The inside of the Bihl Haus gallery has been transformed into a house filled with color. Everywhere you look, bright, happy paintings cover the walls. Most are portraits of women, often paired with photographs. Between them is furniture, sometimes painted, too. Near festooned couches sits a TV in a living room scene. Nearby is a vignette of a kitchen, its sink and faucet cartoon drawings. Past a hanging tire swing in a sliver of the outdoors lies a bedroom, lined with windows. But something is amiss. A child's face peers through the windowpane, her hands pressed against the glass. On the bottom frame are the words, "De niña a mujer…?" (From girl to woman…?). Below is a bed primped with pillows, and high in the corner the chilling words, "Do this for me, you're Daddy's girl."
This ornate collection of domestic vignettes is an installation by Debora Kuetzpalin Vasquez about child abuse and violence towards their mothers. It shows the home as a place of danger, of betrayal. But Vasquez intends the exhibition to be a tool for healing and has constructed it with the help of her students as a limpia, a cleansing. Like the installation itself, the title is layered: "Sobreviviente: Gunaa Xoo Transforming Life." The first word, translated from Spanish, means "survivor"; Gunaa Xoo is the Zapotecan phrase meaning "strong woman." She is the iconic Tehuana, the Zapotec woman of Oaxaca and Tehuantepec in Southern Mexico known for her folkloric headdress and clothing — "blossoms of fire," Vasquez says. But she is not just pointing to the raiment of a decorative cultural icon. "Historically, the Tehuana women are very strong," she says. "What we are doing is that we are drawing on the spirit of the Tehuana women and culture to empower our women here today."
The paintings that line the room have the accessible and child-friendly styling of a school mural, and show women as confident and assertive. "But," said Vasquez, "this is some of my more subtle work."
The works are recycled. Underneath most of the paintings are hidden works that are violent. The covering of violence is seen in words, too. Faint letters line the corners and tops of walls, showing through a wash of white, and are covered with bold pre-Columbian symbols for flowers. Part of Vasquez' process in this exhibition was speaking with women who were the survivors of domestic violence. "They have shared intimate things that perpetrators say to get them to be comfortable, especially the children," Vasquez says. And etched on the wall-tops are the coercive words said to adult women: "You're stupid, who is going to want you," and, "You belong to me."
"The obscured words are things that people have told me they have heard," Vasquez said. "All those words are things that people, I don't want to say men, but generally speaking the majority are men doing the abuse. But also we have women that have experienced woman-on-woman violence. That does happen."
Of the four sections in the exhibition, several — the living room, the kitchen, and the outdoors — have been used before by Vasquez. This exhibition is the first time she has portrayed a bedroom. "My mom was always trying to protect me from that outside space. When she was going outside to hang the laundry she would say, 'Lock the door!' We think that everything that is bad that can happen to us is outside that door. But in actuality, that's just a little slice of abuse. Most abuse that happens to women happens inside by someone they know."
Vasquez insists that though it is painful to speak of such things, that silence is dangerous — it can lead to more violence. "We write a bad memory, then cover it with white light, and then we paint something beautiful over it. That is basically the premise of the whole show," she says. "Historically, in our cultura, sending someone flowers, or flore canto, speaking flowering words, is sending people beauty. I think that beauty and love is what helps us overcome the things we have gone through." •
Sobreviviente: Gunaa Xoo Transforming Life
On view to Jan 28, 2012.
Reading of "blu" by playwright Virginia Grise 7pm, December 8.