Making art out of academia

CN: mentions of femicide, police brutality, sexual abuse. There are no explicit images or descriptions.

In the summer of 2020 I spent ten long, hot, tiring and incredibly satisfying days painting a mural unlike any other I had ever painted before. Situated in a bright and lively neighbourhood in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, the mural is the result of three years of meticulous research and planning. Measuring 18 metres across and 2 metres high, it is a mural about domestic workers’ sense of identity and self-perception, based on the findings from my Master’s research in Women’s Studies. It has a social, cultural, political and, above all, feminist aim: to provide an alternative and empowering portrayal of domestic workers in a context where they are often concealed and exploited. The mural fits into an increasingly visual, and increasingly visible, feminist movement in Mexico.

The mural was motivated by two main principles. The first is academic; feminist research aims to uncover and scrutinise gender expression in the social world, intending to create positive change in society for people of all genders but especially for women. In many ways, doing feminist research is itself a method of political activism. But its real-world impact is limited when research findings are confined to academic theses, articles and books, which most people struggle to access due to elitist language, cost and a perception of detachment from everyday life. These factors can all have the effect of excluding those outside of academia from reading these texts. For years, researchers who follow traditionally alternative methodologies like feminism have sought accessible ways to share their research with a wider audience, driven by their commitment to influence social change. Art is one important way to communicate academic findings and engage a wider audience.

The second motivation came from Mexico itself. Mexico is an incredibly creative and defiantly revolutionary place with a rich history of sociopolitical art, and such a strong feminist movement that it has been called the country’s ‘principal opposition movement’. Mexican feminist activists have become increasingly creative, experimental and bold with their forms of protest in the last two years, and there has been a surge in feminists’ use of visual protest.

Feminists in Mexico have made headlines for ‘intervening’ in national monuments and public art with colourful graffiti; for bathing public officials in pink glitter; for mass song and dance performances; and for painting over portraits of revered historical (male) figures during their occupation of the National Human Rights Commission headquarters in Mexico City. The streets of major cities like San Cristobal de Las Casas, Oaxaca de Juarez, and Guadalajara are filled with feminist graffiti, paste-ups and murals.

It has become clear that using artistic methods of protest creates visual prompts from which to spark discussion on what for many people appear to be conceptual or abstract ideas

These are just a few of the most recent artistic actions taken by feminists, part of a trajectory that has lasted decades. The methods are powerful; they have become polemical. Pink glitter had never been especially offensive until it was doused over Mexico City’s chief of police, and thus dubbed a ‘serious aggression’. Debate is rife in the Mexican press and social media about the ‘correct’ ways to protest, about vandalism and destruction, about the level of respect that national monuments deserve and, crucially, whether protecting them is more important than protecting women’s lives.

Murals are also becoming a major part of contemporary feminist protest in the state of Quintana Roo, and I have had the honour to be involved in that. Since January 2021 we have painted murals during the feminist occupation of the state congress, to honour Victoria Salazar who was brutally killed by the police in March, and to honour other victims of femicide in Holbox and Cancún. Most of these have been vandalised by anti-rights or opposition groups; this just gives us the chance to repaint them and continue to make visible and affirm the feminist presence in the state. Certainly it has become clear that using artistic methods of protest creates visual prompts from which to spark discussion on what for many people appear to be conceptual or abstract ideas.

This was the political context that I arrived into when I returned to Mexico in spring 2020. I have been living between Mexico and the UK since 2017; I was drawn here because I wanted to see, feel and experience the country’s fascinating and powerful arts and creative culture, the style of which has always appealed to me. I have been able to combine my passions for art and feminist activism the entire time I have been here, working on projects and research on social movements, human rights, gender and feminism and now, the role of art in feminist activism.

Even though I have deep ties with Mexico and have spent several years here, I am always aware of my physical and cultural distance from the country itself. When feminist research is international in scope, particularly when it deals with poorer countries and is carried out by a researcher from a richer country, further political and ethical issues arise. These intensify the importance of ensuring that findings reach the audience who truly need and deserve to see them.

In 2013, reflecting on her experiences about conducting sociological research in Mexico, Mexican sociologist Gloria González López wrote that she “would have to work hard to convince [a Mexican colleague] that [she] was not just another knowledge invader who was visiting Mexico to interview people, extract their histories and collect a wealth of rich data, all for [her] own professional benefit, and that of a small intellectual elite”. She was describing what she called a Maquiladora Syndrome, likening this sort of one-way data extraction to a form of exploitation, which benefits researchers in richer countries at the expense of research participants in poorer countries.

The key for me was to find a method which would allow me to tell the stories located within my findings in a way which was political, yet also accessible and inclusive

Before I painted the mural, my research findings were not accessible to the research participants who so candidly shared their stories with me, telling me how their experiences of poverty, child labour, sexual abuse, violence and journeys of self-help impacted upon their sense of identity and self-perception. Neither were they accessible to other domestic workers, employers, and the public in general. The purpose of my project was therefore to precisely communicate the findings of my research. The key for me was to find a method which would allow me to tell the stories located within my findings in a way which was political, yet also accessible and inclusive to the widest possible audience. Although the forms of protest used by many in Mexico recently are impressive and powerful, they have their limitations, which influenced the shaping of my own project.

First, some standalone acts or works of art (such as throwing glitter or painting over artworks) do not in themselves tell a story. While their value is infinite in that they are part of a story (of feminist activism) and can be used to spark discussion about stories (of femicides, of impunity for perpetrators of violence), the methods used do not in themselves provide lasting narratives about particular issues. Similarly, if stories are told through song lyrics or graffiti, the attention is often deflected away from the stories that activists are trying to tell; the focus becomes disproportionately on the supposed impropriety of these manners of protest, and not on the issues which feminists are raising.

Murals, however, hold a special place in the sociopolitical, historical and visual discourse of Mexico. In the 1920s, the government began employing muralists such as the three men now known as the ‘greats’ – Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros – to paint very large scale and very public murals that conveyed the new, empowering, revolutionary image of the Mexican Republic. Beginning in the 1960s, Chicano and Chicana artists (people of Mexican origin born in the United States), especially those living in Los Angeles, also adopted murals for a similar purpose, to reaffirm an empowered identity for Mexican Americans and Chican@s in a very public manner.

I wanted to emphasise that subversive behaviours, even though apparently small and isolated, can lead to the development of resistance in our everyday selves

Today, murals exist across the Republic, and continue to be recognised as a political story-telling tool in Mexican culture – contemporary Zapatista villages, for example, are filled with murals detailing that movement’s political convictions. They are also now becoming increasingly important in the feminist movement – a feminist street art school has even opened in San Luis Potosi.

The core long-term objective of my project was to add another layer to the conversation on domestic workers and workers’ rights in Mexico, so a crucial part of my learning was choosing a creative method which would tell the clearest story and have the most positive and long-lasting impact. I wanted to emphasise that subversive behaviours, even though apparently small and isolated, can lead to the development of resistance in our everyday selves.

Labour rights in Mexico are among the worst in the world, and those who stand up for those rights are at high risk of violent repression from State and non-State actors; as such it is easy to feel powerless to create change. I wanted to encourage the message of daily changes and personal empowerment, to take control of what one can to improve their situation. Given the message I wanted to convey with my mural and the historical and contemporary context of public, political art in Mexico, a mural seemed the perfect choice as an artistic method.

Painting a mural is no mean feat, nor is it cheap, especially one so large! Finding funding was an essential part of being able to carry out this project. It was funded principally by the Feminist Review Trust (FRT), an organisation which supports ‘hard to fund’ feminist projects, alongside the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York. The FRT fit with my aims perfectly because of its overlapping identities as an academic, artistic and feminist project. Receiving funding from the FRT allowed me to pay an assistant to help me paint the mural, to support the development of further communication methods to deepen the impact of the work, and to buy materials.

Originally I had planned to travel within Mexico and give a series of talks; because of Covid-19, I opted to pay an independent filmmaker to make a short video detailing the process and intention of the project instead. This turned out to be something I would certainly consider for future projects, particularly given the extreme and rapid digitalisation of the world in our current Covid-19 reality.

Actually painting the mural was the most challenging and exciting part of the project. I wanted to tell a story, and it needed to be a very specific one, since my intention is to communicate rigorous academic research. Because of this, getting the style and content just right was of fundamental importance. Murals as an art form may be an important means of communication in Mexico, but to be effective, individual murals must be easily understandable and relatable. Research suggests that using easily recognisable and culturally relevant symbolism and themes can support the impact of murals, since people can more easily relate to content that they recognise from their daily lives.

I chose to use a realistic as opposed to abstract style. Each vignette features a typical, daily scene, starring women who are clearly domestic workers, recognisable by their clothing. The exception to this is a scene where a child domestic worker interacts with her male employer. However, those familiar with Mexican culture will recognise that the characters in this scene are inspired by the popular Mexican game Lotería.

Other examples of everyday cultural symbols include the piñata, the aprons worn by the domestic workers, the coffee pot and traditional sweet bread, and finally – less easy to recognise for an outside audience – the reading child is a reference to a label on a popular Mexican detergent. The realistic style, use of images from popular culture, and the inclusion of direct quotes from participants in banners above each scene help to make the mural more accessible and understandable.

Many viewers will approach the mural within a context of preconceived ideas, especially about paid domestic work. In Mexico, it is at once invisible and omnipresent. Representations of paid domestic workers in popular culture such as soap operas and films are very different to those presented within feminist academic research and political activism, which focuses on labour and human rights. Many people also have personal experience such as being or being related to a domestic worker, or coming from a family which has employed one. Clearly, while there is no single ‘reality’ about the nature of paid domestic work in Mexico, some conclusions are more grounded in fact than others (hint: it’s not what you find in soap operas).

The participants in my research were not helpless victims, and consistently found ways to take control of their situations and exert agency and choice in their daily lives

This context of viewers approaching the mural with different knowledge bases complicated the task of communicating my findings, which are complex within themselves. I needed to transmit the intricacies of what I’d learnt in a way which empowered the research participants and reflected the realities of their particular experiences. I wanted to communicate a message of strength, power and pride, but without giving the impression that the situation for paid domestic workers is perfect.

There is a long way to go in the fight for domestic workers’ labour rights, to eradicate child labour, to change the classism, racism and misogyny found in this profession, in order to make it truly a dignified profession. But equally, the participants in my research were not helpless victims, and consistently found ways to take control of their situations and exert agency and choice in their daily lives. By showing domestic workers in a range of situations, at different stages in their lives, and by including quotes from participants above each vignette, I hope I have achieved this aim.

Painting the mural was a huge learning curve for me. It was an emotional experience, just like the rest of my research. There were moments of frustration and tiredness, but also moments full of joy and satisfaction. To me, the conviction of feminist scholars that we must recognise and value the role of emotions and the ‘messiness’ of the research process is one of the most important practical observations. Undertaking this project during a global pandemic added to the challenges, naturally, but challenges would have existed no matter when I did it.

This mural is a tiny part in the unofficial project of making public space feminist space, a project I hope to continue working on for many years to come

One of the most important pieces of learning is that it is fundamental to be flexible, and to be confident enough about your artwork to adapt it on the go, committing to the value of seeing it through. Art is a powerful political tool, especially within feminist protest in Mexico. Choosing the right art form to express your findings, taking into account your motivations, the content of your message, and the cultural context in which you are situating your artwork is crucial to ensuring your message has the greatest impact. It’s also crucial that visual language should be readable to the broadest audience.

This mural is a tiny part in the unofficial project of making public space feminist space, a project I hope to continue working on for many years to come. One of the next steps is to support other feminist artists to be able to create public art.

Las Iluministas – a collective that I co-founded – and UK online gallery Pink-Collar Gallery are now coming together to invite artists and activists who identify as women and as feminists to re:imagine, re:name, re:create, re:think, and re:tell the real stories of the women whose lives have been taken by femicide. We want to support feminist artists and activists to help disrupt, change and gain control of the narrative on femicide. We want to support artists create art that honours and visibilises the victims of femicide, art that places blame where it truly needs to be.

The call is open to artists and activists who identify as women and as feminists, and who live in the UK or Mexico, from 30 May to 11 June. The work produced by artists and activists will be displayed in two parallel online exhibitions at Pink-Collar Gallery and Las Iluministas. We will commission five Mexico-based artists and five UK-based artists to develop their online work into public art (poster bombing, murals, graffiti, performance, etc – anything goes!), which will be displayed in Mexico and the UK respectively. Crucially, these are paid opportunities. UK-based artists can find more information and apply here, and Mexico-based artists here.

All pictures are used with kind permission of the author.

  • Feature image shows the author painting a bright rainbow-coloured mural made of petal-shapes.
  • First inset is a wide shot of the mural discussed in the piece. It shows a paved street with tall trees and the wall featuring the artist’s work. The mural consists of a series of vignettes, with the far ends flanked by large, pink flowers.
  • Second inset is one of these vignettes. It shows a woman embracing a child on the left, as a second child on the right, sat on a chair, reads a book. Above is written a quote from the author’s research in Spanish.
  • Third inset is a closer detail of another line of text, also in Spanish.
  • Fourth inset is another wide shot of the mural from the other end to the first inset.
  • Fifth inset is another vignette from the mural. A young girl on the left holds a brush and a yellow cloth, facing an older man with a devil mask worn on top of his head and a bottle in his hand. There is another line of text in Spanish above her.
  • Sixth inset is a closer detail of the large pink flowers which flank the mural.
  • Seventh inset is the author sat cross-legged on the ground in front of these pink flowers, smiling at the camera.