On view at York College Fine Arts Gallery through November 19, 2021
Content warning: This interview discusses femicide, violence against womxn/gender-based violence and rape.
The powerful exhibition “Flores de Femicidio: Femicide Florals” – a solo show and installation by artist Natali Bravo-Barbee curated by Dr. Margaret Rose Vendryes – will remain on view at York College Art Gallery through Nov 19. The exhibit honors the devastating toll that femicides have taken on Argentinian society, the loss of womxn murdered and the devastating impact that this violence has had. Bravo-Barbee’s powerful installation provides an avenue of contemplation to consider global movements against gender-based violence and the #niunamas movement.
According to statistics from the Observation Committee on Equality and Gender from the United Nations, in 2018 Argentina had the third-highest femicide rate reported in the Americas region. Bravo-Barbee took time to speak with ANTE editor-in-chief Audra Lambert on this exhibit, outlining how this project developed and the conversations that have emerged as a result of this meaningful installation.
(Interview edited for length and content; all images courtesy the artist and York College Fine Arts Gallery)
Audra Lambert, ANTE mag+platform: Thanks Natali for taking time to speak with us on your powerful project, Flores de Femicidio at York College Art Gallery. Can you tell us more on the genesis of this project?
Natali Bravo-Barbee: I have a friend who is a psychologist from Argentina, and I always read her posts as I appreciate her perspectives. She posted an article in early 2019 about the murder of a woman in Argentina, and the accompanying research showed how this one case fit into overall statistics (of women’s murders in Argentina.) I began to dig into this learning more about the scope of femicides in Argentina, and came to realize through my own research that Argentina doesn’t even have the highest rate (of femicides) in Latin America, so this is how I began my approach when I started this project in January of 2019.
ANTE: And how did this project emerge in partnership with York College Art Gallery?
NB-B: The show with York came about because I had been working on this ongoing project for so long. I continued working on it throughout the pandemic and it became closer to being done. I’d shown one month of flowers (January) in four locations, but no one had ever seen entire collection. Dr Vendryes reached out to me after I’d been posting about them and she mentioned that York has a summer residency program, working in the space and culminating in a show, but that due to Covid this residency was on hold and this show timeslot was open. She asked if I would be interested in showing the flowers there.
When I talked about the flowers before I finished them, I always said I want them to show together in Queens first – to bring all the pieces together in Queens, and from there I’m happy to show them anywhere, so this worked out great for Flores de Femicidio.
ANTE: And does the diversity of Queens’ residents contribute to this sentiment as well?
NB-B: Yes, and the number of Argentinian residents we have in Queens in particular, and the ability to open this conversation with students, some of whom deal with these topics at home such as domestic violence. Often universities and educational institutions don’t discuss these topics in depth. So showing at this university made this exhibition that much more special.
ANTE: So you mentioned to me previously that every flower takes up to 10 hours to complete – can you tell us more about this process?
NB-B: Every flower is different – there is no cookie cutter size. Every flower had to be cut out and hand drawn on the petals, and each had to have a number system since no two are identical. Each was numbered since they had to have individually labeled petals. I then had to sort these out, coat them and expose them, develop them, shape them, assemble them, create a tag for each woman who the flower is for – some of these flowers are embellished with crystals and glitter as well, requiring extra work.
Each flower has anywhere from 6-30 petals and there are varying designs of flowers, so in order to keep track of them, I had to come up with a numbering system to be able to sort them and build them. The building process for each individual flower required more cutting, shaping and gluing of the petals. Once the petals were done, the flower could be assembled. Each flower has a backing where the petals were glued onto, and they also have a wire hanger in the back so each flower could be hung. I built all the flowers first, and then assigned a name to each flower at the end. Each flower has a cyanotype name tag on it to represent each femicide victim.
There’s also a calendar aspect to this exhibition. The show also acts as a giant calendar, and there are cyanotype plaques in Spanish and English along the wall toward the floor outlining the months. These signs are not immediately visible, so as you walk around and begin encountering the flowers you start to realize gradual details: each individual month relates to these flowers, the women they are named for, and the use of Spanish reminds visitors that this is in relationship with Argentina, in dialogue with the scope of this project.
ANTE: I feel that sometimes specificity – in this case, showing the amount of femicides in Argentina over the course of a specific year (2019) – is able to reach a wider group of people because of the level of detail. It’s specific as opposed to being vague, demonstrating focus and intention.
NB-B: While documenting the show at York, I met a woman who worked with the Haitian embassy here in New York. She started a conversation with me about violence against women in Haiti. This is such an important topic, she noted, and she said she wanted to reflect on Haiti, the residents there and how women there experience violence often overlooked by the government.
ANTE: How did you research this project given the many barriers around finding out information on femicides in the Americas (lack of government diligence on this topic, etc.)?
NB-B: In the beginning of 2019 the number of femicides had started increasing so there was widespread coverage then, but throughout the year this coverage started to dwindle. There was less and less information over time. I saved everything I would read; I had a folder and would save everything and go back to the info I had found. There’s also feminist publication, Clarín, in Argentina that in the middle of 2020 published an enormous obituary of all femicide cases from 2019 to mid-2020 with victims’ names, ages and a brief sentence of how they were killed. The publication was digital and every rectangle published in this report represented a femicide victim. They stepped in to document when mass media had stopped widely reporting. In many cases, I was able to get to know each woman through their online presence, through their name and the online research I did to get to know them. Early on in my research, in newspapers, you would get first and last name, but over time it became first name and last initial, or even no name: just a documentation of the violence. there eventually would be no resources: no further info on who did this, etc. throughout this project over time there were many flowers that unfortunately have no names.
ANTE: Can you talk more about the process of cyantopying and the iconography of the flower as the focus of this project?
NB-B: Sure. One of the most popular things associated with cyanotyping is botanicals: flowers are popular, but I didn’t make them early on because it just didn’t call out to me as a subject matter unless it was in dialogue with something else. When I started with the concept of the project, I knew it had to do it with flowers because flowers for me have always symbolized death. From a young age, since my grandfather passed, I would always bring flowers to his grave with my family. It’s also a sign of honor: honoring someone’s life after their passing. I started off making regular flowers without cyanotype, in dialogue with a long tradition fo women making paper flowers. I wanted to play with the fine line between craft and Fine Art and explore how to bring craft into Fine Art, and throughout this process I realized no one has ever made a cyanotype flower sculpture. So then I thought: I’ll be the first one to make it.
I immediately went and made a prototype, not included in this show – it’s my artist proof. No name is attached to it. I realized: this is possible, I can make this. But I knew from the very beginning it was going to be labor intensive. So many other factors were things I didn’t know were coming in my life: new pregnancy, the pandemic. This project was hard but it is manageable, I thought and I’d spend my nights planning out petals, cutting them out. This process was so labor intensive, but I began to create a method around making these sculptures, and over time began to follow a rhythm and figure out how each flower would live as its own unique sculpture. Weekends, nights: all my free time was absorbed by this project, month after month.
So the process started with drawing out the petals from templates, and in these I numbered each petal with a code so I could keep track of the number of flowers I had drawn out. I had assistants help me cut out the petals. So I would drop off a batch that had been drawn out for cutting, and while those were getting cut out I would continue drawing out more until all were drawn and cut. Then I had to sort them out and put them in bags so I could separate them and prepare them for coating. My attic was set up as a darkroom where no sunlight came in and was safe for the petals to be coated in the cyanotype chemicals. Cyanotypes are exposed using UV light, so it was crucial that not outside light would enter the room. With a tarp on the floor, about 30 cyanotypes flowers could be coated at a time. Then once the emulsion was dry, I would bag them all up all again and bring them downstairs to prepare for exposures.
The exposure time depended on what I was using for a negative to make the photogram print. Dried flowers required a 15-30 minute exposure (depending on the flower) and lace required 30-40 minutes depending on the thickness of the flower or lace. The larger the flower size, the more exposures it took to expose all the petals for one flower. I should mention that I could expose between 10-15 petals on average, more if the flower was smaller, but some flowers were so large that it took 5 sessions to expose all the petals in just one flower. After exposing the petals had to be developed in a tray with water and then placed on blotter paper to dry, then sorted back into bags so they can be built. It truly was labor intensive, what you see when you enter Flores de Femicidio, and I’m happy to discuss the conceptual and formal aspects of this work with visitors.
ANTE: Throughout the course of this project, did you see anything in this process as transfomative given the research and time involved, and the stories of these women you were then transforming into beautiful objects?
NB-B: I would often just need to take time away after researching, I would have to take a break after reading about a murder of a child and that child’s mother – I would read this and just take a moment to go into the other room. I would think of my son asleep in the next room and just reflect on how unimaginable was this violence, this story. And then the story of the mother, of this woman and her life – I wanted to make these flowers to bring something beautiful to her name. I was resolved the last thing associated to this woman wouldn’t just be this violence, this tragedy. Here is going to be this beautiful object that I’ve made in this person’s honor. I think in terms of transformation also from 2D to 3D, thinking about this story that’s just a story that then becomes an object – something I just read that turns into something tangible: something that exists in real life – even beyond life.
I’ve heard people say, “Oh I thought this project was so beautiful until I realized what this show is about and now it’s just so sad.” But I think about beauty, and how women are expected to be beautiful. Our lives can be sad too; not everything about our lives is beautiful. There are more dimensions to who we are. There are people who don’t speak on domestic violence because it’s not pretty – they don’t know how people around them will react to this news.
ANTE: Also, horrifically, the only person who feels the effects of this violence are the women: the men aren’t shunned for this violence. Women hold the shame of these violent acts.
NB-B: As part of the show for the York College Art Gallery, I created a binder containing dried flower petals, negatives with name tag information, stories from these women – the murder information – translated from Spanish to English – and even have photos of the women included. With this binder you can go find the individual’s flower on the wall, read these notes and sketches and further engage with this project. I’ve also added a trigger warning to give people the choice to engage with these stories as that’s critical as well. It’s a heavy thing having to translate these stories, seeing these truths live in two languages, making these stories more tangible to a wider audience.
ANTE: When you’re talking about beauty I think of the beauty pageant system and of pageants as an institution in Louisiana where I’m from; is this something that is relevant to Argentinian society as well? That beauty is the expected dimension for women to inhabit socially?
NB-B: I definitely see this as being relevant to majority of women living in Argentina, who are meant to look pretty, who should have children but not look like they’ve had them- keep their beauty and make everything look easy. Then there are so many other underlying topics with colorism, socio-economic background, even religious faith. Something interesting to note about this topic is that the government uses the term femicide – the WHO has ‘violence against women’ with related numbers to the Argentinian count of ‘femicidios.’ Over time I noticed the numbers didn’t add up and it’s because in Argentina the governement didn’t count Trans women’s murders. Also if two women, such as a mother and daughter, were murdered in the same act, it was only counted as a single femicide.
ANTE: That certainly needs to change. Thinking about changes in society recently, I’m ruminating about the evolution of the #metoo movement. How do you see this topic being treated now, is there a resurgence of attention now? Was it just in that one moment from your research?
NB-B: That movement definitely impacted it – the hashtag in Spanish is #niunamenos meaning we don’t want one less woman. There was also #niunamas – I think in 2018/19 when you looked at the jump in femicide numbers that occurred, there were numbers that had risen and feminists in Argentina were fighting for femicides to be recognized and for the government to do something about it. The numbers continued to go up but in spite of that there was less media coverage over time. I don’t see that this is a topic that’s been fixed or that we can stop talking about it, it still continues. In conversation with femicides, honor killings come up often. In different parts of the world this phenomenon is called different things – but there’s no honor in killing a woman, this is not the right term. My days are filled of reading stories of femicides from all over the world, not just Argentina.
ANTE: I think of a recent encounter I had the memorial to the #niunamas monument in Mexico City, and cases abroad such as Noor Mukadam in Pakistan and Sarah Everard in the UK. There seems to be a hesitancy built in socially against upending the establishment. Are societies built on violence? I hope not, but we need to be willing to change, pursue and implement laws against femicides.
NB-B: Speaking to this, in Argentina there are laws against femicides but most of the time those who are responsible either aren’t caught or the police don’t pursue leads related to the femicides. If this continues then how are the aggressors being found? They’re not. They aren’t finding them and then nothing can be done. What’s the point to having a law then, if nothing is being done to enforce it? They’ll argue there’s not enough funding for these investigations. It’s ridiculous when you read the justifications for these investigations not happening. Looking to Gabby Petito’s case, it didn’t take too long to find her remains. Imagine if every femicide had that level of attention: everyone sharing leads, video captures, information and coming together to solve the case, imagine if that happened for every femicide. We’d see results. People would be more afraid. The perpetrator would start to think whoa, people are paying attention, I might get caught and maybe just wouldn’t do it.
ANTE: Yes, it’s very clear that not every case is treated the same. Trans women, Indigenous women – not every case of femicide is treated with the same amount of scrutiny. You can feel that there should be more to prevent violence against all of these women, there’s so much more than can be done. I think of this poem from the Second wave Feminist publication Heresies’ Issue #6: On Women and Violence by Elaine McCarthy that reflects on a woman reporting her rape, and the police essentially make fun of her, telling her that they need all of the details and insinuating that the case won’t be solved.
NB-B: Dr. Diana Russell was active in the 1970s as well – she passed on in 2020, but she popularized the term femicide although it has existed since the 1800s. If we labeled every single femicide that occured with that term then we’d notice it happening all around us all the time. They happen so often, they often go unpunished, and people don’t want to see it. It’s a truth that people don’t want to admit, as a society, we’ve decided no – it’s too ugly.