Mexico and its people have scarcely been out of the news all year. Western media interest has tended to focus either on the wetbacks, economic migrants crossing the Rio Grande into the United States, or on the endemic violence in the country associated with the warring drug cartels. As the year draws to a close two new narratives have opened.
Cancun is hosting the fifth Ministerial Conference on Climate Change whilst Shoreditch Town Hall is hosting 400 Women, an openly feminist exhibition, “a political statement against gender violence,” featuring the portraits of young Mexican women, all the victims of abduction or of savage and brutal murders, committed over the past twenty years in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez.
The two events, the international conference and the art exhibition, perhaps share more than a common link with Mexico. Each has at its heart a pressing global crisis – violence against the planet and violence against women — whilst the city of Juarez, itself, is not only the epicentre of Mexico’s drug war (and the most violent zone in the world outside of a declared war zone, according to its own local newspaper), but also one of the fastest growing cities in the world, doing its bit to pitch the planet over its tipping point, with a population of over 1.5 million, a growth rate of 5.3% a year and a carbon footprint to match.
The drug war, in the context of a city of both poverty and rapid population and industrial growth, has created an environment in which anarchy and violence thrive. Juarez is the murder capital of the world and amongst the almost three thousand murder victims a year, a significant group is that of girls and young women between the ages of 12 and 22.
Some were students; most were maquiladora or factory workers. In many cases there were signs of rape, torture and disfigurement. Few, if any, of the murders have been solved and few perpetrators brought to justice. The significant number of young women amongst the murder victims has led many observers, including the organisers of the exhibition, to see them as the victims of ‘femicide’ or gender crime, crimes committed against women because of their sex.
It is gender crime on which the exhibition focusses. An official figure for sexual homicides was given as 400 in 2006. The number has become symbolic — there have been at least another 300 abductions or murders of young women this year.
The exhibition 400 Women is the result of a project conceived and developed by the artist, Tamsyn Challenger, after a visit to Mexico in 2006. It was then that she met Consuelo Valenzuela, the mother of Julieta Marleng Gonzalez Valenzuela who went missing in 2001 when she was 17. The bundle of crumpled, poorly produced, postcard portraits of her daughter that Consuelo pressed into Challenger’s hands became the catalyst for the 400 Women project.
It has taken till now, a labour of largely solitary love and political commitment lasting almost five years, for Challenger to navigate through the complex logistics of finding artists, sponsors and locations and put on the show. Over two hundred artists were approached. The brief was to use one of the photographs that Challenger had collected from the relatives of the victims or, perhaps, little more than the name and a description, and produce a portrait of uniform size, around 14 by 10 inches, reflecting the retablo or alterpieces familiar in catholic churches throughout Mexico, that would give a voice to the dead.
The venture has succeeded on very many levels. The art, all one hundred and seventy five portraits, are a remarkable record of a crime, not just against the women of Juarez but against humanity. They are a testament both to the individual creativity of the artists and to the selfless, collaborative commitment of the artistic community to a humanitarian cause — few of the works are signed, and all have been donated to the project, which was important for Challenger since, in her words, “[it] is a singular conceptual work utilising many voices. The idea has always been reliant on a mass collaboration”.
As one of the artists involved in the exhibition, Ian Parker, told me, his portrait of Margarita Ruiz Chapparo, should not be seen as a stand alone art work but rather as an element in a much larger art installation. To maintain the integrity of the work it will be sold only in its entirety and not piecemeal, and the bulk of the proceeds of the sale will go to women’s groups in Mexico and other gender violence campaigns.
Political art needs to reach out beyond the confines of the East End of London and Hoxton Square; publicity is a necessary condition for its success. If no one knows you’ve done it then it can’t make any difference. The curator of the exhibition, Ellen Mara De Wachter, with the support of celebrity artists and the long arm of Amnesty International, has certainly achieved success in media coverage.
The serious press in the UK and BBC TV’s cultural review programme have made the work known nationally and the World Service of the BBC has reported on the exhibition. The show also features in the magazine of the Amnesty International organisation.
Amnesty collaborated with the artists in promoting the exhibition and has a campaign called Demand Justice for the Women in Juarez. The campaign involves members of the public sending postcards to the Mexican president, Felipe Calderon, urging the Mexican government to comply with the ruling of the Inter American Court of Human Rights to fulfill its judicial obligations and bring to justice those responsible for the crimes and take immediate and comprehensive steps to end gender-based attacks on women and girls in Ciudad Juarez.
Lest we imagine that Mexican women are all victimhood and oppression and ours is the ‘white man’s’ burden to save them, it is worth recording other narratives that place Mexican women at the heart of feminist discourse. Marisol Valles is a twenty-year-old student in Ciudad Juarez who in October this year became the police chief of a nearby town. Hailed as “Mexico’s bravest woman”, she took the job in Praxedis Guadalupe Guerrero, a no-man’s-land close to the Texas border, after no one else would.
According to reports in the US press, she wears pink nail varnish, refuses to carry a gun and has recruited a number of new police officers, mostly women. “I’m taking the risk because I want my son to live in a different community to the one we have today”. she told reporters. “Let’s see what a woman can do. Things can’t get any worse.” was typical of local responses.
In Juarez itself local women have not sat on their hands but have formed the Civil Association for the Return Home of our Daughters. The group has campaigned to raise awareness of their plight and to put pressure on the Mexican government to carry out effective investigations and to bring justice to the families of the missing and the dead. It is this organisation that will benefit when the art work finds a buyer.
The greatest hope for justice in Juarez might come from the involvement of the US President, after the murders of three people associated with the United States Consulate General in Ciudad Juárez, back in March. A statement issued by the US National Security Council reported that President Obama, as well as expressing concern for the safety of US personnel, “shares in the outrage of the Mexican people at the murders of thousands in Ciudad Juárez and elsewhere in Mexico”. The statement goes on to say “We will continue to work with Mexican President Felipe Calderón and his government to break the power of the drug trafficking organizations that operate in Mexico and far too often target and kill the innocent.”
We have to hope that the geopolitical clout of the United States, together with a campaigning organisation like Amnesty International, the arts community of the UK, in the form of 400 Women, and the women activists of Juarez will be enough to make a difference.