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Soldadera: Loving in the War Years

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"Tierra y Libertad,­ Kevlar® 2945," 2010. Protective Kevlar® wearable fighting costume, 9 mm slugs, gloves by Tawny Featherson. | Photo: Dale Griner.

Inspired by Nao Bustamante's exhibition, Soldadera ­­-- the artist's "speculative reenactment" of women's participation on the front lines of The Mexican Revolution­­ -- Artbound is publishing articles about the exhibition's development, historical contexts engaged by this project, and writing inspired by the work. Soldadera was guest curated for the Vincent Price Art Museum by UC Riverside professor Jennifer Doyle, and is on view from May 16 ­- August 1, 2015.

Nao Bustamante's exhibition "Soldadera" disrupts the master narratives of the Mexican Revolution. Her feminist and decolonial project is centered on what Emma Perez describes as "the gaps, the interstitial moments of history" as it weaves in the story of those who have been ignored, neglected, rendered into fantasy or altogether erased.1 Bustamante's "Soldadera," revitalizes the revolution's archives to uncover hidden stories while imagining and creating an alternate reality in which these women could be protected as they participated in the war. The exhibition makes room for more than one possible history -- it invites narratives that exist outside of the national lore and myths by focusing on women who lived in the in-between spaces. It also welcomes viewers to connect with a past that might be familiar to us in terms of our own familial and cultural ancestries, which are often shared through stories and memories.

Mexican ballads -- corridos -- and popular tales of valor aggrandize the courage of those who fought against the ruling powers while fantasizing about the women involved. As Alicia Arrizón writes in her article about soldaderas and adelitas, many stories idealized the soldadera and their motives for joining the fight while failing to show how "their experiences were more complex, tragic and profound than the romantic interpretations provided in these ballads." Popular images do not match the stories of our grandmothers and elders who told of their families' experiences of the war. There was making tortillas, washing, tending to the children and the ill, having to provide for everyone with only scraps, and having to defend oneself and one's own at all costs.

Special Collections and University Archives, Tomás Rivera Library, University of California, Riverside.
From the Special Collections and University Archives, Tomas Rivera Library, University of California, Riverside.

These other narratives are what gives "Soldadera" life. They remind me of the stories my grandmother would tell, of how our families fought against each other at different points in our history and yet they were still part of the same kitchen table. Bustamante has similar stories -- of great-great-uncles who shared meals together when they could, and would then go off to fight for different sides.

My mother's paternal family is heavily linked to the battles for the independence of Texas; her mother's side was from northern Mexico and made of native and mestizo blood. My father's family came to Texas from the northern states of Mexico right around the time of the revolution and also has people on both sides of national lines. The bloodlines of my family know no border. In our history, there were loved ones on all sides, with Zapata and Villa, fighting under Diaz and Madero, and many, many others in the U.S. fighting different battles as both migrants and native peoples. When we were children, we listened to the adults tell their stories. This is the history we know intimately, that is shared while we cook and eat together. These stories are shared alongside other memories of trial and hunger, and include personal moments that are not tied to a historical or war timeline. They recognize war's burden of hardship and death, but also keep their humor and memories of joy. War is always associated with death. These stories remembered life as well; how life was before and after, the ways we survived and lived beyond battles.

Installation view, Nao Bustamante, "Soldadera" at the Vincent Price Art Museum. Foreground: "Kevlar Fighting Costumes" (set of 5), 2015. Background: "Soldadera," film projection, 2015. | Photo: Monica Orozco.
Installation view, Nao Bustamante, "Soldadera" at the Vincent Price Art Museum. Foreground: "Kevlar Fighting Costumes" (set of 5), 2015. Background: "Soldadera," film projection, 2015. | Photo: Monica Orozco., by klxadm

Walking into the exhibition, a small, yellow duster coat demands attention. It stands at the front of several dresses inspired by Edwardian fashion and traditional women's clothing of early 20th century Mexico. Varying in size and body shape, each dress is made out of Kevlar bulletproof material, serving as both an everyday garment as well as a woven shield for combat. Each dress is based on clothing worn by women who appear in photographs of the Revolution, some of which are on display within the exhibit. Surrounded by different forms of historical memory and alternative histories, the dresses stand at attention in the center of the exhibition space.

While Bustamante's previous performance and installation art tends to involve the artist and her body, the artist makes only indirect appearances in "Soldadera." She is part of the video "Test Shoot" that accompanies "Tierra y Libertad, Kevlar® 2945" (2010). She also used her body shape and measurements for the construction of that first gown, as it was intended to serve as a personal form of protection for the artist. In this way, the exhibit references the embodied presence of history, of shared knowledge, and the possibility of seeing ourselves as part of this decolonial herstory. In other words, as we feel the absence of the body, it reveals the nature of the exhibition's story.

Clad in an Edwardian combat dress made of Kevlar®, how would a woman fighting in the Mexican Revolution stand up to the weaponry of 1910? “Personal Protection” takes a quiet approach to a very difficult subject. As women soldiers struggle on behalf of their right to fight alongside men, they redefine military culture. Nowhere is this more painfully visible than in the military's efforts to address pervasive sexual harassment in its culture.

Nao Bustamante's project takes up the question of how gender and sexuality matter in military conflict and in military culture by stepping back to consider what a woman does when she puts her gendered body on the front line, in the most literal of terms. In this video, we see the test footage for the first fighting costume in the series, "Tierra y Libertad."

A duster coat stands between two larger dresses as if the figure belonged to them. Together, they take the shape of a family portrait -- absent the bodies of the women these dresses reference. On entering the gallery, I approached the coat's side, standing in front of the larger dress to its right; this dress, with its large, puffy sleeves and fuller waist, would fit my body -- it could protect a woman like me. I looked back down at the duster coat, studying it from the side. I was taken aback: I saw a familiar face looking up at me. The duster coat, fixed on a dress form mannequin, had no head, no hands poking out of its sleeves, no small shoes peeking out from underneath. But there I saw her, as clear as day, looking up at me and smiling with excitement. My 9-year-old niece, Miriam, stood there in the duster coat. Her excitement glowed as she looked down at the coat, moving her arms and touching the buttons, squirming excitedly in a vestment that was meant for an adult woman's body. I could see her long, dark hair in full braids and her long lashes flutter as she looked around. My heart stopped. I blinked and she was gone. The duster coat was empty, standing impossibly still.

Nao Bustamante, "Tierra y Libertad,­ Kevlar® 2945," 2010. Protective Kevlar® wearable fighting costume, 9 mm slugs, gloves by Tawny Featherson. | Photo: Dale Griner.

I quickly moved away to look at the other dresses, trying to let go of the vision. I noted how each detail in its design only enhanced its capabilities. Each dress is a shield -- Kevlar protects the body by dispersing the blow of the bullet. Each dress is intricate and thoughtful. I wondered about their weight and flexibility -- could you bend to do the washing and still carry its weight? Would it allow you to bring along your child or sibling and also let you crouch down behind a bush in battle? I marveled at their pleats and trimmings, some adorned with the distinctive markings of high fashion, some made with the elegant simplicity of a common dress. I stood in front of a dress that includes a small bolero jacket linked with a small chain at its waist. My gaze moved up the torso to see my other niece looking back at me. She's 16, not much younger than many of the women who were part of the Mexican Revolution. She brought her hands up to her waist and gazed back at me with a large, closed-lip smile and pride gleaming from her eyes. Her thin neck led perfectly into the dress, her hair drawn into a bun, high on her head. She looked ready -- for life, for battle, to keep moving, for anything. I shut my eyes, trying to remain in the moment and understand why I kept seeing women that I loved in these dresses. I opened my eyes and she was still looking back at me. I looked to her side and saw my oldest niece pulling her long brown hair to the side as she secured the buttons at her shoulder. Her tender gaze told me she understood. I could see others around us -- tias, primas, friends, and elders. My youngest niece peeked back around again, giggling as she hid behind her sister's skirt. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. They are there, in my mind's eye, just like the many other women in our past who stay with us. My ancestors fought, died, and lived through this war, and the women were there. Wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, and nieces. I could feel the weight of this past along with the urgency of the future. I thought of a possible moment where my nieces would need a bulletproof dress to survive. I took a step back and opened my eyes again, and the dresses stood still -- bodiless.

Production still, "Test Shoot." Nao Bustamante uses a gun typical of the Mexican Revolution to test the protective strength of her fighting costume.
Production still, "Test Shoot." Nao Bustamante uses a gun typical of the Mexican Revolution to test the protective strength of her fighting costume.

When I first saw "Tierra y Libertad, Kevlar® 2945," the absence of a physical body bothered me. Bustamante's first Kevlar dress was tested against historically appropriate weaponry and ammunition. It is now displayed horizontally, under a protective glass vitrine. The bright yellow material has dimmed to a golden hue. At that first viewing, it reminded me of wakes and memorials -- an eerie reminder of the costs of war. I kept wondering about the body this dress was supposed to protect. Would the impact of those bullets take their toll after battle? What if a bullet made it past the layers? In retrospect, I think what made me uneasy was the confrontation with the fact that the armored dress is not a full safeguard against wounding and pain. Agony and death are still very possible for the soldadera wearing this gown.

The bodies of women of color already carry many wounds and scars, both physically and spiritually. Our bodies bear the marks of histories of oppression and violence, seen and born in our lifetimes as well as inherited from generations before. Maria Root explains this generational wounding as a form of "insidious trauma" where the effects of institutionalized violence (racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, etc.) have damaged not only the bodies, but the minds and souls of oppressed people. This trauma is passed down from parent to child and further ingrained in our cultural psyche. We already know to protect our bodies from predators. We know to protect those who are more vulnerable than us. We know that we cannot always trust those who are supposed to lead and fight for us. Thinking about the intent behind "Soldadera," I could not help but wonder if this armor could really protect us. Could we really survive in that dress? Fear can be incapacitating; the threat to survival overpowers hope. I couldn't imagine the bodies that this dress would have protected or could protect -- until I imagined the women I love in them.

Special Collections and University Archives, Tomás Rivera Library, University of California, Riverside.
From the Special Collections and University Archives, Tomas Rivera Library, University of California, Riverside.

My experience with the artwork changed after this encounter. I'm not sure if it was a daydream or a vision, or maybe an ancestral consciousness surfacing from inherited memory. I felt the need to let go of the fear and feel hope. Bustamante's exhibit commemorates the women of an important past while searching for new ways to protect the self and the body. The art also honors one way by which we survived, and that is through loving. Loving through acts of care and protection, sacrifice and hope, by living through war. In her poem "Loving in the War Years," Cherríe Moraga writes:

 

Loving in the war years
calls for this kind of risking
without a home to call our own
I've got to take you as you come
to me, each time like a stranger
all over again. Not knowing
what deaths you saw today
I've got to take you
as you come, battle bruised
refusing our enemy, fear.

 

We're all we've got. You and I 2

 

Moraga describes how women find love and connection with each other when fighting different battles. She aptly names the enemy fear and recognizes how we need each other if we are to survive. "Soldadera" recognizes how women fought not only for freedom, but for loved ones in their participation in the war. Their acts of fighting, feeding, caring, and loving were revolutionary. They created home with each other, losing much but still moving, still living.

Bustamante's work was drawn from her need to protect her own body and find a way to deflect different forms of violence. She creates the possibility of survival. The women of the revolution found ways to survive and to protect others. Women of color today are still looking for ways to protect themselves against nefarious forms of violence. Bustamante's work is making survival possible for our future, recognizing the strength of the women featured, and the possibilities in making our own forms of protection. After I saw my nieces in the bright Kevlar dresses, I was comforted in knowing that there were those like Bustamante and other artists, activists, and innovators who were seeking ways to protect women and girls like them. I was able to see them that day at a nearby beach, playing with each other in the waves and enjoying the sun, water, and sand on their skin.

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Notes:

1 Pérez, Emma. "The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History." Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1999. Print.

2 Moraga, Cherríe. "Loving In The War Years: Lo Que Nunca Pasó Por Sus Labios." Boston, MA: South End, 1983. 24. Print.


 

Read more about Nao Bustamante's "Soldadera" project:

Nao Bustamante's Soldaderas, Real and Imagined
Nao Bustamante's exhibition "Soldadera" is a "speculative reenactment" of women's participation in The Mexican Revolution. ­­

Searching for Soldaderas: The Women of the Mexican Revolution in Photographs
What can portraits tell us about soldaderas? Nao Bustamante draws from UC Riverside's archival holdings of photographs of the Mexican Revolution to investigate further.

Soldadera: The Unraveling of a Kevlar Dress
Made out of bulletproof Kevlar, Nao Bustamante's re-imagined Soldadera dresses protect the female body against violence.

My Love Affairs with Soldaderas
From calendars to corridos, the image of the Soldadera lives strong in popular culture. Nao Bustamante's new artwork re-imagines dresses of female soldiers.

Soldadera: The Tiny Things They Carried
Leandra Becerra Lumbreras was the last known survivor of the Mexican Revolution. Artist Nao Bustamante and a small crew made a trip to Zapopan, Mexico to meet her.

Soldadera: The Artist Meets Her Muse
At 127 years old, Leandra Becerra Lumbreras was the last survivor of the Mexican Revolution. Artist Nao Bustamante made a pilgrimage to her home in Jalisco, Mexico and found a muse.

Soldadera: Memory Machine
The speculative qualities of Nao Bustamante's exhibition "Soldadera" make a space for marginalized voices to construct alternative futures. Central to the show is installation "Chac-Mool" -- a 7-minute, looping, scented memory machine.

Soldadera: Nao Bustamante and Sergei Eisenstein's Unfinished Revolution
The complex relationship between the Mexican Revolution and the camera is taken up by Nao Bustamante in the cinematic installation anchoring her exhibition "Soldadera." With the short film, the artist reimagines and (re)enacts the the missing sequence from Sergei Eisenstein's never-finished film "¡Que Viva México!".

Soldadera: The Armored Rebozo
A bulletproof rebozo hangs on a wall in Nao Bustamante's exhibition "Soldadera." The yellow shawl carries the stories of women who were a part of the Mexican Revolution's violent history but that are often unrecognized.

 


 

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