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Cantando Bajito, "Testimonies," at the Ford Foundation

From the Barricades, 1980-97. Courtesy of the Artist. In the community, protesting sexual child abuse in the home, New Seemapuri, New Delhi, 1992


By YOHANNA M ROA April 24, 2024 

It is not the same to endure as to re-exist

Remaining silent is not the same as Singing In a Low Tone  

The Ford Foundation Gallery Presents Cantando Bajito, Testimonies, the first of three exhibitions, that explores the violence of bodily autonomy, an issue that has historically concerned humanity, particularly regarding feminized bodies.The power of this exhibition project lies in its situating the aesthetics of vulnerability and distance from the systematic and everyday violence of the aesthetics of cruelty. This dislocation represents a change in the political position to think about the exhibition device because the body of work included in the show are revolutionary actions carried out by people who, finding themselves amid a situation of extreme and systemic violence, have re-existed by developing strategies, not only to resist the moment of violence but to exceed the impositions that physical and symbolic violence come to constitute on those who are subjected. This first show ¨Testimonies¨ curated by Isis Awad, Roxana Fabius and Beya Othmani, includes the works of Sheba Chhachhi, Gabrielle Goliath, Leonilda González, Lalitha Lajmi, Kent Monkman, Tuli Mekondjo, Sylvia Netzer, Abigail Reyes, Dima Srouji and Keioui Keijaun Thomas. 

The title "Cantando Bajito," which in English can be translated as "Singing In a Low Tone," comes from the phrase pronounced by Dora María Tellez Arguello, a Nicaraguan historian and former medical student, also known as "Comandante Dos," a name given to her, for her participation in the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in the process of overthrowing the dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. She was later minister of health and advocate for women's rights. Tellez was imprisoned in solitary confinement due to her opposition (alongside other figures) to Daniel Ortega's government. Upon being recently released, she mentioned that the use of her voice, singing softly daily, was her tool to overthrow the system. This reference to the power of different frequencies and tones of voice runs throughout the exhibition and it is presented as more than a way to re-exist the violence of bodily autonomy. Hence, the title of this first exhibition: ¨Testimonies¨ alludes to the possibility of Singing In a Low Tone or shouting when putting your body forward while participating in a march or protest. Then you can sing for yourself, and you can also sing collectively, you can sing when you are violated, or you can sing afterward in order to re-exist.

Tuli Mekondjo, Omalutu etu, omeli medu eli/ Our bodies are within this soil, 2022, Mixed media on canvas, 188.9 x 122.6 cm, Photo by JSP Art Photography - Maria Eriksen

The works of art in this exhibition serve, in themselves as testimonial objects. Some share the artist's story and others become a vehicle for others to tell their story. Activist and photographer Sheba Chhachhi revisits her archive of images from the Indian feminist movement In From the Barricades (1980-1997). The images, both intimate and powerful, capture the essence of collective resistance and document women’s protest against forms of oppression including rape, dowry, religious fundamentalism, and domestic and state violence. The engravings of Novias Revolucionarias (Revolutionary brides) (1968) by Leonilda González Leonilda were created before the dictatorship started in Uruguay (1973) and then later it was resignified as a symbol of resistance because of the imagery and the brides left behind.

One of the ¨Anchor¨ pieces in the exhibition is Gabrielle Goliath's sound work ¨This song is for...¨ (2019-), a collaborative work in which the artist asked survivors of sexual violence to contribute a piece of writing and a song. In this immersive piece (which laterally reminds us of the film “Songs” by Brazilian Eduardo Coutinho)[1] you watch and listen to a group of women performing popular songs. Through their singing, different levels of experience are produced, in which although it is clear to us visitors that something dramatic has happened and there is a permanent tension that can lead us to tears, also the set of their voices and the letters written by them, together with the artist, constitute a community that coalesces to generate a fracture in the cycle of violence and then we can discover that they have achieved an after. It is not a process of resilience or overcoming but a powerful daily revolutionary exercise using the voice.

1. Butler, J., Gambetti, Z., & Sabsay, L. (Eds.). (2016). Vulnerability in Resistance. Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv11vc78r

Installation image of Cantando Bajito: Testimonies, 2024. Dima Srouji, Maternal Exhumations II (2023). Sheba Chhachhi, From the Barricades (1980-97). Photo Sebastian Bach. Courtesy of Ford Foundation Gallery.

The exhibition includes a group of works that in different ways address the concept of document and archive. Dima Srouji’s sculptural work Maternal Exhumations II (2023) contemplates colonial violence toward feminized bodies. Her work honors the Palestinian women who were part of the workforce that excavated the land during American and British archeological missions. Kent Monkman’s work intervenes in familiar images of Western art history to explore themes of colonization, sexuality, loss, and resilience from the complex perspectives of underrepresented Indigenous experiences. Through the use of archival materials, the textile work Omalutu etu, omeli medu eli/ Our bodies are within this soil (2022) by Tuli Mekondjo, evokes the presence of women who worked as domestic workers during the colonial and apartheid eras in their native Namibia. The National Archives of Namibia, then called the "South West Africa Archives Depot," was established in 1939 under the colonial rule of The Imperial German administration of German South West Africa. Mekondjo mentions that it was only at the end of the last century that people of color had access to the archive and that even some of the documents were stored with toxic materials, such as arsenic. In the beautiful textile made with natural fibers, pigments and embroidery interventions, a photograph of Namibian women can be seen blurred, next to some German soldiers. The artist mentions, "I always wonder whether or not to include the images of them (referring to the German military) because the possibility that they were the abusers is enormous"; however, there they are, side by side, her ancestors and the military. To understand the relevance, power and strength of Tuli Mekondjo's voice when releasing these images in her textile work, it is necessary to consider the obligation of bringing the bodies and memories of her ancestors to the present, from a past plagued with poison. The voice in this case operates as a liberating device, which does not deny the past, nor re-victimize, but recovers the right to use memory and recognize the knowledge inherited from their ancestors.

Keioui Keijaun Thomas’ multimedia work, such as the featured video BLACK BODIES (2018) and selection of prints from 2015-2019, address Blackness outside of a codependent, binary structure of existence.  The watercolor paintings of Lalitha Lajmi’s Performer Series (2013-2015) contemplate the performances and concealments involved in gender roles. The autobiographical, dream-like quality of her work opens up a shifting space of revelation and subversion.  Abigail Reyes’ Plana (2014), sheets of paper with repeated lines from a secretarial-training typing manual are suspended overhead, transforming tools associated with work categorized as women’s professions. Sylvia Netzer’s sculpture Glen-Gery Olympia (2004)—a monumental artwork in the form of a reclining woman—brings ideas like modularity and repetition from minimalist sculpture to create large-scale work that is deeply personal despite these systematic methods. Netzer’s work renders her personal experience as a woman, and as a large woman who has been excluded from value systems, material and immediate. 

Installation image of Cantando Bajito: Testimonies, 2024. Dima Srouji, Maternal Exhumations II (2023). Sheba Chhachhi, From the Barricades (1980-97). Photo Sebastian Bach. Courtesy of Ford Foundation Gallery.

A relevant aspect in developing ¨Cantando Bajito¨ is the collective curatorial work, which involves group work to generate a curatorship that recognizes violence while structuring a view of pain that does not victimize. The exhibition presents pain beyond sensations; it proposes an experience mediated by the person's life history. Pain occurs privately but generally has collective ways of being understood and experienced. In this way, through the community, pain shapes us as individuals and the relationships we maintain with others; that is, it implies a “transgression” of the border between inside and outside[2]. Therefore, these transgressions have a social place, which implies policies (speeches), norms, regulations, and compensation of what is considered pain and what is not. This first exhibition, "Testimonies," will be followed by two more shows, developed and brought together by curators Isis Awad, Roxana Fabius, Kobe Ko, Beya Othmani, Mindy Seu, and Susana Vargas Cervantes, with the advice of a larger curatorial group integrated by María Carri, Maria Catarina Duncan, Zasha Colah, and Marie Hélène Pereira. The group of curators has built a community, among themselves and with the artists, to establish a political dialogue, which from the private space establishes the routes and criteria that allow us to recognize not only systematic violence but, in particular, the exercises individual and collective, so that there is a re-existence, which is outside the limits of the violence exerted.

[2] Ahmed, The Contingency of Pain. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion, (2004).

The body as an archive plays a fundamental role in the exhibition. The body is full of traces, which, through the voice, become a document and stand as a testimony of the invasions that have happened to these bodies as autonomous territories. Cantando Bajito, in its first exhibition ¨Testimonies¨, can be considered a powerful activating exercise, which enables conversations that did not occur in the past and are necessary to have in the present. The exhibition's works produce fractures in the systematic, conceptual, and symbolic structures that constitute the Violence of bodily autonomy. These fractures go beyond the processes of subjectivization that produce acts of violence and become a contradiction that gives new meaning to this violence. Individual and collective voices have the power to transform our way of relating to the past; therefore, a revolution emerged in the daily politics of the body. Singing In a Low Tone can be seen as a proposal to reveal what has apparently remained latent and invisible, offering an even historical possibility of re-exiting systemic violence. WM



Yohanna M Roa

Yohanna M Roa is a visual artist, art historian, and feminist curator. She is in the MA Women and Gender studies program at the CUNY Graduate Center. She has a Ph.D. in History and Critical Theories of Art program at the Universidad Ibero Americana de México. Master's degree in Visual Arts from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She has given lectures for the SEAC Annual Meeting, The Museum of Contemporary Art of Mexico and the Latin American Public Art Seminar, Brazil-Argentina. She is a permanent contributor to ArtNexus Magazine. Her artistic work has been studied, published and commented by Karen Cordero for the 109 CAA Annual Conference, 2021, in Revaluing Feminine Trajectories and Stitching Alternative Genealogies in the Work of Yohanna Roa, Natalia e la Rosa: Yohanna M Roa, Textile Woman, Casa del Tiempo Magazine, and Creative industries, Innovation and Women's Entrepreneurship in Latin America, published by the Andes University and UNAL in Mexico, 2022. She has developed exhibitions, educational art, and archive projects for including WhiteBox NY, The Tertulia Museum of Modern Art in Colombia, Alameda Art Laboratory Mexico City, and Autonomous University of Nuevo León México. 

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