This Latinx Heritage Month, mitú is highlighting the root of Latinx joy. We’re digging deep into the subcultures and traditions that have shaped our communities — the reason for our song and our dance. We continue building flourishing communities together because of our strong roots and with the support of State Farm.
Surrealism was born in France at the turn of the 20th century, perhaps as a reflection of the metamorphoses the world was undergoing at the time. World War I was underway, and psychology was in its infancy, placing a special emphasis on dreams and consciousness.
New insights into the human mind coupled with the socio-political climate of the early 1900s led artists to seek inspiration within themselves, exploring the uncharted corners of their psyches, not only to harness the power of imagination, but to try and make sense of everything around them.
As the surrealist movement evolved, artists began to be influenced more and more by mysticism, mythology and Indigenous practices, drawing from these belief systems to design their own alternate realities.
Latin American artists in particular, had a wealth of culture and history to tap into, which is exactly what they did.
Latina surrealists did it even better, fearlessly showcasing the intricacies of womanhood, sisterhood and motherhood during a time when prejudices against women were at an all-time high (thanks a lot, Freud!).
Latina surrealists used unconventional lines, colors and shapes to transport audiences to lush and impossible metaphysical landscapes, often depicting the erotic, gruesome and sublime in one swoosh of the paint brush or click of the camera.
Here are nine surrealist Latina artists who broke the mold. Some of these are already household names, while others may just be floating around in the collective consciousness. No matter what, they are all the surreal deal.
Born in Mexico City in 1907, Frida Kahlo is the poster child for the surrealist movement in Latin America. When asked about her source of inspiration, she once famously replied, “I don’t paint dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality.”
After sustaining several serious injuries in a bus accident in 1925, she was bedridden for almost two years. During this time, her parents gave her a special easel and placed a mirror above her bed so that she could dabble in self-portraits. These self-portraits would go on to be her most iconic paintings, as she often used her art to depict both physical and emotional suffering.
“Las dos Fridas” for example, which is one of her most recognizable works of art, alludes to the dualism of her identity in several ways. She portrays herself as both a modern Mexican woman and an Indigenous woman, single and married, bloodied and clean, loved and unloved, fertile and barren, broken and complete; a single red vein connecting the two Fridas via their hearts. When asked about death, she offered, “I hope the exit is joyful. And I hope never to return.”
Luchita Hurtado actually met Kahlo and even attended a party hosted in her hospital room, which Hurtado would later describe as being “not unlike Surrealist theater.” The Venezuelan-born artist moved to New York when she was 8 years old and was encouraged by her stepfather to paint.
In 1946, she saw the first photographs of the Earth taken from space and recalls being very moved by the sense of “tenderness” and “interconnectivity” between humans on this small blue planet, a theme which would later permeate her work.
In her “I Am” series, she created various portraits from the point of view of the subject looking down at her own body, confirming the fact that artists invented the selfie. In some variations, she’s nude and holding berries, which alluded to female sexuality. In others, she’s seen holding a cigarette, which symbolized female empowerment. Hurtado passed away at the age of 99 in 2020.
This artist’s suspicious and untimely death has often eclipsed her body of work, which is why it’s so important to include it here. Ana Mendieta was born in Havana, Cuba in 1948 and fled to America in 1961 to escape Fidel Castro’s communist regime. Her work was largely autobiographical, focusing on exile, feminism, sexuality, nature and identity. She worked with mixed media, often utilizing earth and other natural materials, in addition to being a performance artist.
One of her first performance pieces was titled “Rape Scene,” and it featured Mendieta naked from the waist down, bound at the wrists and bent over a table, blood smeared all over her legs and broken glass on the floor to illustrate the implied violence and struggle of the scene.
Her surrealist art denotes a return to nature, as a nude figure’s silhouette is often pictured among fields, bodies of water and other natural landscapes, juxtaposing the raw human body with raw earth; a form she called “earth-body” art.
She died at the age of 36 in 1985, after allegedly falling out the window of her 34th floor apartment in New York City, following a heated argument with her husband, Carl Andre. Andre was initially accused of murder but was later acquitted, although the court of public opinion was never quite so convinced.
Similarly to Mendieta, María Martínez-Cañas emigrated from Cuba to Puerto Rico to escape political upheaval after Castro rose to power, although she wouldn’t be there long. She moved to the United States, studied photography in Philadelphia and Chicago, and received a Fulbright-Hays scholarship to study in Spain.
Martínez-Cañas considers herself a “Cuban-born, Puerto Rican-raised, American citizen,” and those intersections have largely influenced her work. She is a photo-based artist, but enjoys challenging the confines of the medium. Her surrealist art is an ongoing search for identity, bridging the gaps between all the different parts of her.
Her print collage titled “Años Continuos” is a paradigm of “Poème-Objet,” which was a marker of the surrealist movement in the 1930s and 1940s. This small movement was characterized by mixing found objects and with text. The result is a dizzying and fascinating frenzy of city maps, memories and the uncanny. Martínez-Cañas is still working, with recent exhibits at the Perez Art Museum in Miami, Florida.
Born in 1946 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Alicia Carletti was very aptly named, as the themes in her work were similar in fabulosity to those of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” She employed elements of both surrealism and magical realism to illustrate the magic of everyday things.
Carletti graduated from la Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes Prilidiano Pueyrredón de Buenos Aires in 1969 and went on to showcase her work all over Argentina, New Mexico, and New York, just to name a few. She married fellow artist, Jorge Álvarro, and they had one child together.
Her subjects tend to be adolescent girls, frolicking in larger-than-life gardens, sitting at tiny tables, and consuming giant hot-fudge sundaes. The interplay between subject and size is a unique feature of her work, creating the uncanny feeling typically associated with surrealism. She passed away in 2017, leaving behind a legacy that is curiouser and curiouser.
Born in California to a mother of Mexican descent, Rosa Rolanda wore many hats. She was an artist, dancer, and choreographer, getting her start on Broadway in the 1920s. Eventually, she met Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias and they moved to Mexico City together, where Rolanda began to create her own art.
She experimented with photograms, which are made without cameras by placing the desired objects on top of a light-sensitive material and later unveiling it to the light. These were highly surrealist in nature, as were her self-portraits, often depicting her inner turmoil.
In the true spirit of toxic artist couples, the relationship soured by 1952, when Covarrubias left Rolanda for a dancer thirty years his junior. Still, the emotional turbulence made for some exceptional art. Rolanda passed away in Mexico City at the age of 74.
Drawing from her Mexican and Cuban roots, California-native Barbara Rivera offers a nuanced glimpse into her life via her art. Although she is not classically trained, her passion for art began as early as elementary school.
Rivera’s art is saturated with bright colors, transcending that metaphysical boundary between realism and surrealism. Her process often involves photographing her subjects and then using the photograph as a base for her painting. Her intermingling of the Caribbean with Mesoamerica creates a surprising and visually stunning contrast.
When asked about being self-taught, she shared that it involved “making lots of mistakes” and that “you just have to do it.” Now, that sounds like good advice for just about everything. Her work is available for purchase online.
Born in Cartagena, Colombia, Cecilia Porras taught herself how to paint at an early age. She studied at La facultad de Artes de la Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá, where she went on to design book covers for major writers, including Gabriel García Márquez.
Her style evolved, shifting from Caribbean landscapes and the bucolic to abstract portraits and scenes. Most notably, her work was riddled with important feminist themes, depicting the woman in states of revolution and prioritizing experimentation over conforming to traditional mediums and ideals.
Black eyes were a common motif in her work, possibly meant to symbolize the prejudices against women. Arguably, Porras was the surrealist female artist who put Colombia, and more specifically, Cartagena, on the map.
Aimée García Marrero
Marrero is another Cuban mixed media artist, based out of Havana, Cuba. Born in 1972, she graduated from the Instituto Superior de Arte in 1996, continuing on to hold exhibitions all over the Caribbean, as well as in South Korea, Spain and Israel, just to name a few.
The artist’s work provides social commentary on women’s roles in society, often portraying them as playthings, villains and medieval maidens where something is always slightly off, poking fun at conventional ideas of beauty. She uses different materials in her artwork, including thread and hair to reflect the nuance and texture of her concepts.
In her public art installation, titled “Times of Silence,” Marrero utilized text and language to create various panels of newspaper collages to be put on display on Time Square’s Broadway Plaza. The newspaper clippings were in different languages, inviting the audience in from afar under a false pretense and then shocking them upon closer inspection.
Marrero’s message was to make us think about the ways in which we receive information, what we do with it afterwards and the importance of silence.
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