Visualities and the City: feminizing public spaces through art and media in post 1968 Mexico City

review by Márgara Millán

Women Made Visible. Feminist Art and Media in Post-1968 Mexico City by Gabriela Aceves Sepúlveda (Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2019). 381 pp. $65 hardcover, $35 paperback and e-book.

In memory of Sarah Minter

In this book, Gabriela Aceves Sepúlveda offers us invaluable material to understand the development of feminist space in Mexico City. Establishing a genealogy of the 1970s movements and describing their practices, the author shows how the regimes of media and visuality have been transformed by these interventions.[1] [open endnotes in new window]

Aceves Sepúlveda proposes the concept of visual letrada, adopting Ángel Rama’s term in his influential book Ciudad Letrada, which refers above all to influential men in urban culture through their writing, and the City as the center of cultural hegemony. By using the same metaphor, Aceves Sepúlveda proposes to understand women’s agency in a historical context, as a factor capable of changing the male hegemonic cultural perspective. Mexico City is seen here as a cultural space—an organizer of meanings that radiate gender hegemony.

El tendedero. © 1978 by Mónica Mayer. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The 1970s is a special decade in Mexican feminist historiography. Mexico became a site of “gender visibility” as the UN World Conference on Women took place there in 1975. Hundreds of women gathered in this official event. Many others organized a counter-conference, a non-institutional effort to criticize the way Mexican government was promoting feminism. We can think of these two events as big political events, but what Aceves Sepúlveda researches in this book is the other face and form of politics: how, by daily interventions in the media and the public space, “women [were] made visible.”

The author focuses on four women who, through their work in the arts and media, question established structures of power and knowledge, representational images and traditional concepts, by also opening up different forms of “political subjectivity.” These women are: visual artist Ana Victoria Jiménez, filmmaker Rosa Martha Fernández, visual artist Mónica Mayer, and videoartist Pola Weiss.

Aceves Sepúlveda’s book appeals to women’s action in various media and social spheres. She refers to three important shifts in the Mexican cultural and media scene in the second half of the 20th century: the first is a shift from the centrality of literate-print culture towards audiovisual culture; the second refers to the increasing participation of women in the public sphere; and the third is the re-emergence of the feminist movement.

The author focuses on how the practices of the visual letrada intervene in this cultural shift from the literate culture (la ciudad letrada) to the media, especially in television, video, and cinema; and on how these interventions increase the visibility of women and their capacity for self-representation. In doing so, Aceves Sepúlveda also problematizes and expands on the notion of the archive. She defines how she adheres to the archival turn as follows:

“the interest here is not to recover women’s voices but rather to make visible how they increasingly became agents of the archive” (p. 22).

Aceves Sepúlveda is also an active agent of the archive, while proposing these four women and their art are an important part of it. For her the archive is a category, a concept, a practice, a medium, and a collection of varied objects. Above all, the archive determines the parameters of the historical narrative. In order to transform these parameters, the author presents materials that must be taken in account so that a shift in the archive can be possible. This shift broadens the gaze and makes visible the impact of this particular junction of Mexican feminism and the incidence of these four women in it.

The book relies on personal interviews, recollection, recreation of practices as performances, and personal archives of the four women already mentioned above: Ana Victoria Jiménez, Rosa Martha Fernández, Mónica Mayer and Pola Weiss. Through this material, Aceves Sepúlveda proposes to complete the political and cultural archive of the 1970s in Mexico City in a broad cultural way as well as to inscribe these practices into a wider feminist archive. Her project also shows the patriarchal politics of the archive, which requires feminist research to go against the grain. In this way, Aceves Sepúlveda builds a new archive that allows us to better understand the genealogy of feminism in Mexico and its intervention into the visibility of women, feminizing the public sphere, which also made possible the contemporary practices of feminism(s) in Mexico city.

The book is comprised of three main sections: “Feminizing the City,” “The Archival Practices of a Visual Letrada,” and “Protesting the Archive.” I will indicate some of the main topics dealt with in each of these sections, emphasizing the great amount of information that Aceves Sepúlveda gathers to consider the social, political and cultural context of the corpus she analyzes. For example, in the first section, the author deals in three chapters—“The Official City,” “The Media City” and “The Embodied City”— with the shifts in material culture, from the “official” male and literate dominance, to the media, and to the embodied city as an effect of feminist interventions. Women were highly visible but as part of the dominant narrative of “the woman,” as clearly exemplified by the protagonists of Mexican soap operas. In another example, in the popular newscasts of the period under analysis there was a news anchor, Lolita Ayala, who similarly embodied the conservative vision of womanhood.  

In this context, the author documents a feminist intervention which took place in another news program called Nuestro Mundo, hosted by Guillermo Ochoa, also very influential and with a large number of viewers. In this morning show broadcasted by Televisa, the largest and most powerful media corporation in the country, Ochoa performed a script proposed by two feminists who were also participating in the program, Mónica Mayer and Marisa Bustamante, from the feminist collective Polvo de Gallina Negra (Black Chicken Powder). Their performance, called “Mother for a day,” critically and humorously describes the first “male/mother,” as Aceves Sepúlveda refers to a pregnant male. Pregnancy comes after a magic act performed by the two artists, and a prothesis is used to present a pregnant male body. This parody of traditional motherhood caused a national stir. Aceves Sepúlveda describes this feminist intervention in great detail, thus contributing to the feminist expansion of the archive mentioned above. At the time, Mayer and Bustamante framed Ochoa’s transformation into “Mother for a day” as a work of art, embracing their choice to perform on television saying that “today television is the museum of modern art.” For Aceves Sepúlveda this is a strategy of feminizing the city by hacking the mainstream media, which are the main builders of the sexist and heteronormative gaze.

In the second section of the book, “The Archival Practices of a Visual Letrada,” the author focuses on the archive of Ana Victoria Jiménez. She introduces the artist’s photographic work while contextualizing the development of the first broad feminists organizations of that time. 

Post 68 in Mexico was not a very peaceful time. While researching Echeverría’s six-year term (post 1968) in the General Archive of the Nation, the author found a series of reports of agents who, during the 1970s, carried out espionage on feminist marches in Mexico City. The national security files were made publicly available shortly before Aceves Sepúlveda conducted her investigation. Thus, while analyzing the personal collection of Ana Victoria Jiménez, the author discovered a parallel archive which accounts for the existence of this artist from the perspective of the State. The random and surprising discovery allowed the author to bring together two absolutely opposed point of view. Reading the agents’ reports in parallel to the photographs of Ana Victoria Jiménez allows the author to reconstruct different aspects of the cultural practices and the legacies of the feminist movement. Jiménez’s own archive also includes public reactions to the performances of these feminist collectives, and in one particular photo, it even features a supposed agent who is surveilling one of these many performances. As Aceves Sepúlveda states:

“Through a reading of these two archives, the visual letrada emerges not solely defined by the visual nature of its sources –like Jimenez’s photographs. Rather, the visual letrada develops through a willingness to contest and return the gaze through images, ephemera, Street performances, archival practices, and embodied encounters as seen through the interplay of looks between publics and performers” (p. 165).

Finally, in the third section of the book, “Protesting the Archive,” Aceves Sepúlveda presents an interesting way to think about the archive. In the subsection entitled “Interrupting Photographic Traditions,” the author brings into play the iconic photographic work of Tina Modotti, Graciela Iturbide, Lola Álvarez Bravo and Mariana Yampolsky. These are great photographers who entered the international art circuit largely thanks to their portraits of “indigenous” women, especially from Oaxaca, who were often depicted in their “otherness,” according to the author. Aceves Sepúlveda productively opposes their work and its cultural nationalist feature to the photographic work of Ana Victoria Jiménez. By focusing on one of her photographs, in which she portrays a group dance by the Coalition of Feminist Women, the author demonstrates that both visual archives can only be understood if we read them together. Looking at them this way makes visible how one archive interrupts the other, helping us to identify the politics of representation within a visual economy.

Coalición de Mujeres Feministas and Red Nacional de Mujeres at los Talleres Coayoacán (Coalition of Feminist Women and National Network of Women at the Coyoacán Workshops), Mexico City. © 1982 by Ana Victoria Jiménez. Archivo Ana Victoria Jiménez, Biblioteca Francisco Xavier Clavigero, Universidad Iberoamericana, Ciudad de México.

Also in this section we find the final chapter, “POLArizing the Archive,” Aceves Sepúlveda shows how the world of the image was expanded through intervention by women, by analyzing the amazing work of Pola Weiss. Video-artist Pola Weiss began using video in Mexico to propose an alternative television: From the idiot box to the magic box was her motto. Professor at the National Autonomous University of México, UNAM, she taught video production and supported the possibility of video-theses. Pola Weiss was a pioneer in many ways: a video artist and video dancer, she used the resources she had at hand to make experimental work.

Her prolific work is analyzed by Aceves Sepúlveda in the section she calls “POLArizing the Archive.” Without any doubt, Pola Weiss’s work expands the archive of the feminization of the city, of the gaze. Above all, she positions the body-camera relation in a pioneering way, long before video became a manageable technology for bodily closeness and the rhythm of the heartbeat. Pola Weiss’s videos are made with no other resources than her passion and creativity. In the video Mi ojo es mi corazón (My eye is my heart, 1986), Weiss describes in two shots a city broken by the 1985 earthquake and a broken heart after an abortion.

Pola Weiss’s work is very important, due to its polyphony: criticism of class structures, putting the body literally in the center of visual representation, questioning racism, appropriating a medium such as television, to turn it around and launch it as a space for creativity and ludic performance. All this had an impact on subsequent video makers, such as Sarah Minter’s essential work in the 1980s and 1990s.

At the same time, the first generations of students graduating from film schools were emerging. The Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica and the Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos had been founded in the mid-1960s. The first women directors, screenwriters, and editors appeared. Marcela Fernández Violante was a graduate of the first generation of CUEC, in 1969, and directed this school from 1984 to 1988. The group Colectivo Cine-Mujer was formed in 1975, the first avowedly feminist collective of the time. Cine-Mujer’s project was not only to denounce female stereotypes, the objectification of women and violence against them, but also to make films with an all-female crew. Their cinema was close to the so-called “new” Mexican cinema, releasing independent and experimental productions. It was a politicized wave, which recovered the legacy of the 1968 Mexican movement, emphasizing feminist criticism. Aceves Sepúlveda devotes part of her book to analyzing the impact of films such as Cosas de mujeres (1975-78) and Rompiendo el silencio (1979), both directed by Rosa Martha Fernández. For the author, these two films map out the ways in which gender and sexual violence against women are deeply embedded in and in a dialogic relation to the production of urban spaces.

“The creative connections these women produced through filmmaking not only questioned boundaries and genres but provided an alternative model of production premised upon the importance of developing and keeping visual records of their political practices” (pp. 234-235).

Thus, what Aceves Sepúlveda observes is how these productions: films, archives, performances, videos, television appearances, but also fanzines, interventions in monuments, photographs, are indicators of how feminism was and continues to politicize the body of women in urban spaces, while transforming media and visuality regimes.

Cosas de mujeres (Women's Things)
. Photos ©1975-78 by Colectivo Cine-Mujer. Courtesy of Rosa Martha Fernández. Still shots of hospital scenes, left. Still shots of demonstrations, above. Abortion activism.

This book is a contribution to the history of Mexican feminism, not because these feminists and the movements in which they participated are unknown, but because Aceves Sepúlveda positions them in a different frame. Her methodology allows us to see the impact that this generation had on the democratic transition in Mexico, marking it with the feminization of public space. The sources consulted, the interviews carried out, and the archives reviewed support a book full of records of ephemeral works, which by this means are here preserved and put to work in a heuristic sense, proposing an archive in itself. Aceves Sepúlveda links institutional, technical, and political changes with women as cultural agents. Some of the assumptions may be debatable, for example, how much the images created by the great women photographers were creating “otherness” in their pictures of indigenous women or, to the contrary, making visible those women’s force and presence.  As a whole, Women Made Visible is undoubtedly innovative, referring to the visual letradas modifying politics and the space of politics in Mexico City, revealing the desire to give themselves to the gaze as the subtle drive of feminism(s), which transforms the visual regime that was being imposed in that decade.

Mi ojo es mi corazón (My eye is my heart). © 1986 by Pola Weiss. Catalogación Edna Torres-Ramos, Centro de Documentación ARKHEIA, Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, UNAM.


1. Images from Women Made Visible Feminist Art and Media in Post-1968 Mexico City by Gabriela Aceves Sepúlveda. Courtesy of University of Nebraska Press. [return to text]

Salón 77-78 Bienal de Febrero Nuevas Tendencias (Exhibition 77-78 February Biennial New Trends) (back page). Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, México. © 1978 by Pola Weiss. Fondo Pola Weiss, Catalogación Edna Torres-Ramos, Centro de Documentación ARKHEIA, Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, UNAM.