All it takes is just a few steps inside the room to feel unsettled. Shaken. Like at a crime scene, you have to wear disposable shoe covers to walk among the red sea of bodies and words. Each silhouette on the floor symbolizes a woman, a life shattered by gender violence. Each word, each sentence, akin to a piece of evidence that holds a disturbing truth: “you put flowers in his hands so he can put them in my hands every time he kills me and make my grave look beautiful,” says a message scrawled in handwriting on the floor.
Just about every corner of the installation, “If I Catch You... Body, Woman, Fracture”, created by Marta Pérez García, evokes the rawness of grief, death, suffering and pain. Next to the sketches on the ground, in the center of the installation, thousands of shell casings, teeth and eyeballs remind you of the women murdered, of the body parts that eventually surface but remain nameless, of the eyes that witness violence yet stay silent and indifferent.
Suddenly a murmur starts fading in all around you, drowning the male voice in the background singing “If I Catch You,” the bomba song composed by Bobby Capó and popularized by the band Ismael Rivera and his Cachimbos in 1977, the inspiration and title of the installation. The song tells the story of a man threatening to punch his partner in the face should he catch her flirting with another man. The singer’s voice dissolves as the voices of women telling their stories of violence and survival invade the display room at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC by its Spanish acronym) in Santurce. Lifting my head to trace the roar coming from a nearby speaker, I see an army of dolls on top of a metal base. Standing.
Pérez started working on the provocative project five years ago after the MAC approached her. “From the start, I knew it would be an interactive composition. I wanted people to engage with the piece. To stoop down and be careful not to step on the letters and messages. I want them to look down and pause as they stroll around the circle, to think and reflect about gender violence,” the artist told THE WEEKLY JOURNAL.
“Another important element was the use of words and language. I believe that when you verbalize your story, not just keep it whirling in your head, you liberate yourself,” added Pérez, who is well-known for her crafted lithographs and feminist art.
The Puerto Rican artist, currently living in Washington, D.C., also chose the materials for the exhibit deliberately. The use of pantyhose/nylon mimics a woman’s delicate skin, which tears easily; the dolls and letter blocks are a reference to childhood and the cycle of violence that starts at a young age.
“I wanted to tackle this issue because I think all women have been exposed to some type of violence in their lives,” Pérez explained of the theme of her piece which coincidentally opened in the midst of a call from feminist groups for Gov. Wanda Vázquez to declare a state of emergency due to a rise in domestic violence murders. Twelve women have died at the hands of their partners to date.
“Violence is not pretty,” the artist said as she recognized the shock that the installation could provoke.
After the artistic boundaries were determined, Pérez set out to work with women who have survived domestic violence on the island and in her adoptive city. Hundreds of survivors crafted the dolls that give life to the piece. With each stitch, a new doll/body was born, and an emotional wound healed.
“It is a lot easier to express your pain through art than to talk about it,” Pérez stated.
The work reflects it. It explores art and healing, the relationship between the audience and art, and the limits of the body. The messages written on the skin of the dolls attest to the change: “I am not a doll.” “Don’t touch me. Go way.” “Respect my body.” “My vagina is not for you to take when you want.”
“The dolls are together, straight, looking at the public. They represent this body of women united and strong, standing, asserting their right to speak and not to hide anymore,” Pérez explained of the montage.
But the exhibit, that will run through Oct. 12, goes a step further. From a feminist perspective, the artist appropiates the imagery associated with women’s submission like the pantyhose trapping women in androcentric beauty standards; and the dolls, that are used in most cases to shape women’s behavior and turned them into weapons against sexism and misogyny. How? By giving the women that participated in the project the empowerment needed to reclaim their lives and the opportunity to denounce the violence suffered.
In that takeover, Pérez crafted a subversive narrative and piece of art that resonates with the words of the feminist philosopher Hélène Cixous who encouraged women to write themselves into text, the world and history.