Sunday, June 28, 2015

Tough as Steel Yellow Dresses: Bustamante's Soldadera and the Unfinished Revolution

Olga Garcίa Echeverrίa

“Without the soldaderas, there is no Mexican Revolution.”
--Elena Poniatowska
We’ve seen them repeatedly—images of women soldiers from the Mexican Revolution.  Sometimes they appear in Agustίn Victor Casasola’s black and white pictures, sitting atop train cars with their heads covered in rebozos, or standing solo by the train tracks, donning men’s clothes and cartridge belts crisscrossed against the chest, or as a firing squad in long flowing dresses, pointing their 30-30s up towards some mythical horizon.

It's difficult not to romanticized these female soldiers in Mexico’s history. Yeah, they were bad-asses; they had to be to survive, but they were also women navigating through war zones and patriarchal bullshit. Consider, for instance, that despite all their contributions to the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917), women did not get the right to vote until 1953. We know women fought during the revolution, but there is much less discussion about how women were sometimes kidnapped and forced to join the military against their will. They were physically and sexually abused, sometimes by fellow soldiers fighting on the same side. They were cheated out of military wages and pensions. They were repeatedly relegated to domestic duties, such as cooking, washing, and being carriers of supplies--the mules of men. Some of them dressed as men (not to be radical) but to protect themselves from rape or from military higher-ups, such as Pancho Villa, who used women soldiers when they needed them, but who were ultimately threatened by their presence. It’s not too surprising that La Soldadera’s complexity (as both subject and object) has many times been reduced to something akin to a vintage Mexican calendar girl. I have nothing against calendar girls, especially Mexicans one, but it is interesting to note that what gets passed down is this…

Elena Poniatowska reminds us that there is much more beneath the romanticism that has been created around soldaderas in corridos, folklore, and film. In Las Soldaderas: Women of the Mexican Revolution, Poniatowska critiques the depiction of female soldiers in the classic film, La Cucaracha, where "Marίa Felix plays the butch—with a cigar in her mouth and a raised eyebrow—who slaps men left and right and carries a jug of aguardiente strapped around her back and shoulder. Did such a soldadera ever exist? There’s no proof of it. Instead, Casasola shows us, again and again, slight, thin women patiently devoted to their tasks like worker ants—hauling in water and making tortillas over a lit fire, the mortar and pestle always in hand. (Does anyone really know just how hard it is to carry a heavy mortar for kilometers during a military campaign?) And at the end of the day, there’s the hungry baby to breastfeed.”
Who were these women carrying guns and heavy mortars at the turn of the 20th century in Mexico? What can we learn from them? How can we re-envision them not merely as icons, but as real-life mujeres? If we reach out (or back) into history, can we touch them? Can we protect them? Can we, for instance, dress them in delicately tailored and yet tough as steel dresses? These are some of the questions that echo in Nao Bustamante’s exhibit Soldadera, currently on display until August 1st at the Vincent Price Museum at East Los Angeles College.  


Via mixed media installations that go beyond traditional representations of soldaderas, Bustamante’s artwork evokes emotion, imagination, and pregunta tras pregunta. Bustamante's art heightens our senses with metaphors, such as a hanging piece of Kelvar material unraveling at the edges. Kelvar, invented by Stephanie Kwolek in the 1960’s, is a synthetic fiber so sturdy it can stop bullets. At the museum, visitors can watch a video segment of Bustamante demonstrating how she shot up one of the dresses to test the strength of the material. Visitors can also touch the material and knot or braid the fringes, weaving themselves into this exhibit in this small but symbolic way. It seems simple on the surface, but this is the magic of Bustamante’s exhibit. It transports and forces you, the visitor, to insert yourself into this narrative of women and war. It does not give answers; it only speculates and prompts possibilities. There are only imagined bodies and faces in the multi-sized Kelvar dresses that stand center-stage; it is up to us to flesh out these women, to fill in the blanks.

Behind the dresses, loops Bustamante's short film, Soldadera. This is the artist's own attempt to fill in the blank in Russian filmmaker Sergei Eistenstein’s famous unfinished film ¡Que Viva México! Eistenstein's film was divided into chapters and included a segment titled Soldadera; however, the sequence on female revolutionaries was never shot. Bustamante's film is a response to this unfinished work, the missing female chapter. Her film employs digital scans of photographs from the revolutionary period, as well as contemporary re-imagined/re-inserted soldaderas in yellow vestidos. One contemporary soldadera enters a photograph of male soldiers sprawled on the large, low branches of a tree. Another one sits holding a baby in her arms. The hands of women soldiers make tortillas. A soldadera lays her hands on the body of a dead man. One, then two soldaderas wield pistolas in the air and dance slow motion in a dreamlike manner (you can join them as a shadow on the screen).

Constantly, the screen asks that we see her--this woman soldier--that we ponder her existence, her re-insertion, her unfinished revolution. A mixed troop of soldaderas (gathered from the past and the present) approaches, approaches, approaches until the faces of these women arrive in the present tense, magnified.

Also braided into the exhibit is the spirit of Leandra Becerra Lumbreras. In January of 2015, Bustamante traveled to Zapopan and visited Lumbreras, who at the time was the last living soldadera from the Mexican Revolution and the oldest person in the world, 127 years old. She died in March of 2015. At the installation Chac-mool, you can peer into a stereoscope and see footage of Lumbreras. I won’t give away exactly what you will see or hear, but I will mention that this was my favorite piece in the exhibit. Aside from the awesome sitting stool and the video, there are two real guayabas pinned beneath the stereoscope, so that whiffs of fragrant guayaba invade the senses as you sit and watch. How cool is that?

Stereoscope With Live Guayabas!

This is an exhibit that should not be missed, and it’s free! Check it out, and bravo Nao Bustamante on a unique and stimulating exploration/re-enactment of las soldaderas de Mexico.


Amelia ML Montes said...

Orale Olga! A fabulous and important exhibit indeed. Here's hoping your posting
will bring more visitors to Nao Bustamante's work. Gracias y adelante!

Amelia ML Montes said...

P.S.-- I'm tweeting this. Abrazos!