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Exhibition: 400 Women at Shoreditch Town Hall

175 artists take part in a new, confronting exhibition aims to highlight the murders of over 400 women in Mexico. Here's a summary with an interview with its curator, Tamsyn Challenger.

Written by Matt Bramford

Rosa Virginia Hernández Caro (31), by Sadie Lee

A new exhibition in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall aims to highlight the brutal murders of over 400 women in the Mexican town Ciudad Juarez. A range of artists have been brought together over five years by Tamsyn Challenger, an artist herself, who was inspired to take action after a visit to the region.

So far 175 artists have contributed to the project, which now acts as confrontational group of portraits. Each work is 14″x10″ (apart from a few exceptions) which is much smaller than I had imagined. The size echoes the retablo, meaning ‘behind the altar’ – a nod to iconic Catholic imagery which still holds so much power in Mexico.

Artists such as Maggi Hambling, Tracey Emin and Paula Rego have lent their skills.

Brenda Patricia Meléndez Vásquez (14), by Ilinca Cantacuzino, and Barbara Araceli Martinez Ramos, by Maggi Hambling

It seems totally inappropriate to single out any particular artists or pieces that I favoured in any way, which seems was the objective from the start. Works are presented anonymously; it’s only by corresponding the chalked number on the floor underneath the works to the handout that you discover who painted each woman. The pamphlet also provides information about the subjects such as their age and, distressingly, whether they are missing or how they were murdered. On the launch night there were the odd pair sprinting around for No. 51 (Tracey Emin) and No. 130 (Maggi Hambling) but the focus is on the women rather than the artists with each image displaying their names. In fact, because of the nature of the crimes and the fact that most of the victims were from impoverished families, some of them don’t even have a photograph from which the artist could have worked. Some of the works – a pair of shoes, a pendant necklace, embossed metal – bear only the name simply because that’s all the artists had to work with.

Erendira Ivonne Ponce Hernández (17), by Phil Cath

Some were underwhelming, some were so moving they reduced me to tears. The gallery is the perfect setting for such an exhibition with its dark alcoves and myriad of rooms, but the opening night was absolutely heaving and it was impossible to see all of the works up close. This might be a good thing.

I caught up with Tamsyn to find out a little more about the project.

How did the 400 Women project come together?
On a flight home from Mexico in 2006 I had almost laid out in my mind the parameters for the concept behind 400. Initially, when I got home I set about trying to source imagery. This actually took a very long time but after help from Rupert Knox at Amnesty International I connected up with Marisela Ortiz who runs one of the mothers groups in Juarez and she sent the bulk of photos of the disappeared and murdered. I then, basically, cold-called artists I like and respect and invited them to collaborate on the project. If they said yes, I would make little connections with the artist to the woman or girl I chose for them. I’d also give them a small amount of information about their woman depending on the artist; as you can imagine some of the info is pretty grisly and I was very aware that I was asking each artist to describe a difficult thing. I was only prescriptive about the sizing because it was vital that the artist had free reign so that each work was individual.

What does 400 Women hope to achieve?
The idea for me is reliant on each artist representing the woman they’ve been given, in some way bringing her back. My hope is that unlike the easy way in which each of these women’s lives have been disposed of, the 400 Women works won’t be so easily disregarded. The importance we bestow upon objects is, of course, a tragedy and irony of our existence and is embedded in the concept. Ciudad Juarez has become an open wound, a region synonymous with gender violence, but ideally, I would like 400 Women to stand for gender violence globally. The 1 in 4 women that suffer domestic violence in this country and the US is a statistic I often think of and one that I wish we would stop putting into shadow and confront.

Elena Guadian Simental (19), by Julie Bennett

What will happen to the portraits when the exhibition finishes?
We anticipate the project will tour to the US and I would love to see it in Mexico eventually.

Will 400 Women continue to develop as an art project as well as a cause?
Potentially. I’ve dedicated five years to the project so far and up until this year have been working in isolation on it, except the other artists! The project is now partnered with Amnesty and I know that they are planning an event next year based around the work. The action cards they have produced to accompany the project are excellent and can be picked up when you visit the project in Shoreditch. These go directly to the Mexican Federal Government to request they take some action to stop the gender violence in Ciudad Juarez.

Has the opening been a success?
I’m not sure that’s for me to say, but here’s a photograph from outside…

400 Women runs until the 28th November. Get all the information in our listings section.


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One Response to “Exhibition: 400 Women at Shoreditch Town Hall”

  1. Riseart says:

    Again, I missed this exhibition, but I am so happy I can read up a little on it here!

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