Upon entering Carla Rippey’s retrospective, Resguardo y Resistencia,* at Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil, the viewer is confronted by a large-scale installation that presents a multiplicity of themes carried throughout the exhibition. The installation, Cuando Mi Sangre Aún No Era Mi Sangre [When My Blood Was Not Yet My Blood] (2008–16), consists of dozens of historical archive images transferred onto paper and intervened upon with sewn marks. The title refers to the fact that Mexico is the artist’s adopted country, and the work juxtaposes images of political violence with scenes of economic and social life from two time periods in the country’s history: a few years at the turn of the 20th century, and during the Mexican revolution. The work highlights the ambiguous relationships between large concepts and events—national and ethnic identity, historical memory, gender, violence, war, revolution, resistance—and the intimate activities and vulnerable spaces of the body in which, and through which, they work.
The circular structure of the exhibition emphasizes this intertwined relationship. On the interior wall, a few works are displayed alongside a detailed timeline of the artist’s life. Biographical events, which include falling in love, expatriating after leaving the United States, escaping from political repression during the Chilean coup, and then building a life and career in Mexico, are in dialogue with the artist’s work on the exterior walls and galleries. Just like the installation that opens the show, this curatorial structure mimics the way that individuals and artists interact with their social and political realities. Surrounding the timeline that represents the details of Rippey’s life are works that bring forth how all the big world events and ideas are lived personally.
Many of the works in the show speak to the fragility of personal agency when confronting political power. In Paisaje con Buitre [Landscape with Vulture] (1993), the artist depicts a desert landscape with a herd of camels, a few shepherds, and the cadaver of an animal in the foreground. A military helicopter hovers above the whole scene. Both the people and the animals depicted await their fate beneath rapacious forces they cannot control.
In another work, the relationship between the signifier of power and the human subject is more ambiguous. La Persistencia de la Memoria [The Persistence of Memory] (1987) is a drawing of two women in two separate panels who are surrounded by knives. The panel on the left depicts a woman in historical clothing that extends into the right panel, which depicts a vulnerable, naked woman peering back at the other woman. It is unclear if the knives are menacing the women, who are locked together by history, or if they are being wielded as tools against the persistence of memory.
Choose Your Weapon, Catalogo de Objetos Peligrosos [Choose Your Weapon, Catalog of Dangerous Objects] (2010) explicitly presents this equivocation. The artist depicts tools of every sort on multiple panels. They range from what we consider mostly benign, like hands and teeth, to weapons including knives and machine guns. The work and its title emphasizes that both resistance and domination are ambiguous acts created by individuals who are neither merely perpetrators nor victims.
As a whole, Resguardo y Resistencia presents individuals, particularly women, subjected to forces and environments much greater than they are. The formal qualities of all of the works in the exhibition suggest that the artist’s primary goal is to show care and empathy for her subjects. The simultaneously descriptive and expressive lines, negative spaces, shading, and compositions all evince the hand of an artist who is committed to her work and bringing out the emotive qualities of her subjects.
One drawing in particular presents this in a clear and troubling way. Carnaval (2001) depicts a carefully rendered adolescent girl in a revealing top, surrounded by empowered and raucous older men. She looks directly at the viewer with an expression that approaches fear or insecurity. It’s ambiguous, however, why she is there. None of the men pay direct attention to her. She seems to have chosen to explore and experiment with her nascent sexuality only to find herself in a dangerous, masculinist environment.
The world reflected in Rippey’s retrospective is filled with risk, violence, and forces that are outside of any individual’s control. In circumstances such as these, what could be more important than resguardo y resistencia?
Carla Rippey: Resguardo y Resistencia. Exposición Retrospectiva 1976–2016 will be on view at Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil in Mexico City through October 30, 2016.
* The title translates roughly as “self-protection and resistance,” but resguardo means not just “protection” but also “care.”