“I like women who swim against the current”
There were tender moments in the preparation for the performance of Womanhouse by the artist Veronica Ruth Frías at the Isabel Hurley Gallery. The scrutiny of her youngest daughter Yria had changed enormously since 2017 when as a child, she surprised her mother taping the first rehearsal of this project at home. It changed from the comic “Mama, why are you wearing that on your head?” to “Mama, can I help you?”, demonstrating the recent awareness of women’s creation; the encounter and articulation of the discourse concerned exclusively with their experiences and their lives.
The title of this performance will not go unheeded since it refers to the legendary CalArts, the first women’s art programme designed by the American artist Judy Chicago at Fresno University in 1971. The course, including both students and teachers, constructed an inclusive teaching programme that embraced a system of ‘going round the circle’ encounters that gave the floor to the future artists. Silenced until now by the negation and invisibility of their own lives and experiences and those of their predecessors they began to redress their visibility as artists and that of their Old Female Masters and to clamour against museums and historians on the streets of principal Western cities.
Ruth Frias is an artist who, since the beginning of her career, has worked on subjective scenarios, on those created by the art Establishment and on female artists’ practice, emphasising those that promoted them widely. In Womanhouse, Ruth Frias places herself in front of the audience, seated behind a table on which there is a series of books. In the first versions of this action, the books dealt with art history in which womenº authors were absent. In this version of the process the books are about artists or theoreticians who had constructed a discursive space for themselves or for other artists either by celebrating their successes or by criticising situations, still in existence today, of deliberate exclusion. It is an epic staging in which other artists and Frias’ daughters, scattered among the audience, read aloud fragments of texts linked to this point of departure. Frias, taking on the role of conductor, directs the sequences of the readings some of which were repeated and even sometimes superimposed in order to stress certain words or statements that resonated with the performer’s repetition and redoubled their meaning.
The revelatory effect of participation in this action stemmed from the artist’s use of certain social situations to create a politically committed happening that, for a limited time, not only erased the line between art and life (Bishop 2006) but also suggested here the opportunity to collectively think of women artists in a specific context. In this case it is concerned with the exhibition of two women artists, Pepa Caballero (Malaga 1943-2012) and Cybèle Varela (Brasil 1943), both of whom, and especially in the case of the former, are still awaiting a meritorious recognition of their impeccable and prolific labour and lifework. While the audience perceived these concepts, Veronica Ruth Frias was putting the books about her head, holding them together with cling film. Her youngest daughter helped her to build a helmet-like frame, converting her into a portrait of perplexity, fury, impotence but finally of empowerment as she cried “I like women who swim against the current”. We should not neglect the comic twist in this performance; the books that Friás used on this occasion were the opportunity to revert a situation through catharsis. That was the day we talked, we thought and we laughed. At the end, the man sitting next to me turned and told me that he had been much moved.
Isabel Garnelo Díez