María Izquierdo was a female Mexican painter born in 1902. A student of Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo, Izquierdo devoted her life to making and experimenting with art. Her subject matters varied, containing women, shrines, and animals. 

Despite the fact that her style somewhat resembled surrealism, Izquierdo did not identify her work as such. The defining feature of her work is in fact its inability to be categorized. Izquierdo rejected labels and instead explored subject matter and themes that interested her. She embraced traditional Mexican culture and incorporated such images into her art. For example, she would paint women wearing traditional Mexican clothing, or images of the country side and religious icons. Distinctive folk elements mark her work. 

Compared to her contemporaries Leonora Carrington or Remedios Varo, Izquierdo had a different stance on feminism. As visible in her artwork, she took greater interest in depicting the traditional role women had in families. She was fascinated by how modern women continued to perpetuate traditional Mexican customs and their role in families. Consequently, the female subject dominated her art. In her self portraits, she portrayed herself either alone or with family.

My nieces, 1940, Maria Izquierdo

Much like how she rejected the political, national identity of the Muralists during her time such as Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, Izquierdo also rejected labels such as ‘surrealist’ and ‘feminist’ for her works. An independent-minded artist who refused to follow the sociopolitical and artistic inclinations of her time, María Izquierdo was in her own right a groundbreaking figure and paved the way for future for female artists.

Paisaje con pina,1953, Maria Izquierdo
Outside Frida’s home – the Blue House

Coyoacán is a quiet neighborhood in Mexico City marked by colorful houses. On a corner of Londres Street, stands what looks like, from the outside, an unassuming house, remarkable at first glance for its lovely blue color. It is La Casa Azul, the house where the Mexican muralist Diego Riverra and Mexican painter Frida Kahlo lived together as husband and wife.

Coyoacán

Frida Kahlo is one of the most famous Latin American artists, perhaps the most famous female artist in the world. 

Most people know her for her self-portraits and life of physical pain. As a child, Kahlo endured a bout of polio that left one of her legs shorter than the other. At age eighteen, she suffered a traffic accident in which her ribs and several bones were fractured and resulted in lifelong physical pain.

Kahlo paid great attention to traditional Mexican art, using it as inspiration for her work and incorporating images of the Mexican house and domestic life in her pieces. She embraced the traditional folk art of her country and even collected pieces including pottery by other artists with her husband Diego Riverra, which can be viewed in the kitchen of La Casa Azul

Most interestingly to me, Kahlo painted portraits of herself, emphasizing the female form and sexuality. Her choice to make herself the art shows how Kahlo rather than rejecting the societal roles of women, which were limited-in-scope at the time, uplifted and embraced them. Instead of turning away from painting the everyday aspects of domestic life which was then women’s domain, Kahlo built her art around it. 

Inside the Blue House

British-born painter, writer and sculptor Leonora Carrington was considered one of the last of the original surrealists. She was a member of a rare trio of Mexico-based female surrealists along with Frida Kahlo and Remedios Varo. She was also part of a famous wave of artistic and political emigres who arrived in the male-dominated realm of surrealism in Mexico during the 1930s and ’40s.

British-born painter, writer and sculptor Leonora Carrington was considered one of the last of the original surrealists. She was a member of a rare trio of Mexico-based female surrealists along with Frida Kahlo and Remedios Varo. She was part of a famous wave of artistic and political emigres who arrived in the male-dominated realm of surrealism in Mexico during the 1930s and ’40s. Outside of art, Carrington was also politically active, becoming a founding member of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Mexico. Her works feature her bold exploration of depicting female sexuality, the female body, and the role of women in creative processes.

Her pursuit of these topics can be seen in Carrington’s works which contain food imagery. Such food-related imagery, which includes spaces such as kitchens, can be found not only in the works of Carrington, but other artists such as Varo and Frida Kahlo’s as well. Traditionally, women have managed food-making and so the kitchen is often viewed as the domain for women, and food as part of that domain. Food thus seems to take on a unique feminine, and even feminist, meaning in artwork: it connects the usual divide between ‘artistic creation’, a feat usually assigned to men who typically work away from family, and home, the domestic space associated with women.  

This point female artists such as Carrington make in including food-related imagery in their works is an illuminating nod to the lives and gender roles most women at the time had to fulfill, while simultaneously challenging the notion that women cannot create art because they are limited by the confines of a home. 

Through her artistic and political endeavors, Carrington pushed beyond the gender boundaries of her time, and her independent exploration and interpretation of female sexuality in surrealism makes her a trailblazer in her own right. 

Why are there so few ‘great’ female artists?

Today, I headed to Museo de Arte Popular, a Mexican folk art museum near Centro Histórico. The museum consists of three levels, showcasing pieces from pottery to sculptures to textiles. 

I personally found the exhibit of Mexican textiles to be the most captivating and enlightening. I learned about the process through which Mexicans traditionally make clothes, from finding raw materials for dye to spinning and weaving fabric on a loom, and saw the handmade huipil, a loose dress, and telar, a loom with a cloth still in-progress, all of them done in a variety of styles and colors and made in different states. 

Image from Museo de Arte Popular

 

Image from Museo de Arte Popular
Image from Museo de Arte Popular
Image from Museo de Arte Popular

Production of textiles traditionally has been the job of women and girls. To say that the task is demanding and painstaking is no exaggeration. Producing the dyes for clothes is itself already an undertaking. For example, to obtain indigo, they needed to dive into the sea and find the mollusk Plicopurpura pansa which secretes the color; to obtain red, they had to scrape cochineal  off of cacti and harvest them.

One of the questions that urged me to travel here to Mexico is why there are so few famous female artists. I think that the answer lies partially in this textile exhibit. The things that girls and women devoted so much time and energy into making such as textiles are not what people generally consider fine art. The amount of time, effort, and skill that is invested into them is no less than the amount in the pieces we consider fine art, yet while the names Picasso and Warhol are passed on generation after generation, the female weavers remain nameless, having never had the chance to even fade into obscurity in the first place. We tend to take for granted the hard work that goes into everyday items like textiles, overlooking their beauty and value which go beyond that of a famous name and hefty price tag at art auctions.

Still, the intricacy, individuality, perseverance behind each of Mexico’s traditional textiles and the cultural longevity of them, to me at least, is a mark of not just fine art— but great art.

During the later half of July in Oaxaca, colorful posters, live bands, and an overall air of festivity denotes the coming of Guelaguetza— an annual cultural event where different ethnic groups in Oaxaca perform in an outdoor auditorium to showcase their indigenous cultures through dance, dress, and food.

I went to the 10:00 am festival on the 22nd. The whole stadium was packed. All 11,000 seats were occupied and many people had arrived hours in advance, waiting in long lines that wound down along the mountain, to get a seat in sections C and D. 

The festival opens with the honoring of the goddess of corn Centéotl. A few days prior, a contest is held in which participants are tested on their knowledge of clothing, customs, and traditions. The winner is vested as the goddess and presides over the first activities of the Guelaguetza and walks among the audience.

Afterwards, each group performs, dressed in the clothes of their indigenous community and using dance to express everything from the groom bringing the bride’s family gifts prior to marriage to the conquest of the Aztecs to honoring Saint Peter. 

The Guelaguetza has been taking place since before the Spanish conquest of Mexico and so the preservation of indigenous cultures while integrating some Christian elements brought by the Spanish made for a diversity and character of each of the performances which was truly special to see. Every performance was energetic and unique, showcasing the richness of the respective group’s culture. 

What is even more special about Guelaguetza is that it goes beyond the dance performances that occur at the auditorium, encompassing the performances, and dissemination of traditional food, dress, and handcrafts happening in the city center and surrounding regions. 

The most extraordinary part of Guelaguetza is that it preserves indigenous customs and traditions and, in doing so, preserves the age-old art of ethnic groups in Oaxaca— similar to the way we put famous pieces on the walls of museum, only Guelaguetza is not just something to look at and admire from afar. Rather, it is a cultural exchange in which anyone can partake and, through doing so, truly appreciate the ways of different ethnic groups which have been passed down, generation through generation.

Exhibit: Colección Abierta Patrimoniales

Women artists were among the avant garde artists in that national reconstruction period. Those women artists include Frida Kahlo, Maria Izquierdo, Lola Cueto, Tina Modotti, Lola Alvarez Bravo, and Rosario Cabrera.

Frida Kahlo
Cucrucholin Theatre_1940_Lola Cueto
Lola Cueto in Munal

Tina Modotti, Lola Alvarez Bravo

Maria Izquierdo, Rosario Cabrera

New democracy 1944, 5.50 x 11.98 m, David Alfaro Siqueiros
Birth of our nationality, 1952, Rufino Tamayo
Mexico today 1953, Rufino Tamayo
Katharsis or The eternal fight of humanity for a better world

The Casa Lamm Cultural Center is one of the best known landmarks in Mexico city.  It hosts numerous exhibits throughout the year.