A male reporter for a Chilean TV network asked the Buenos Aires–born and internationally known muralist Mariela Ajras a question that made her angry. “Mariela, ¿qué sentís siendo mujer y pintando en la calle?” (“How do you feel about being a woman and painting in the street?”)

“I was really uncomfortable with the question,” Ajras says. “And I wanted to ask him, why are you asking me? If you’re trying to say that there could be violence in the street, why don’t you ask the people who are perpetrating the violence? I felt like it is always us women who have to testify about, or somehow be held accountable for, the injustice inflicted on us.”

The TV crew wanted to film Ajras making a work in Buenos Aires, and Mujeres que pintan en la calle (Women who paint in the street), Ajras’ rejoinder to the interviewer’s clueless question, was the one she created in front of their cameras, on a factory building in her neighborhood.

THE FRAGILITY OF THE IMAGE

For all its directness and power, Mujeres que pintan en la calle is a slightly “disturbed” image too. The right-hand panel has thin vertical streaks running from top to bottom that Ajras likens to electronic interference. Many of her works include similar distortions, often in the form of streaks of color that stretch the image or seem to be leaking out of it.

Ajras is a trained psychotherapist, and for her these distortions suggest how the mind operates. “In remembering,” she says, “we have a selection of images we remember and images we forget, and every time we go back to a fading memory to try to retrieve it, it gets more and more lost. Beyond the mind there is this force that resembles forgetting or memory repression, a force that is trying to make us disappear—this force is time. Somehow we state our existence, we affirm it, against this force called time.”

Ajras’s fascination with forgetting has a sociopolitical dimension. “The force that wants to erase you,” she says, “can be time, it can be in the active memory, or it can operate in social life, in everyday life. There is always power, power over others, always these demands that say one group has to be subjected or erased in order for the other to be in power. So, at least in this country, life is a struggle between this force that wants to erase you and your willingness to affirm yourself, affirm your life.”

“I BELIEVE THAT THE MURAL BEHAVES LIKE A THIRD PARTY IN THE SOCIALIZATION PROCESS. PEOPLE ARE SUMMONED BY THE MURAL BECAUSE IT’S HAPPENING IN THEIR STREETS.… A CONVERSATION STARTS HAPPENING THAT MAYBE WOULDN’T HAVE HAPPENED IF THIS EVENT WASN’T TAKING PLACE.”

—Mariela Ajras

ASSOCIATION OF FEMALE MURALISTS OF ARGENTINA

Female Argentine muralists, and other women artists, have to do battle daily with a system that, if it doesn’t exactly want to erase them, certainly puts obstacles in their path. “In my country,” Ajras says, “every public art commission, every street art festival is male-dominated. In Buenos Aires, 98 percent of public art commissions are done by men.”

Determined to do something, she began holding informal meetings of women muralists in her home, and their cooperation expanded into a network of artist-activists called AMMurA, the Association of Female Muralists of Argentina.

AMMurA is starting a catalog of portfolios of every woman who paints murals in Argentina, and expanding it to cover all Latin America, and then, hopefully, the world. “So whenever a curator or a public art administrator says ‘There aren’t enough women painting,’” says Ajras, “we can say ‘Look, here’s the catalog!’ We’ve already gathered 300 women in less than a month.”

Jon Spayde is the senior editor of Public Art Review.

From Public Art Review #58, where this article originally appeared in Powerful Spaces as “On ‘Being a Woman’ and painting in the Street.”
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