As Risa Puleo explains in her penetrating essay published in The Union for Contemporary Art exhibition’s catalog, since 2011 Nancy “has been writing a visual novel that takes form as paintings, sculptures, and installations” (n.p.). Comparably to the forty narrators that Bolaño deploys in The Savage Detectives to tell his story, “the artist’s goal is to reveal multiple perspectives surrounding contemporary circumstances … disentangled from their colonial histories” (Puleo n.p.).
Chapter 5: River combines paintings and an installation. Two series of paintings on black Tyvek cover opposing walls. One of them is River; it shows a baroque landscape with flowers, trees, and lace inspired designs, as well as a river where we can see piles of trash, used tires, and even cars and roofs, suggesting not only contamination but also a flood. The lace designs, drawn from a Smithsonian collection of American colonial women’s handcrafts rarely on display, are an act of recognition of women’s work as well as the artist’s attempt to correct gaps in the institutional memory which decides what artifacts are worthy —or un-worthy—of being shown.
The second series of paintings consists of six drawings called Casta Paintings. Each depicts the silhouette of a woman, standing in the posture required by the TSA control machine at the airport; the inside of each woman’s body is covered with flowers; an indigenous mask covers each face, and the top of each head is adorned by a colonial Spanish comb and a traditional shawl. Between River and Casta Paintings stand six tabletops on sawhorses, where the installation Crisoles is displayed. It references pre-Columbian pots used to melt gold, silver, and copper, later used by African slaves brought to South America in the 16th century. Their arrangement evokes the way in which they were displayed in the National Museum of Bogotá, where Nancy first got to encounter these artifacts (Puleo n.p.).
Chapter 5: River could be read from many starting points. The three distinct spaces it is articulated into seem to posit the “where”, “who”, and “what” of a story we, as readers, are enticed to reconstruct. I’d like to chart a possible way of teasing out its narrative.
For me, Chapter 5 speaks of the intrinsic violence that structures our region’s societies and worldview, imposing a devastating ecological impact. As such, Chapter 5: River is a meditation on the here and now. I see it as a delicate balancing act in which Nancy juxtaposes Latin America with the U.S., the degradation of the environment with art degraded to un-recognition, and the imprints of Empire with the persistence of pre-Columbian indigenous cultures across the continent. In this way, the flooded river which doubles up as a landfill, the forgotten collections of lace, the marks of Spanish and American colonialism, the silhouettes, the indigenous masks, and the crisoles are all part of a complex, contradictory whole.
Sociological research shows us how violence operates as a multi-layered process, which at its most insidious is subconscious and invisible, and uses us –its victims—as its enforcers. This is what Slavoj Zizek calls objective violence, the one inherent to our “normal” state of things, sustaining “the very zero-level standard against which we perceive something as subjectively violent” (2). Or what Pierre Bourdieu called “symbolic violence”, referring to internalized humiliations and legitimations of inequality and hierarchy, such as sexism, racism and class power (quoted in Menjívar 43).
Maybe because I cannot read Nancy’s Chapter but through the lens of my own concern and current research on gender violence in Latin American literature, I want to emphasize the centrality of the female subject in this piece. In Chapter 5, the overarching presence of flowers against an ominous black background underscores violence against the female: female subjects, represented by the silhouettes of Latinas; female work, evoked through the references to Colonial American lace patterns and indigenous clay vessels; and nature itself, feminized by the logic of extreme profit fundamentalism to become the ultimate recipient of domination. The river as a dumpster and a womb. Flowers, typically handled by women whose docile and gentle hands are favored by the flower industry. In Nancy’s native Colombia, this industry exports over 1 billion dollars annually, mostly to the U.S.; coincidentally, the flower industry was spearheaded 50 years ago by a team of experts from the University of Nebraska: the Nebraska Mission to Colombia (Conlon).
In Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, each narrator tells their personal version of events, starting at whichever point in time is subjectively relevant; the readers gain a more complex understanding of what happened, provided they become actively involved in making sense of the story. Likewise, Chapter 5 invites us to move back and forth across its three sections to uncover the references, times, and voices they each evoke and thus reconstruct the tale. It is a tale anchored in the past but still unfolding.
From this vantage point, the river serves as a powerful metaphor for the continuities that braid together the past experiences of Spanish Colonial subjects in the Americas and those of their descendants today, thus unmasking what we could call, with Edelberto Torres-Rivas, “structural violence” (49). As a form of human suffering which results from exploitative labor relations, and inequalities, structural violence is part of historical processes, and systematically exerted by no one in particular, a consequence of our social and economic structure (Menjívar 29-30). Across from the river, which is shown both as a nurturing Mother and as the contaminated, agonizing victim of advanced capitalism, the six women stand. They are just shapes, female silhouettes hosting flowers in their insides. They are also Latina, like the actual women who accepted Nancy’s invitation to lie down on black Tyvek and have their bodies traced. The act of tracing captures the intimate moment when a woman, lying on the floor, surrenders to a chalky scratch demarcating who her body is. Respectful of the women’s intimacy and of the power of their voice, in most cases Nancy avoided outlining their silhouettes herself. Nevertheless, the TSA positioning of the figures marks them as immigrant and subjected to control. As opposed to the flowers, which cross borders unimpeded, the women who grow them are stopped. Only capital flows.
Chapter 5 goes beyond confining the women to a U.S. American “Latina” or immigrant identity. Using an assortment of Latin American indigenous masks, and Spanish peinetas y mantillas (combs and veils), Friedemann-Sánchez speaks of identity as a beautiful, complex, multi-layered fact, which has been in the making since the Spanish first arrived in the Americas. Indigenous, Spanish, African, and, later, Chinese, German, Italian, Lebanese, Polish, Russian: identity in Latin America has been shaped by the push and pull of immigration waves, economic development, global politics, dreams, and wars. However, titling each panel with a category drawn from Colonial Spanish casta painting, a genre developed almost exclusively in Mexico in the 18th century by Mexican painters, the artist uses intertextuality to connect her women’s fluid Latin American, Latino American, or Latina identity with pre-existing racialized labels.
In this way, Nancy draws attention to the similarities between identifiers such as “morisca”, “parda”, or “china” from Spanish Colonial times, and current United States’ racial and ethnic definitions, like “Native American”, “White”, or “Other”. But because the artist is referencing a specific pictorial genre —which, as Thomas B. F. Cummins puts it, depicts “a fiction of racial discourse” (185)— and not the legal set of binaries between Indian, Spaniard, and African that was at the basis of racial construction in the Spanish New World, she is also hinting at the symbolic violence internalized by the local artists themselves, who reproduced the colonial values that constrained them. The fact that many of those casta names are terms still in use in the Spanish language and have in most cases kept their derogatory connotations (like “loba” or “pardo”) attests to the long-lasting effects of invisible violence, and its insidiousness as it speaks through our language and words.
Chapter 5’s Casta Paintings conflates the American border with outdated Spanish racial codes to emphasize a common gesture —power’s effort to control the fluidity of human becoming. How far is the century-old Spanish obsession with la pureza de sangre (purity of blood), an animating force of the Reconquest, the Inquisition, and the successful deportation of Jews and Arabs from the Peninsula in the 15th century, from the resurgence of nativist sentiment, discourse, and power in the American political landscape of today? The “us versus them” dichotomy, evident in the women’s body language, is to be associated with controls imposed on all of us, and which potentially make us all one of “them”. Moreover, as a theme, the border resonates in the spatial layout of the piece, which forces the viewer to walk across from one section to the other, thus opening the empty in-between spaces to a kinetic and experiential awareness of the frontier.
However, Chapter 5 insists on a broader, and more pervasive kind of oppression running both below and above border limits. A heightened perception of patriarchy’s imprint across time and space is one of the organizing principles in the piece. Creating a widespread semantic field, the artist explores both woman’s predicament and agency within a hierarchical structure that has inflicted violence on the female for thousands of years. With this, I intend to go back to my previous assertion about the centrality of the female in Chapter 5 to connect it with the artist’s locus of enunciation and with the Crisoles section.
If Nancy’s River succeeds in capturing unknown women’s embodied gestures and works, it is because she inhabits a fluid enunciating position. While incorporating the voice of other women and giving room to the viewer to reconstruct her narrative’s plot according to their unique inclination or instinct, it seems to me that the story in this Chapter can only be told because Nancy does so not from “within” one culture or subjective position but from “across” several: her being a Colombian, and an American; a daughter to an anthropologist mother and a mother passing on a cultural heritage to her daughter; a visual artist and a researcher; a listener and a speaker. From this locus, which involves translation beyond mere language as a frame of reference, she pulls others as participant co-creators of the piece while at the same time suggesting her own biographical unraveling of the story presented to the viewer. In this interweaving of emotional and conceptual materials, the River’s narrating “I” both emerges and is effaced.
As I have tried to articulate here, Chapter 5: River unmasks multiple levels of violence, some of them invisible, some exerted specifically on women. However, Friedemann-Sánchez very purposely strives to emphasize woman’s agency and empowerment —not by ignoring the patriarchal order that subjects her but by illuminating the interstices where woman has been and continues to be an agent of her own human-hood. This can be seen in River’s highlighting of the Colonial American women’s lace patterns held at the Smithsonian, and in the silhouettes from Casta Paintings, in which, by focusing exclusively on the female figures the artist has erased the male dominated family context at the center of the old Spanish Colonial genre. Likewise, Crisoles displays a work in progress, inserting Nancy and her own family history within the long struggle for women’s and indigenous rights. Thus, Crisoles speaks about the pre-Columbian cultures of the past who crafted the original clay vessels alluded in the installation, and about their European oppressors, the first from overseas to exploit indigenous work and knowledge, while simultaneously and quietly whispering a more intimate past story —Nancy’s childhood wanderings in Bogotá’s National Museum or accompanying her mother in fieldwork expeditions. If we consider that the tiny ceramic pots were made by Nina, the artist’s daughter, Crisoles also communicates a sense of the present as a will to endure and an awareness of what remains to be done. This is how Chapter 5: River flows into the future.
Bolaño, Roberto. Los detectives salvajes. Barcelona: Anagrama, 1998.
Conlon, Michael. “USDA Foreign Agricultural Service Gain Report”. Global Agricultural Information Network. Feb 6, 2015. Nov 1, 2017. https://gain.fas.usda.gov/Recent%20GAIN%20Publications/The%20Colombian%20flower%20industry%20and%20its%20partnership%20with%20the%20U.S._Bogota_Colombia_2-6-2015.pdf
Cummins, Thomas B.F. “Review of Casta Paintings: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico by Ilona Katzew; Imagining Identity in New Spain: Race, Lineage, and the Colonial Body in Portraiture and Casta Paintings by Magali M. Carrera”. The Art Bulletin. 88:1 (March 2008). 185-89.
Friedemann-Sánchez, Nancy. Chapter 5: River. 2017.
Menjívar, Cecilia. Enduring Violence. Ladina Women’s Lives in Guatemala. Berkeley: U of California P, 2011.
Puleo, Risa. “Chapter 5: River” by Nancy Friedemann-Sánchez. Catalogue. The Union for Contemporary Art. 2017.
Torres- Rivas, Edelberto. “Sobre el terror y la violencia política en América Latina”. Violencia en una sociedad en transición. San Salvador: Programa de Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo (PNUD), 1998. 46-59.
Zizek, Slavoj. Violence. New York: Picador, 2008.