Femicide is perhaps not the most attractive topic for an art exhibition, but then neither is it an acceptable crime. However, due to the continued ineptitude of the authorities in Juárez, Mexico, the count of local women who have been abducted, raped and murdered before being dumped like trash is continuing to rise above 400. The sense of public panic seems low as Juárez is already a violent city and both the police and media are suggesting—wrongly—that the victims were involved in drugs or prostitution, as if that would mean they asked for it. Yet if this sort of thing occurred in an American or European city, we'd be begging for justice to be served and there would be an inquiry into the handling of each case. Determined to commemorate these lost women, Tamsyn Challenger enlisted almost 200 of her fellow artists to create a visual tribute to each victim which is being toured around the world. Will creativity be the tool to bring justice for Juárez?
"What these women have suffered is a direct result of the very fact that they are women," said curator Gemma Rolls-Bentley in the notes for the Scottish leg of the exhibition tour, and she makes a fair point. We aren't even sure of the motives for these crimes, with many theories being offered to this day, from gang actions to organ harvesting and vengeful men who just want their factory jobs back (a large number of the victims worked at local factories, as Juárez is a highly industrial area). But we do know for sure that there is a vendetta by someone against non-males from the city's poorer parts and it goes beyond the stereotypical Latino machismo and male bravado. Jeff Stultiens, who painted #143 in remembrance of Erika Perez Escobeda (29, murdered and found semi-nude), included a poignant message in both Spanish and English, which I believe says a lot about the nature of the femicide: "Woman's degradation is in man's idea of his sexual rights. Our religion, laws, customs, are all founded in the belief that woman was made for man."
The overwhelming feeling when seeing these images is, of course, loss. Every artwork is given a number and the gallery visitors are given a list which tells you the identity and fate of each person, but it can't fill you in on their likes and dislikes, or their memories; we are left to fill the void with our imagination. #67 is Perla Patricia Saenz Diaz (25 years old, painted by Alison Harper) and a small rose corsage is attached. I wonder if roses were Perla's favorite flower, or if this is more of a human gesture helping to lay her to rest more peacefully than when she was stabbed to death.
It's worrying to see how young some of the victims were when they died –#47, Brenda Berenice Delgado, was just five when her life was cut short by a "sex murder" in 2003. However, Delgado's murder attracted little media attention when compared to the blanket coverage of the 2008 Caylee Anthony case in the U.S; in both cases a little girl died, but only Caylee has had the full attention of the police and the law. When a death becomes unremarkable, as it did with Brenda's and others like her, then we really have to ask ourselves why.
Unfortunately we don't know what all of the victims looked like, so there's been a lot of artistic license taken here, with many works marked as "Identity Unknown" (Amnesty International reported in 2003 that 75 bodies were unidentified). Because of this, a few portraits are blurry, vague or comprised of traditional mementos from Latina culture, and there is dignity in the portrait even when we cannot attach a name or a face to the body. Their images are no less arresting—3, Maria Eugenia Mendoza Arias (19 years old, sex murder), is represented solely by a dented crucifix locket. As Gemma Rolls-Bentley added, the erasing of the face also "explicitly recounts the callous elimination of these women from existence." Some of the bodies also had their genitals or breasts mutilated, and one 13-year-old girl was beheaded. Their very femininity was removed by their captors.
I know that many of you reading this won't be able to visit the exhibition in person, but just by being aware, viewing the images online, and spreading the word, you can make a difference. Eve Ensler spoke about the Juárez crimes in 2003 and said that "we cannot stand by as more bodies appear." Shamefully, in 2011 we are still waiting for an end to this massacre. We can only hope that Tamsyn Challenger's "400 Women" means that the bodies which have been found do not disappear from the public conscience, and that we do not let society forget.
If you want to see more about "400 Women" and Juárez, check out:
http://400women.tumblr.com - the official Tumblr site for the exhibition.
http://www.amnesty.org.uk/news_details.asp?NewsID=14788 – the 2003 report by Amnesty International into the killings and abductions.