A cheap postcard depicting the faded image of a missing Mexican woman thrust into the hand of UK artist Tamsyn Challenger sparked an ambitious “protest” art project on show in London this month. The exhibition, “400 Women” at Shoreditch Town Hall (12-28 November) includes portraits by 200 artists—including Tracey Emin, Paula Rego, Maggi Hambling, Gordon Cheung and Humphrey Ocean—of the countless women who have vanished or been murdered in the US border town of Ciudad Juárez in the past 15 years.
Drug-related killings, domestic violence and even organ trading are among the reasons for the death or disappearance of at least 3,000 women. “It is important that the fate of these women should not go unnoticed,” Rego told The Art Newspaper.
Challenger was inspired to mount the show after an encounter with Consuelo Valenzuela, the mother of a missing person, Julieta, on a trip to Mexico in 2006. “I met with some of the families and was struck by their need to hand me postcards that had been made in the hope of finding their loved ones. These images were black, white and pink and poorly produced but they prompted the idea in my mind,” she says.”
For “400 Women”, Challenger invited each artist to paint a portrait of one of the lost women. Some of the works are based on photographs she obtained from Amnesty International, the support group Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa (May Our Daughters Return Home) and the Esther Chavez Collection (Chavez was a Mexican womens’ rights activist), along with forensic accounts of the murders.
“Not all the artists received an image, some just got a name. This decision was linked to their practice,” says Challenger. The pieces have all been produced in a size reminiscent of a Mexican retablo [altarpiece]. Ellen Mara De Wachter, curator of the London-based Zabludowicz Collection, organised the display. Just under half the artists are men with Olga Chorro and Abraham Jiménez among those participating from Mexico.
“Tamsyn sent me what looked like a happy family snapshot to work from,” says artist Eileen Cooper. “The experience of trying to capture a person and comment on such a poignant loss was much more difficult than I anticipated. I hope my piece captures a Mexican quality.” Hambling relished the “challenge”. The veteran UK artist explained how she received an “old-fashioned postcard of a beautiful young girl”. But her first attempt at depicting Paloma Angelica was, to her mind, a failure. “I was appalled so I scraped off the thick paint and it then looked wonderful with a ghostly quality; it has both presence and absence,” she says.
Challenger points out that in August 2006 the Mexican federal government dropped its investigations into the murders, concluding that no federal laws had been violated. This impunity has had a knock-on effect, she notes: “400 is an arbitrary number taken from an Amnesty report documenting the killings from 1993 to 2003; more than 300 women, most of them very poor, have been killed this year alone in Ciudad Juárez.”
A US curator has expressed interest in touring the show in America while Amnesty, which is backing the project, is considering producing editions of the works.