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MADRE by Marisol Mendez Published by Setanta Books

Artist Blog by Magda Kuca

MADRE imaginatively captures some of that richness and diversity of female experience, with Mendez walking a shifting line between fact and fiction in her collaboratively staged portraits. Mendez worked closely with her sitters to craft the visions she presents in MADRE, with costumes, props, and all carefully coordinated to reflect the subject’s desired persona. In nearly every image, the woman looks directly at the camera, her gaze active, confident, and aware, in some cases with a degree of confrontation or challenge, quietly destroying any idea that she is somehow passive or not in control of her personal presentation.

In the page turns of MADRE, we are introduced to a wide range of Bolivian women, with age, race, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, and cultural heritage all presented as component parts of female identity. Many of Mendez’s portraits are amplified by notable details: thick long hair, bowler hats (worn by Aymara and Quechua women), a horned mask, traditional embroidered skirts, Catholic iconography (like angel wings, halos, and crowns), a quinceañera dress and tiara, a beauty pageant sash (worn by a transwoman), and even a floral headdress paired with a cocked gun. And a few images are further enhanced by small light flares and processing imperfections that bring a sense of serendipitous magic to the proceedings, particularly when the areas of light create the appearance of inexplicable tears or bursts of flame.

The flow of MADRE interleaves the portraits with still lifes and other symbolic images, as well as several images of women and girls from the artist’s own family albums. The symbolism is often relatively straightforward, in terms of its female associations, including caves and openings in the landscape, religious statues with weeping eyes, a rotting apple, a cracked egg, various floral specimens, a broken swan, a selection of leftover angels and plastic wrapped saints, and one ghostly shadow cast across a wall. The family pictures are printed on textured paper and glued into the photobook, giving them more object quality; but they too wrestle with female personas and roles, from wedding photos to posed Catholic school setups. Together, these supporting images provide further context for Mendez’s portraits, connecting them to the artist’s own past and seeing different forms of female identity embodied in her everyday surroundings.

What’s memorable about MADRE is that on one hand it is a celebration of female diversity, but on the other, it is a kind of protest book, offering resistance to the narrow definitions of acceptable womanhood, in Bolivia and elsewhere. It is this tense atmosphere of resistance that gives the book its charge and energy, simultaneously amplifying and subverting the idea of “mother”.

  • Loring Knoblauch

Marisol Mendez is an inspiration to Magda Kuca.

Magda Kuca is part of »Guest Room: Varun Gupta & Arpan Mukherjee«.

Check out her Artist Feature “The Grandmothers”.