Female Identities, Distances and Proximities in the South–South Dialogue

Andrea Giunta

I want to begin this essay with a series of piercing questions linked to the ways of narrating art history from modernity to contemporaneity in the Global South.1 Who produces the knowledge about it? Who writes its histories? Who curates its exhibitions? The questions, which run through the three exhibitions put on by the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation (JCAF), are urgent, especially in the case of women artists, still vastly underrepresented in the histories of 20th- and 21st-century art. Although this situation has begun to change, the collections of national museums, created when the idea of the avant-garde was associated with the male artist, have comparatively few works by women artists. And in this sense, even when active policies are pursued to diversify their collections, it is difficult to significantly transform them.

Modern art history is a story based on what has been done in a few European cities and one in the United States that define themselves as centres of the avant-garde. Everything that happened in other parts of the planet – which the centres define as peripheries – is considered subsequent and derivative. History shows, however, that, at least since the post-war period and during the Cold War, language innovation occurred simultaneously in many of the world’s metropolises. Here is an example: in the face of the hegemony of terms such as FLUXUS, which encompasses in its spirit what was done simultaneously, but independently, in different parts of the planet, the Basque artist Esther Ferrer, who was a member of the ZAJ movement founded in Madrid, parallel to and in contact with FLUXUS, emphasises simultaneity. If we are talking about originality, innovation or anticipation, we would have to say also that Gutai anticipated FLUXUS in the fifties, and that experimental movements were generated in different cities around the world: ZAJ in Spain, Vivo Dito in Argentina, Tribu No in Chile etc. Movements – including FLUXUS – that multiplied by resorting to some of the strategies that Dadaism and Surrealism had launched before the war, were articulated and transformed in different contexts. “Neo-Dadaism” has been used as an umbrella term to refer to these movements happening in different parts of the world at the same time. Contemporary historiographical criticism proposes terms such as “horizontal avant-gardes”2 or “simultaneous avant-gardes”3 in place of the narrative based on the idea of the dispersion and assimilation of Euro-American movements.

The JCAF programme, curated by Clive Kellner and the institution team, is inscribed in the perspective of the Global South. It does not focus on Euro-American styles but on problems that it addresses comparatively, thus making possible dialogues between artists who were not necessarily in contact with each other. I will return to this point later. The curatorial project was developed in three exhibitions that addressed the work of women artists from the Global South. My analysis seeks to articulate theoretical aspects that illuminate these exhibitions.

Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South was the first exhibition, presented by JCAF from 16 September 2020 to 20 January 2021. Focusing on the problem of the construction of identity in the present tense, this exhibition presented the work of five artists from different geographies. The topos – the central theme – dealt with ways of representing the body. What is the relevance of exhibiting these constructions? Since the 1960s, artistic feminism has been focused on the body. The political body. The word political here expresses not only the fact that many women artists put their very existence at risk by demonstrating in the streets, facing imprisonment and torture, or leaving their countries for exile. It also means that with their work they proposed a new grammar of bodies, a way of representation that broke the external, patriarchal and objectifying angle of vision that Laura Mulvey referred to in her classic 1975 essay analysing the representation of women in Hollywood cinema.4 In this new representation, the body was fragmented and interrupted, provoking a new semantic field. In these years, the aim was to approach the social and political construction of the body from the available body, the body as an autonomous field of action. Many artists used their own bodies (Yoko Ono, Carolee Schneemann, Shigeko Kubota, Esther Ferrer, Marina Abramović) not only for expressive reasons, but also because this was the legal territory for which they did not have to ask permission.

The body is the space of the social construction of gender, and it is also the territory of the negotiation of mixed, crossed identities that respond to diverse mandates. As Lorraine O’Grady has clearly expressed, belonging to various identities (metropolis/Caribbean) opened her gaze, placing her in a situation of constant negotiation and translation. One could compare her work to that of the Afro-Brazilian artist Aline Motta, a mixed-race woman who feels Black in Brazil but white in Nigeria, where she embarked on an artistic journey in which she questioned this identity.5

Aline Motta, (Outros) Fundamentos/(Other) Foundations #3 (2017–2019). © and courtesy Aline Motta

Working from the body as a field of mixed meanings involves opening up a wide and extremely rich semantic field, whose signifiers are to be found in the super-impositioning and mixing of cultures. It is necessary, however, to acknowledge different histories and agendas: apartheid and its violence in South Africa represent a different experience from the bloody and stigmatising legacy of slavery that rose out of and perpetuated various forms of racism in America. The discourse of segregation in the United States is different from that of apparent integration in Brazil and the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean.

“In the patriarchal and racist structuring of society, Black women in Latin America occupy the bottom of the social pyramid: as women, poor and Black, their struggle is situated in complex forms of social intersection.”

The violence of racism in the US was palpable during the pre-emptive and enforced social isolation established during Covid-19. It was clear that the Black population was more vulnerable to disease because of poor nutrition and overcrowded housing. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, pointed to the persistent targeting of Black bodies by police violence. Comparable scenarios can be seen in Latin America and the Caribbean, where racism structures power relations. We are not often going to find Black women or men in positions of power in Latin America, and when leaders emerge, as happened with Marielle Franco, they are often subjected to various forms of violence, including assassination, as in the case of Franco who was murdered in Rio de Janeiro on 14 March 2018. Although we often hear that there is no racism in Brazil, the emergence of the Movimento Negro (Black Movement) testifies to the contrary. In the patriarchal and racist structuring of society, Black women in Latin America occupy the bottom of the social pyramid: as women, poor and Black, their struggle is situated in complex forms of social intersection.

O’Grady and Motta both use the concept of bridging in their analysis of Black identity. O’Grady conceives of the Atlantic Ocean, the main route of slavery – called the Black Atlantic by Paul Gilroy6 and the Red Atlantic by the Brazilian artist Rosana Paulino7 – as a space from which to build bridges, to create zones, to generate positions from which to exchange with each other.

In Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South, the turn away from privileging of one species over another is notable in Bharti Kher, whose self-portrait is a fusion of her own face with the face of an ape, or in Wangechi Mutu, with her hybrid identity of woman-dragon figuring a new species. In the context of the fourth wave of feminism, which expanded between 2015 and 2017 in Poland, Argentina, Mexico and the United States, new concepts and theoretical frameworks were activated,8 such as the notion of the “cyborg” proposed by Donna Haraway, as well as her critique of anti-speciesism and her analysis of the patriarchal structures of the state.9 This moment was also linked to an ecological imperative, present in feminism since the 1970s, but reframed in the wake of the current depletion of the planet’s natural resources. From this frame of reference, feminism has also been linked to the indigenist turn, re-evaluating indigenous economies that are often managed by women, which propose a different relationship between humans and nature, between species. Such economies call for respect for the environment and denunciation of destruction like the deforestation of the Amazon in Brazil, the desertification brought on by the cultivation of avocado in Chile, the extraction of lithium on the border between Argentina and Chile, and the burning of wetlands in Argentina.

It could be argued that more than any other social movement, feminism has significantly expanded its agenda in the 21st century, generating extensive literature, and instigating massive mobilisations in the face of the femicides that continue unabated. This has made feminism a target for the international alt-right, which insistently attacks women and feminism. This can be seen, for example, in the attacks on American feminist theorist Judith Butler in São Paulo in 2017, who was characterised by conservative religious groups as a promoter of “gender ideology”.10 Such groups attack educational gender programmes that seek to transform patriarchal structures that condition violence against women.

In this context, the works exhibited at JCAF represent a “poetics of intervention” even when they do not carry a direct, militant, activist message.

In Berni Searle’s performance, for example, the white powder falling on her Black body suggests discrimination and the possibility of transformation. Her work can be compared to an equally powerful performance by Victoria Santa Cruz, an Afro-Peruvian artist,11 in which the experience of discrimination because of her hair and the colour of her skin, becomes a journey towards empowerment, an affirmation of her Black identity.

The works undoubtedly create figurations – images, that bring together various meanings. When Shirin Neshat shows the separation of men and women in religious spaces, when she covers women’s faces with writing and alludes to their social conditioning, she constructs a poetics imbued with political meaning. Figures that pass through spaces protected by the veil suggest the place of women in the complex interaction between East and West, Islam and Christianity, Iran and the United States. These figures occupy a zone of belonging and not belonging.

“In this context, the works exhibited at JCAF represent a ‘poetics of intervention’ even when they do not carry a direct, militant, activist message.”

Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South went beyond the geographical and cultural frameworks to which the artworks referred. In the exhibition, the body became the site of transformations, migrations and inscriptions, a literal and conceptual site in which intervention was possible and the symbolic space of individual artworks could be seen to be reflecting a range of social experiences. In these works the most recent feminisms are alluded to. They invoke not only the local cultural geographies to which they refer and in which they are inscribed, but also the larger socio-political landscape of Latin America, where violence and resistance are expressed with particular force. The power of the artworks is contained not only in their extraordinary poetry, but also in their presentation of the centrality of the body in an array of urban formations.

Let us go back to the geopolitics of the art world as a framework through which to consider the exhibition Liminal Identities in the Global South presented at JCAF from 29 June 2021 to 29 January 2022.

Latin America has been considered – by those in the supposed centres – as a peripheral area with respect to modern and post-war styles. In my critical analysis of colonial structures, however, I argue that this is the canonical version constructed from the emergence of art movements in some European and US cities. When we look at art spaces in different metropolises around the world, we observe simultaneities and even anticipations. It is, therefore, not surprising that the presence and the influence in Paris of the concrete and neo-concrete movements that emerged in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil are being studied today.12

In this context, we can also analyse the emergence of the anthropophagic movement in the 1920s in São Paulo, Brazil, a movement that, with the help of Oswald de Andrade and Tarsila de Amaral, expressed itself as both a written and visual manifesto. In the anthropophagic manifesto, the action of devouring the other is used to elaborate a powerful cultural metaphor. It refers to the acts of anthropophagy in which some Europeans were devoured by indigenous groups during the conquest of what we know today as Brazil. The relationship between European and Brazilian culture proposed by the modern movement in Brazil is not one in which Europe carries the culture and Brazil adopts it. It is, rather, one in which Brazilian culture devours and assimilates those aspects that may be useful to it in order to elaborate its own culture. Is this not, on the other hand, the movement that European culture made when it “devoured” African culture in order to elaborate cubism? If modern art in Latin America is peripheral with respect to European artistic movements, could we not argue that Europe is peripheral with respect to African culture, which it not only transferred to its anthropological and ethnographic museums, but also incorporated into the matrices of modern art in Europe? These are questions that we must ask from a decolonial perspective.

Only recently has it been possible in Brazil to re-evaluate the originality of Lina Bo Bardi’s architecture, as well as that of other women architects completely erased from the traditional histories of architecture. The discovery of more than 120 artists made possible by the exhibition I co-curated with Cecilia Fajardo Hill (Radical Women. Latin American Art, 1960–198513) was not, in fact, about discovering works that had never been seen before. It was, on the contrary, an unearthing of works that existed, that had been exhibited, had even been awarded prizes, but that when the histories of national art in Latin America were written, were erased, ignored. This exhibition made it possible to visualise the extent to which these artists had produced a profound iconographic shift, addressing grammars of the body that had never before been expressed in art. Working against the unification of the female body through the eye of male desire, they provoked the explosion of these bodies. These perspectives addressed female eroticism, motherhood, the relationship between consciousness-raising, empowerment and psychoanalysis, the relationship with the discourses of medicine, and the critique of the pathologisation of the female body. With this exhibition, we undertook the adventure of unveiling, analysing and understanding works for which there were no appropriate frameworks of analysis or exhibitions at the time. In addition, we were able to expand our knowledge of artistic languages and their intersections. These artists explored not only the traditional media of modernity – painting and sculpture – but also performance, video, installation and experimental film. And, of course, in the constellation of works brought to us by the map of America, the works of Brazilian artists after the 1960s were linked to singular and original Brazilian avant-gardes: anthropophagy, concretism, neo-concretism, Tropicália and Brazilian New Objectivity. These were original avant-gardes, not derivative, decentred or peripheral. And the same framework of analysis could be applied to the art of Africa, elsewhere in Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia.

The anthropophagic manifesto presented in JCAF’s exhibition proposed, as an alternative to the racialisation of art, a mixed-race model. It is also necessary to critically analyse, however, what this anthropophagic modernity represents for a Black artist. And here I follow the observations of the Brazilian artist Rosana Paulino. She points out that she does not feel represented by Brazilian modernism, which, although integrating the idea of the mestizo experience of Brazil, was an enlightened and white movement: for a descendant of slaves in Brazil, race, education and class represented limits in her relationship with modern movements,14 and most especially for women. Until recently, in relation to feminism, the expression of Black feminism was resisted in the Black community. If the right to work was part of the struggle for the women of second wave feminism, for Black women who had always worked, whether on the plantation or in domestic work, this was an alien agenda, especially since those who cleaned the houses of white women – of middle class, feminist activists – were Black women.

Certainly, the experiences of Black women in Latin America are different from the myriad experiences of African women. Kamala Ibrahim Ishag, a founding member of the Crystalist group (1976) in the post-independence period of Sudan in 1956, foregrounds her subjectivity as an African woman, a pioneer, a modernist. This is an example of what we call “simultaneous avant-gardes”.

Liminal Identities in the Global South had the virtue of addressing complex problems while avoiding simplifications. In this exhibition the structure in chapters allowed the transition from Tarsila de Amaral’s Abopuru, the emblematic painting of Brazilian modernity,15 to Lina Bo Bardi’s architecture, with its extraordinary observation of the popular aesthetics of northeastern Brazil. The exhibition also introduced the disease and the pandemic that ran through our lives and activities between 2020 and 2021. It did this through archival images of other plagues, from the 17th century to the influenza of 1918. Pandemic, contagion, care, masks. The sanitary masks from history, shown in the exhibition, had a clear link to Lygia Clark’s masks. This link acquired a meaning inscribed in the context of the pandemic no doubt quite different to what Lygia Clark evoked when she designed them. Anyone who has had the experience of putting on one of her masks will have been able to perceive that their function is not to protect against disease, but to provide new perceptual experiences. These masks alter our vision and hearing, and produce unexpected stimuli on the skin. Were these masks linked to the dictatorship in Brazil? Not directly, but indirectly they are, since they allude to the freedom of the senses, expression, perception, all of which Latin American dictatorships systematically sought to control. Bodies and thought were regulated by the surveillance of the repressive state. In such a context, Lygia Pape’s Divisor, also part of the exhibition, assumes a revulsive power. It alludes to the mass, to the grammar of bodies that Elias Canetti analysed so well.16 It refers to proximity and distance in the crowd, to people together but separated. It is an accurate visual metaphor for the difficulty of expressing oneself freely in public during the dictatorship.

Ana Mendieta’s silhouettes introduced a new dimension to the exhibition, a mobile, mutant geography. With her silhouettes Mendieta alludes to the homeland from which she was torn. The limit of her body on the earth defines a territory. When she rests on the earth she draws a body-map that she can install in different places. Mendieta’s work vibrates in the contemporary performances of the Afro-Brazilian artist Renata Felinto, who dances and defines her territory as that defined by her steps, her movements, in a public space in the city of São Paulo.17 In Mendieta and Felinto, the territory defined by the body is intertwined with that of diaspora. In Mendieta the diasporic condition is framed as the political relations between Cuba and the United States, and in Felinto’s case as the conditions that Brazilian society established for Afro-descendants. Politics, class and race indicate spheres of belonging and exclusion.

This sense of emancipation of a territory acquires another dimension in Kapwani Kiwanga’s Flowers for Africa in which the artist re-interprets the commemorations of African independence. How is memory constructed? In Flowers for Africa we can also see echoes of the memorials for the disappeared in Latin America. The networks between these two continents are beginning to be explored: the parallels, the simultaneities and the differences.18 The history of the bloody colonisation of the Congo by Belgium must be seen as parallel to the bloody history of colonisation and slavery in Latin America. These experiences of oppression suggest links in the international Pan-Africanist movement, connections between the various experiences of colonisation: the usurpation of Africa, and the conquests in America beginning in the 15th century. The ethnographic museums of Europe are proof of the plundering of both continents. This plundering is the focus of the repatriation movement that has begun in Europe, to return objects such as the Benin bronzes to their rightful owners.

The challenge that JCAF has taken on in Johannesburg – bringing together images from different territories with shared histories – is audacious but responsible. The third exhibition, Kahlo, Sher-Gil, Stern: Modernist Identities in the Global South (25 October 2022 to 22 February 2023) is a remarkable curatorial experience that turns the limitations of borrowing works into potential. The exhibition focuses on just three paintings, one by the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, one by Amrita Sher-Gil, who was born in Budapest but whose paternal family originated from India, where the artist lived in the last years of her life, and one by the South African artist Irma Stern, who studied in Germany but developed a body of work in Africa. Along with the three selected works (portraits and self-portraits), the exhibition gathers documents, diaries and photographs, which allow us to approach, understand and reflect on the complex situation of these artists.

The works of all three artists explore mixed heritages. In addition, all three lives are traversed by the complex histories of the countries in which they lived in the 1930s and 1940s, years of the affirmation of nationalist states, as well as of post-revolutionary and pre-revolutionary moments. How do the works of these three women fit into these complex contexts?

Frida Kahlo made her self-portrait the centre of her representations. She had, in her own image, the territory available to develop the relationship between self-portrait, body and emancipation to which I referred at the beginning of this essay. In the 1930s she and her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera, travelled to the United States. In a small painting, in which she also uses collage, she depicts her empty tehuana dress, suspended amidst images of Wall Street. This is a critical view of the world of finance, a pictorial view of capitalism, of the North Country.

Nickolas Muray, Frida, New York (1946). © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Sher-Gil’s paintings, which are dominated by interiors and portraits of women, do not deal with national or decolonial themes in an obvious way. They do not reflect feelings opposed to the British control that placed her country in the situation of domination, of subaltern identity, of British India in the structure of the British Empire.

South Africa was also under the domination of that empire and its conflicts, and Irma Stern’s father was imprisoned during the Anglo-Boer War. Her work is notable for its depiction of Black people with whom she came into contact in South Africa and on her travels elsewhere in Africa. She represented Black subjects in a way that suggests her disaffection with apartheid. Her travels between Europe and various African countries allowed her to develop images that seemed critical of segregation. As LaNitra M. Berger points out, the themes she addresses are not neutral; they involve contradictions that Berger tackles without erasing their problematic nature. Stern did not, for example, connect the experience of the Shoah with that of apartheid.19

Although Sher-Gil and Stern had European training, both felt themselves artists of their own countries, India and South Africa. Similarly in Kahlo’s work we see her observation of Mexican popular culture such as the tradition of ex votos, painted in metal by artisans and offered as thanksgiving for miracles performed by Catholic saints. Physically limited by injuries sustained in an accident, Kahlo produced small-format paintings in contrast to the vast surfaces painted by the muralists. This opposition, and the constant presence of her own image in her work, can be interpreted from a gender perspective. Her themes are not illustrative, like those found in Diego Rivera’s murals in which the customs and ways of life of the indigenous population are depicted. Kahlo mixes traditions, composing work in which different cultures coexist, mainly through their dress and ornaments. The representation of her own abortion or of a femicide announced in the Mexican press places her work in a bold position within feminist representations. Additionally, although her works do not present us with a half-human, half-monkey hybrid, as in some of Bharti Kher’s works, they do show a coexistence between the human and the animal, which is one aspect of the work that has interested contemporary feminist critics.

Amrita Sher-Gil’s travels and her discovery of 17th–century Rajasthani miniatures are important in her work. Trained in Europe, Sher-Gil finds the signs of her identity in India, an identity that she approaches with intimacy, portraying people close-up in domestic settings rather than alluding to larger political or nationalist narratives. Portraiture is the field from which she constructs an identity.

“The bringing together of artists from such different geographies and cultures in the exhibition programme allows us to address how female identities were constructed in distant but comparable spaces.”

The programme of exhibitions developed by JCAF approaches art history unconventionally: instead of analysing the genealogies evoked by the European avant-gardes, the exhibitions analyse the simultaneities between artists who were not in contact with each other. A comparativist perspective in art history needs at least two elements in order for the method to be sustained. The first lies in the existence of real links, contacts that existed between the artists under study. The term “contact zones”, proposed in 1992 by the Canadian researcher Mary Louise Pratt,20 is useful here, although Pratt is referring to the social space in which the culture of the coloniser and the colonised coexist. But nonetheless, the places in which these three artists performed can be defined as “contact zones”. In Mexico, India and South Africa there were such contacts between colonisers and colonised, between local thought structures and colonial structures that gave rise to cultural crossings. But when we refer to the Global South in the field of art, we also think of the contacts between artists from distant cultural and geographic spaces. I am thinking, for example, of those contacts established by abstract artists from Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Uruguay. These contacts, in the case of these three modernist painters, did not exist. But it is possible to sustain the comparisons through the observation and analysis of simultaneities. We have pointed out, in each case, some of these simultaneities. Sher-Gil, Kahlo and Stern share the fact that painting allowed them to establish a terrain of freedom in which they not only gave an account of the shaping of their own identities, as female subjects unmarked from the state, but also offered a singular view of their own countries and the delicate social and political experiences they were going through.

These three painters provide a picture of modernity, nationalism and the growth of their countries from an alternative angle. They do not portray the bourgeoisie, the powerful men, the heroes, as we see them in paintings made in the 19th century in the newly declared Latin American republics. They offer us a different vision from that so often painted – of cities, industry and national heroic deeds – and bring us closer to the portrait (or self-portrait) of singular subjects, captured in intimate domestic settings.

The bringing together of artists from such different geographies and cultures in the exhibition programme allows us to address how female identities were constructed in distant but comparable spaces. The proposal to exhibit their works provides extraordinarily rich ground for thinking about how the notion of the Global South is elaborated and how illuminating dialogues can be set in motion through a consideration of the concepts of distance and proximity.


Andrea Giunta is a writer, professor and curator. She received her PhD from the University of Buenos Aires, where she is a senior lecturer in Latin American Art and Contemporary Art. She is also a researcher at the Argentine National Scientific and Technical Research Council. Her recent books include The Political Body: Stories on Art, Feminism, and Emancipation in Latin America (University of California Press, 2023); Contra o Cânone (Nave, 2022); and Rethinking Everything (Delpire & Co, 2021). She has been a visiting lecturer at Humboldt University, Berlin; Columbia University; New York University; EHESS, Paris, among others. Giunta curated the León Ferrari retrospective (CCR 2004, Pinacoteca de São Paulo, 2006), co-curated Verboamérica (MALBA, 2016), Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985 (Hammer Museum, LA, Brooklyn Museum, NY, Pinacoteca de São Paulo), and was the Chief Curator of Biennial 12, Porto Alegre, 2020.


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How to cite this article:
Andrea Giunta (2024), "Female Identities, Distances and Proximities in the South–South Dialogue" in JCAF Journal: Interdisciplinary Knowledge from the South No. 1. https://jcafjournal.org.za/female-identities-distances-and-proximities-in-the-south-south-dialogue/. Accessed 16 July 2024.