Healing for Female Violence Victims in Absence/Presence

Janet Toro’s latest artistic performance


Absence/Presence was the latest performance offered by visual artist Janet Toro on the esplanade of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, as part of “Rebeldes”, a cycle of feminist art.  In an interview with El Mostrador the artist explains that “the work is developed with the politics of the body, with the tension of being a woman in a patriarchal, colonial and neoliberal society…”

By Javiera Bruna (El Mostrador)

HAVANA TIMES – Have you ever wondered how art could help repair a history of violence in a woman’s life? This is explored in the Absence/Presence performance that the visual artist Janet Toro Benavides presented on the esplanade of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights as part of the collective exhibition “Rebeldes, an experimental laboratory of feminist practices”.

The performance took place just once, with the participation of ten women who were victims of violence in places including Villa Grimaldi and the notorious detention center known as “Venda Sexy”.  In an interview with El Mostrador Braga, Toro Benavides says that, “more than a performance, it is an act of liberation and catharsis.”

Toro made use of different elements such as the esplanade space, and an installation of black chairs placed along Matucana Avenue, but the most important thing was the bodies of the women themselves. Toro explains that, “in addition to generating a performative project, the objective is to propose a kind of body work that allows these women to establish a different relationship with their bodies and the experience of horror.”

The artist has specialized in different disciplines such as Qi-Gong, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Yoga, and Progressive Muscle Relaxation (Edmund Jacobson), which she offered to the participants. “Through this type of activity based on art and the body, it is possible to remember that not all past times were better, that the duty of those of us who lived through it is to keep memory alive and that the future we build must be distinct from what took place, to safeguard the new generations from the horrors committed by a sector of the country.”  

She also commented on the evolution of women’s participation in art and how art can be used to help heal women who have suffered gender-based violence.

Absence/Presence: conceived of as a space for healing and catharsis

Toro describes her vision of this work performed without prior rehearsal and as one single moment in the larger context of the exhibition of feminist art and memory: “The work proposes a tension between absence and presence.  The women are a living testimony of what happened – very brave, very dignified women – each one of them synthesized in a word what she had lived and that day we went out to the esplanade walking slowly until we stood alongside the installation of empty black chairs that allude to the absence of so many murdered, tortured and disappeared women.”

Photo: Marucela Ramírez

Toro adds, “later, they moved outwards, with their backs to Matucana Avenue facing the fence, with the Museum as a backdrop.  I approached each one to listen to what they had to say, one after another, and I wrote a word on their bare backs: Resist, Denial, Loss, Abuse, Horror, Repulsion, Terror, Silenced, Suffocation.  After the second to the last one had the word written on her skin she wrote rupture, to complete the cycle.”  

Janet Toro was invited by curator Jessica Fritz and the project includes the performances of Amelia Negrón, Vanessa Marimón Fuentes, María Isabel Ortega Fuentes, Lorena Estivales Arratia, Paula Fuica Holzapfel, Lucrecia Brito Vásquez, Alejandra Holzapfel Picarte, Pilar Quintanilla Venegas and Kelly Echiburú. “In my career I have always been driven by rebellion, it is a radical vision, different from what it is to be a woman”, Toro comments, and notes that her goal in this project was to “to establish another relationship with the body, with my own processes and truly experience that. I think that helped us and made it possible to do this performance. It is a work that produces a catharsis.”

In this sense, the artistic expression and the accompanying catharsis could be useful in the healing process for women who have suffered gender-based violence.  “I believe that many of these answers are found in indigenous cultures. If you go back you will be able to see how art, the political, the community, the individual, was all united, it was all a ritual. Today everything is very separate. So, I think that art has a healing aspect and can be a vehicle of energy, of transformation, of change in thought, in the heart. Art says unspeakable things in another way, it touches certain fibers in our being that would otherwise not be reached. It provides a way, not only an aesthetic way, but also one that is political, social, cultural, affective and liberating,” explains Toro.

Photo: Marucela Ramírez

As a testimony to this, one of the women expresses her feelings about the process. “It is our bodies speaking about pain and loss. Our bodies communicate, take risks, denounce, and transmit our truth from both the recent past and in the present. There is no space to hide reality — the memory, the torture, the kidnapping — we are showing it all visually without censorship or interference. Our bodies communicate our truth and our history”, says Kelly Echiburú.

Participation in feminist art spaces

In addition to taking place in the context of memory and human rights, the exhibition is inserted in a cycle of feminist activism through art. Toro believes that, “all art and the personal is political; I believe activism and artistic expression are fundamental, whatever their form, I think we need it, this way to break with the information society, to leave the screen and go out into the street to interact and express our demands. I think it is also a way of creating a living, organic community directly on the street”. 

Toro has a long career as a performance artist, with her first performance in a public space in 1986 on the Paseo Ahumada under the dictatorship.  Since then, she has witnessed the ongoing evolution of women in the arts, with the exhibition “Radical Woman” a clear contribution to the visibility of female artists in Chile.

“This exhibition gave space to women who were absolutely in the dark and I think that this has been a great contribution not only to artistic development but also to social development,” she highlights.  Toro notes “there has been a change not only in what involves women, but in everything that is diverse. There is a tremendous range and I like it that way, now there are expressions of all kinds out on the street or in galleries, museums, art centers; there is an opening and an awareness.”

This cycle of feminist art and memory will continue through August in the Museum of Memory and Human Rights.

Read more from Chile here on Havana Times