and Germanic folklore giants, or the Basque Tartaro find parallels in Asia, Africa, India, and Melanesia. In a fusion of the historical and the fabled, these pancultural incidences of cannibal indicate a remarkable similarity in the way meanings are assigned to cannibalism across the world." (Encyclopedia of Death and Dying)

However, female cannibalism in folklore, and how sexuality is portrayed, is sometimes focused on the vagina dentata myth. For example, one power-seeking deity in Hinduism, Adi, in order to avenge the death of his father, takes the form of Parvati to kill Shiva by using a toothed vagina after seducing him. 

Artist at work (L); detail from mural (R)
The goddesses in Aztec and Chichimec cultures, Coatlicue and Itzpapalotl, carry the intensity of the demonic. Coatlicue is the "insatiable monster that consumes everything that lives. She represents the devouring mother, in whom both the womb and the grave exist." Itzpapalotl (the obsidian butterfly) both eats and is the patroness of the Chichimecs; she provides directions for ritual human sacrifice. 

Then, there is Baba Yaga, the ogress in Slavic culture; and the cannibalistic forest witch in German tale of Hansel and Gretel as well as a similar cannibalistic witch in Somali culture, Dhegdheer.

From this perspective, Villaseñor's mural of savage women doing savage acts draws us into the broad swath of the history of the human imagination in folklore, fantary, mythology - and projected from time to time in popular selling video games and movies. Villaseñor does not need the academic treatise to prove her point; it is embedded in the human imagination.

Psychological aspects of changing gender relationships
This subject is vast and cannot be fully explored and therein lies an injustice. For several hundred thousand years, perhaps longer, as humans evolved in hunting and gathering social units, men and women were far more egalitarian in their relationships than what emerged with agricultural and pastoral societies. That hunting and gathering time framework has been a far longer human condition than what supplanted it. 

And now we have a kaleidoscopic set of societies with egalitarian relationships re-emerging, partly from the mobility of individuals in a more open society, partly from the needs in ruptured society (for example, WWII left open positions for women when men were no longer available and away at war), and partly from the demands for equality. 

In Hollywood moviedom, we have the video game become scifi movie Resident Evil with Milla Jovovich as the "reigning queen of kick butt." There's Angelina Jolie as the powerful female anthropologist (stronger than Indiana Jones?) as Lara Croft. Strong female characters abound on television as well.

Compared with Hollywood imagery, we might consider several patriarchal-oriented societies.

In Latin American culture, with obvious roots in Spanish and Portuguese culture, including of course Mexico, we run into the words macho and machista. (The Nahuatl word macho was gender neutral for leader or exemplar while the Iberian word emphasizes the masculine.) Does one - especially the female artist - pity the women who is dominated in Latino culture? Or should we expect an aspiration - such as in the work of Panca - of becoming a strong woman (which has a variety of expressive terms in Spanish, including machorra, machorrita,

brava, valiente, macha, machita, arpia, cabrona, hija de la chingada and possibly amachada, and likely many more and not always with respect)

In another male-dominated ideology, Fatima Mernissi  describes the struggle of Muslim women, particularly in Arab male culture. Mernissi (in Beyond the Veil) notes that Christianity's development debased sexuality and the ways of the flesh; by contrast, she argues that Islam debases women (representing fitna or chaos as an anti-social force): "The Muslim order faces two threats: the infidel without and the woman within. 'The Prophet said, After my disappearance there will be no greater source of chaos and disorder for my nation than women.'" (quoting Abu Abd Allah Muhammad Ibn Ismail al-Burhari, Kitab al-Jami as-Salih).  Other Muslim women have contested this male gender-dominated space, including Wafa Sultan, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, female Pershmerga fighters, and many others.

However, from Paola Villaseñor's world view - at least in this mural - it is not about patriarchal societies or even Hollywood fictional characters.  

Rather, the sense of a woman's strength seems to harken back to those dark biological urges that may be shared with black widow spiders, praying mantis and other species in which the female devours the male as part of a sexual cannibalism. This is the female strength that dominates the mural. A psychology that is more about primal screams more than about higher levels of self-actualization.

A handful of interviews
Would I have had a CAT Scan that could read visitors thoughts and feelings as they gazed upon the mural. No such technology, not yet.

Instead, I decided to ask a grab-sample of visitors as they embarked down the stairway. Most had no idea what they were looking at; their focus was not on the details. Once I gave them the title of the image and explained what was going on in the image, their eyes refocused on the image and all decided they liked it. Hmmmn?  I wasn't getting any 'I'm offended' responses. 

One set of four visitors - a mother and her two children, about 4 and 9, and her mom - had come from Utah. After explaining what the image was about, I asked the mom whether she was reluctant to have her two daughters view it: "We're Mormon and we are pretty conservative. But this is a painting and I want my girls to see different styles in art." 

Visitors to SDAI / "I want my girls to see different art styles"
So much for presuming what responses artwork has. The reality in this instance was first of all, a general ignoring of what the subject matter was; second, there was a more uniform appreciation than I had expected; and third, pigeonholing some viewers as likely to object to a provocative subject simply because of what one might expect in their holding of conversative versus liberal values or being parents and having young children present. 

As Paola’s father and I watched her finish her mural working above us on a lift, I asked him what his thoughts were about her success.   Hector  Manuel Villaseñor:  "I feel pride about her work, both with the negative remarks as with those in admiration for what she has painted, and what she is painting in this very moment. Her family and I believe that she has achieved something very interesting and important in her career."

I plan on asking more visitors what they thing and, if you come by, play the devil's advocate and ask others coming in what they think. Could be a useful thought experiment. 

Of course, this limited sample does not substitute for a more thorough going discussion of artistic freedom versus the boundaries of community values in deciding what ought to be exhibited, especially at public institutions. I've discussed this elsewhere.

Time to go and view The Savagery of Women at the San Diego Art Institute. It will greet you at the entryway into the contemporary world of art by (primarily) regional artists. Through March 30, 2015.

Update (3/16/2015):  After the mural has been up for several months, there has been further comments, especially in relation to visits by school classes:
More important than the artistic considerations is the poor judgment shown in choosing artwork depicting cannibalism as the entry piece which greets every visitor. Visitors make constant complaints about the mural and often shield their kid’s eyes as they enter the Gallery.

Because of complaints from parents about the subject matter of the lobby mural, organized group visits to SDAI by school children in grade 6 and below have been curtailed. Visits by groups 7th grade and above requires written permission by parents. This makes it hard to carry out the education component of SDAI’s mission and harms our reputation in the community.

Comments (12/3/2014):

I saw the beginnings of this when I stopped in to check out the C-note exhibit. My first thought was that it didn't seem to fit with the rest of the exhibit. It was far more interesting than the rest of the work in the gallery. I wasn't sure what it was about but expected that there was more to come. Gene Wild

I normally can't comment much on your reviews because of your focus on photography, but since you're delving into painting...  I'm pretty impressed by the start of this mural by Panca. It's risky in multiple ways for the Art Institute to allow it on the walls. Tourists and families aside, I think the main reaction of interest would be from the members of SDAI themselves (I don't think the muralist is a member). One of the best things at the Hammer near UCLA is the lobby, which is repainted quarterly. Projecting on the walls would not be nearly as effective as color, texture, incorporation of the space, etc. of actual painting/drawing/collaging on the walls. Plus a projection can be turned off if someone wants to delete the artwork. I feel the same about the large printouts in La Jolla ─ just not the same as actual work. So many muralists and street artists in SD could do wonderful things in these spaces.  Good for Ginger, continuing to shake things up in Balboa Park. And thanks as ever for your continued writing about art in San Diego.  Anna Stump

"The Savagery of Women" is both daring and frightening. Exceptional art. What are those women eating? I am afraid to ask. Don Archer

A great read and super analysis. Glad SDAI is utilizing that wall space and your idea of recreating smaller images [see art blog on What if] is a super add on for the artists although as you say the logistics of doing it that big is another matter. Projection wouldn't be the same I guess. I re-posted your first blog article on my FB if you don't mind. I personally am getting a bit bored with the transborder/mural BOX for discussion. Old school too much. Murals should become three dimensional. It's like people who still try to paint as impressionists. And the border discussion seems overused.  Jim Bliesner

I'm glad to see you are still trying to light fires in the San Diego art community. In fact, what comes across most in this blog is the sense of wonderment (perhaps disappointment) that this mural did not raise more hackles than it appears it did. You did not mention anyone that actually objected to the work. If this is true then we have to consider how much the world is changing. One aspect that you may have overlooked is how this mural plays into our current debate as to whether or not the Marines will allow women into its killer elite corp. Or, don't forget the Donner Party, America's own contribution to the cannibal mythos. In which, we can imagine men eating men while relegating the women only to perhaps preparing the gruesome meal, but not partaking. Sequester back in the kitchen, sneaking a nibble just to maintain their womanly measure of strength and female dignity. This also makes me think of another myth that we may be hearing more about leading up to the next presidential election, that being the understanding that the world would be a better place if it were run by women. This mural seems to defuse that unlikely notion to a good degree.  As to the other blog, I see installation of wall size paintings on a regular basis in that stairwell area to have big draw backs as to visitor flow and the introduction of possible walking hazards and insurance concerns. But, let's not overlook a digital answer in the form of huge video screens displaying imagery of all sorts. Therein seems to be an idea worthy of a fundraiser and a new position at the gallery for a digital media co-ordinate.  JD Jarvis

I have been enjoying your blogs on the new SDAI entryway mural. I read the commentary based on your interviews in the gift shop. I like your attitude of reporting various reactions, and, for the future, the suggestion of projection alternatives.  You are doing a great job of investigating public reaction. But, I'm thinking that with direct questioning and quoted reaction, some people are embarrassed and are not giving you a true impression. When asked, for the record, it seems people have been rather hesitant, but thoughtful and positive. Even I, as a 25-year friend and volunteer of SDAI, would not necessarily like to be quoted on my opinion. I think the mural is welcome free speech and has a worthy commentary on society, but is in the wrong space. Another screening method would indicate different opinions!  Several friends and I attended the December Nights event Friday and stopped by SDAI. [Ed. note: I agree that other ways of getting reactions are helpful to a broader discussion.] When one "investigates" as a "fly on the handrail," just listening, the commentary and impressions were apparently honest, and very hostile. What we overheard was a completely different "review" from what I read on the blog. The reactions of shock and negativity were very different from what was in the blog. Reason number one:  Generally, the location and scale of this mural is inappropriate, and ill-serves the rest of the gallery, if only as the first impression of what the contents of the gallery below might be. Using that space is a great idea, but the mural must have cost a lot of money for its execution. Reason number two: The timing of display of this mural is totally inappropriate, and very poor judgmentthe holiday season, with the park packed with people in a holiday spirit. As in the past, SDAI was open for the hoards of people, including children, who passed through all of the museums.  For several years, SDAI even had a Santa. -S-

The author was, at one time, a 'border expert.' Here is one path to follow in understanding the place referred to as the U.S.-Mexico border:  Transboundary Environmental Problem Solving:   Social Process, Cultural Perception, Natural Resources Journal 26:793 - 818;"Border Development and Border Cooperation," U.S. International Communication Agency, American Participant Program. Talks given at the Colegio de Mexico, Secretaria de Agricultura y Recursos Hidraulicos, Secretaria de Asentamientos Humanos y Obras Publicas‑‑Direccion General de Ecologia Urbana, Instituto Tecnologico in Monterrey and Cd. Juarez, Universidad Autonoma in Monterrey; and other such experiences.

1 comment:

  1. Having lived in "America's Finest City" for over 20 years, watched Chicano Park become a reality, enjoyed the murals and all, I wish I could be there to support this woman's fine work. Thank you Jim Bliesner for sharing on face book.


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