Michael Dango on the art of Tania Candiani

ON A FRIDAY NIGHT in August 2019, Mexico City’s Angel of Independence received a makeover. The statue, long a meeting place for football fans and political protesters alike, was covered in neon-pink, green, and purple graffiti. Before, the inscription on the base of the bronze statue of a child and lion—who symbolize, according to the architect Antonia Rivas Mercado, “the Mexican people, strong during war and docile during peace”—read, La nación a los héroes de la independencia (The Nation to the Heroes of Independence). The black spray paint that occluded the inscription in August 2019 reads, MÉXICO FEMINICIDA. This was part of a resurgence of feminist activism in Mexico that came to be called the Glitter Revolution, after the pink glitter showered on the city’s security chief earlier that month in response to a police gang rape of a teenage girl. The action defacing a war memorial called into question what counts as a war when feminized people (and, by extension, other groups of marginalized and vulnerable “civilians”) are constantly targeted for abuse, rape, and murder. It also crystallized the central role of art and visual culture in the feminist movement against gender violence.

The revolution is documented in Mexico City–based interdisciplinary artist Tania Candiani’s series “Manifestantes” (Protesters), 2022. On massive canvases, Candiani embroidered, at roughly double human scale, silhouettes of women photographed shouting during protests throughout the world. The final canvases are sealed in an arresting red acrylic paint. When installed in a gallery at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo at the National Autonomous University of Mexico as part of an exhibition that ran from June to November 2022, the identically sized (about 118 by 55 inches) canvases, each with a different woman, invited viewers into the midst of a crowd, preserving the space of protest.

When I talked with Candiani, she cited the protests against police violence as the first moment in which people from different Mexican feminist factions—older and younger, punk and liberal—came together in collective rage. For her, this is also the importance of a surging activism against sexual violence throughout the world, but especially in Latin America. The first “Protester” she embroidered was based on a woman photographed in Brazil. In the installation, giving each woman a separate canvas but mounting them next to one another was a way to show difference and unity at once, with the basic physical fact of adjacency on a wall taking on a certain metaphorical resonance: The women are literally on the same plane. “They come from different places,” Candiani told me, “but all together they form one protest.” An avid reader of histories of science, Candiani has drawn inspiration from the originally collective process of making an atlas of the sky: It’s impossible to make one yourself, because you need the points of view of people from across the earth.

After the protests, the media predictably focused less on the rape that had incited them than on the “vandalism” through which demonstrators expressed their views and demands. By using embroidery, a craft traditionally associated with “women’s work,” Candiani allegorizes the transformation of women’s assigned social role into a political force. The bold reappropriation of domestic arts and media is a recurring theme throughout her art, as is the meeting of individual voice and collective activism. In her already expansive career, Candiani, who was born in Mexico City in 1974, has worked closely with communities throughout Mexico and beyond to visualize sites and forms of resistance. One of her early works, began in 2004, is a series of recycled mattresses embroidered with dialogue from porn movies and sex chat rooms from the United States and Central Europe. Her use of varied materials is a way of researching diverse traditions to create embodied theorizations of gender, class, and violence on both local and global scales.

An even earlier work, the 2003–2007 series “Protección familiar” (Family Protection), included domestic objects she had turned into battle gear, as well as photographs documenting her wearing them. In one, she wears a metal colander as a helmet, a leather strap securing it to her chin. The series also included Lanzadas (Spears), 2004–2007, an installation of dozens of brooms whose handles had been carved into points; the brooms were attached perpendicular to a wall like a military phalanx prepared to repel a charging enemy. Whether in Martha Rosler’s video Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975, in which the apron-clad artist’s repressed rage finds expression in her wielding of frying pans, a meat tenderizer, etc., or in Mona Hatoum’s giant steel cheese graters and egg slicers, feminist art has long explored the intersection of domesticity and violence—not just the patriarchal violence that erupts within intimate relationships but also the resistance of victims fighting back against abuse. What the spear installation suggests is the transformation of the utensils of “women’s work” into means of self-defense. The static weapons will pierce you only if you charge at them. And this is a self-defense that is collective.

When “Family Protection” was installed as part of the 2009 exhibition “Battleground: Tania Candiani and Regina José Galindo” in the Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), Candiani created a floor mat to accompany the phalanx. It reads, EXERCISE YOUR VULNERABILITY. Rather than a disavowal of the dependencies we all have— of the universal condition of no one being fully autonomous, of everyone needing other people and other things to survive—this is an invitation to turn exposure to harm into the ground for newfound and collective agency. In their 2020 book The Force of Nonviolence, Judith Butler asks, “What if the situation of those deemed vulnerable is, in fact, a constellation of vulnerability, rage, persistence, and resistance that emerges under these same historical conditions?” Butler is interested in public interventions, such as street protests, that are designed to “demonstrate vulnerability,” both in the sense of showing that one is vulnerable and in the sense of objecting to it. Candiani’s spears register this ambivalence. As in a bust chiseled from a block of marble, the carving of the handles into points shows that the form of resistance was always latent within domestic labor, lurking there, ready to be realized.

“Battleground” also denominated the El Paso/Ciudad Juárez borderlands, where at least 370 women had been murdered since 1993, the year before the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA allowed multinational organizations to import materials from the US, manufacture them into commodities in Mexico, and then export them abroad, all tax-free. This incentivized an explosion of maquiladoras, or foreign-run factories, in Juárez, where women—officially prized because of sexist stereotypes of nimble fingers and unofficially valued because they could be paid even lower wages—made up the majority of workers. Women migrated to Juárez from throughout Mexico. Once there, many became disconnected from networks of care and support, and all of them were rendered that much more susceptible to harassment or assault by bosses because they could be so easily replaced. They became vulnerable to violence.

The feminist anthropologist Rita Laura Segato has called the habitual femicides of Juárez an “expressive violence” through which murderers express their belonging to a larger fraternity or “mafia brotherhood.” (Segato’s 2006 La escritura en el cuerpo de las mujeres asesinadas en Ciudad Juárez remains untranslated into English, but a translated collection of other essays finally came out last year as The Critique of Coloniality.) Segato points out that the rise of transnational corporations has weakened the power of nation-states to control citizens, and their employment of women has diminished the power of the patriarchal family to control women. Underground economies, including drug and sex trafficking, proliferate in this context, enabled by transnational financing and banking, and “mafias” emerge to protect this “great submerged, underground, undeclared lake of capital.” Men, unwaged in the decimated formal economy, are initiated into the “corporation” of the mafia through violence. In this view, women are ritually sacrificed in order to facilitate entrance into the secret society of the para-state economy; murdered feminized bodies “indicate the position of what can be sacrificed for the sake of a greater good, a collective good, such as the constitution of a mafia brotherhood.”

The transnational complicity in these murders, figured really and metaphorically in the battleground of the borderlands, informed a community performance organized by Candiani (and documented in Kate Bonansinga’s 2014 book Curating at the Edge: Artists Respond to the US/Mexico Border) for the opening reception of the 2009 exhibition. Before the opening, Candiani held two workshops with college students, one at UTEP and another at the Autonomous University of the City of Juárez. Participants were trained to turn domestic objects into weapons, like the piercing brooms, and during the performance they stood their ground for an hour, armed, the El Paso group on nearby hills and the Juárez group in a classroom, live streamed back to the gallery space.

The binational performance both enacted and brought into relief the limitations of feminist solidarity across borders. As curator Kerry Doyle later reflected, “The students from Juárez couldn’t come here and the UTEP students couldn’t go to Juárez, so the virtual streaming of the performance was at first a pragmatic solution to this problem, but then it eventually developed into the central metaphor for the piece: the students in Juárez closed off in a room, sort of beamed in, which is the way that we get information about Juárez.” Although the students wielded the same weapons—domestic labor turned against its own conscription—multiple factors foreclosed prolonged and reciprocal collaboration: material and technological differences and, even more formidably, laws regulating the crossing of borders.

The static weapons will pierce you only if you charge at them. This is a self-defense that is collective.

More recently, however, the activist slogan “Ni una menos” (Not one less), coined in 1995 by the Mexican activist Susana Chávez Castillo in response to the femicides in Juárez, has reverberated throughout the Spanish-speaking world, first circulating as a hashtag that organized activists in Argentina in 2015 and soon spreading globally in the International Women’s Strikes that began on March 8, 2016. “It was said that Mexico was ‘Juarized,’” Segato says in La escritura, “and I believe that Argentina has been Mexicanized.” Moreover, she notes “the laboratory that Central America is for these issues can . . . guide us on how to stop the destruction of the popular project.”

Such a “popular project” has been the means and ends of much of Candiani’s work. The artist has consistently investigated how to draw from, resource, and foster communities and solidarities that provide care beyond the paternalism of the state or the so-called protection of gangs. This includes a reimagining of the border itself, as early as the 2008 installation Cierre Libertad (Securing Libertad), for which she installed a colorful, friezelike panoramic rendering of a kind of abstracted fantasy landscape on the Mexican side of the metal border wall running through the Libertad neighborhood of Tijuana. As the case of Juárez demonstrates, violence erupts when borders allow the flow of capital but not the flow of people, trapping workers to motor a larger transnational machine. The interpretive if not actual opening of that border provides a site for workers to come together, not as workers, but as a community in resilience.

Relations between labor and community informed one of Candiani’s larger installations, created in 2011, the year she received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Máquina telar (Loom Machine), 2011–12, was inspired by a textile factory in Cuenca, Ecuador, that still employs older workers to run a hand-operated Jacquard loom, a near-obsolete machine whose weaving is directed by chains of laced-together punch cards. Candiani made her own set of 460 cards to embroider the phrase HECHO A MANO (handmade) onto a label. A later installation of the loom in Mexico City added an electronic reader that converts the punched holes into sound; visitors were invited to crank the loom themselves. In doing so, they participated in a form of labor that had been rapidly replaced by electronic mechanization in the late twentieth century—a process made possible in part by the Jacquard loom itself, whose punch cards famously influenced the development of the computer.

Forgotten forms of labor are also given voice in the more recent Four Industries, 2020, a three-channel film of a women’s choir performing an a cappella score that captures what might have been heard on the factory floors of various industries—metal casting, meatpacking, printing, and woodworking—at the turn of the century in Cincinnati, where the film was shot in a historic brewery. Using the human instrument to mimic hammering, grinding, and chiseling reminds us that however mechanized (or “cognitive”) it becomes, labor is always fundamentally a product, and an exploitation, of the body. But the all-female choir also insists on expanding our sense of factory work beyond the men often centered in histories of union activism. Women have frequently been invisible as laborers in part because the factory is not the only place they have worked: Their double shift has always included raising, feeding, and nurturing all the other laborers who clock in, too.

Another of Candiani’s performances, La lectora (The Reader), 2019, theorized the racialized genealogies of feminized labor. Part of the artist’s series of works “Del sonido de la labor” (Of the Sound of Labor) for the Thirteenth Havana Biennial, the work took place in a downtown factory that employs seamstresses and was founded by the Cuban feminist revolutionary Vilma Espín. It featured a performer reading from feminist texts, evoking the nineteenth-century practice of hiring readers for tobacco factories to try to relieve the repetitive boredom of rolling cigars. Candiani’s adaptation suggests how the garment industry has become one of the premier industries of global exploitation, disproportionately relying, as in Juárez’s maquiladoras, on the Global South. At the same time, the reader’s feminist soundtrack, culled from requests made by the seamstresses themselves, collectivizes workers and provides the foundation of labor resistance.

Candiani’s engagement with the resistance of seamstresses had earlier intensified with her 2018 Taller de confección (Sewing Workshop), which she called a “choreography of labor.” For the project, two women worked for 120 hours on industrial sewing machines, fabricating a colossal hot-air balloon. Staged in a massive space in the Museo Universitario del Chopo, the performance reframed this women’s work as itself a kind of art, an exquisite dance incorporating vast swaths of silky fabric. The balloon was eventually inflated and suspended in the gallery space as Ascensión cautiva (Captive Ascension), its title underscoring how women’s labor can produce means of escape even as it is contained by the architecture that enables it.

In my interview with Candiani, she explained one of her reasons for returning again and again to sewing, which she first learned from her mother. There is a violence, perhaps a lurking rage, to the action: “You have to get through the material. You are perforating the fabric with the thread, which I feel is more dramatic.” Her series “Gordas” (Fat), 2002–2005, an exploration of the social and environmental conditioning of women’s bodies, began as large-format paintings. The preparatory pencil outlines of the bodies looked light and subtle to her, but when she filled them with paint, they became heavy and unhappy. She turned to sewing as another way of drawing; it became a “quiet, meditative” process that brought her sewing machine and her body into harmony, a quiet floating like the serene suspension she was aiming to depict in the figures themselves, yet one that insisted, at the almost subliminal level on which viewers would register the penetration of thread through fabric, that violence is omnipresent in the policing of gendered bodies. It is not an either/or proposition for the artist; the sensuality of materials can coexist with the politics of representation. The “act of painting was very painful,” Candiani said, but “I found a lot of pleasure in the act of sewing.”

Because of the long history of women coming together in sewing communities or working on quilts as collective projects, embroidery for Candiani also represents “an act of resistance.” Like the feminist texts read in The Reader, the conversation among women coming together can be a form of consciousness-raising. Haunting the scene of textile labor in Mexico City is the earthquake of September 19, 1985, which collapsed many of the structurally unsound buildings in which seamstresses worked under severely exploitative conditions. The bodies left in the rubble became a symbol of their surplus labor, of the combination of stealing labor from bodies and making those bodies disposable that would later come to characterize the maquiladoras and femicides around Juárez. From the rubble came the September 19 Seamstresses Union, one of the first independent unions in Mexico in decades. This is another form of “popular project,” and one of the most urgent at a time when the malign synergy between labor exploitation and violence against women is only increasing, as is the imperative to create collective spaces of shared resources and demands.

The Angel of Independence that became a symbolic center and target of the Glitter Revolution had an important role in an earlier revolution. Officially commemorating the war that established Mexico’s independence from colonial Spain, it was built in 1910, toward the end of President Porfirio Díaz’s long hold on the nation. It’s a nationalist icon that was erected when Díaz’s form of nationalism was waning. The following year, forces galvanized by opposition leader Francisco Ignacio Madero removed Díaz from office, concluding a ruthless tenure that had especially impoverished rural and Indigenous communities. His dictatorship was a representation not of independence but of colonization by other means. To efface an inscription about war heroes with MÉXICO FEMINICIDA is to suggest, too, how much colonization persists through the encroachment of corporations into the Global South’s feminized workforce, represented by the garment industry. Candiani’s collective stitching perforates this history of exploitation, stabbing into the canvases of gendered violence that otherwise sustain it.

Michael Dango is an assistant professor of English and media studies and affiliate faculty in critical identity studies at Beloit College and the author of Crisis Style: The Aesthetics Of Repair (Stanford University Press, 2021).

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Michael Dango