Conversation with exhibiting artist Estela Pereda at the opening of ‘Mujeres: Conquista y Descolonización’ (Women: Conquest and Decolonization) at the Museo de la Mujer (Women’s Museum) in Buenos Aires
Thursday 16 August
When Estela Pereda turned sixteen and it was time to chose how she would earn a living she turned away from her desire to study fine art or architecture, a decision that has stayed with her ever since. She reflects that society guides you down certain paths and and you have to have to be very courageous to take a different trajectory. So it was that she went to study languages in the Faculty of Law in order to work as a public servant as a translator. Having a French family background and having attended a French school her interest in languages never waned but unfortunately the details of the law did not hold the same appeal. Estela finally became an artist after having her three children.
Estela’s mother, Estela Lacau, was an artist and a writer awarded the Emecé publising house prize in 1961 for her novel ‘Rastrojo’. The story, set in the pampas in the 1940s, explores the the life and mentalities of the people working the land and the narrative centres around a pregnant woman who is abandoned by the father of her child. Estela says that both her mother and maternal grandmother were unconscious feminists. Her grandmother lived in a village in the province of Santa Fe where women toiled in the fields just like the men. On her own initiative she started a business employing people to make crafts such as chala de maíz (corn husk) baskets and tejidos (textiles) which she would take to Buenos Aires to sell. Later Estela worked alongside her grandmother creating designs which her grandmother would embroider onto arpilleras (sack cloth) to make tapestries.
As Estela came to be an artist she honed in on the world under her feet – the land, pasture, snails. She was interested in the relationship between people and the natural world, seeing man as part of the land, not its master, just a pedacito (little bit) of the earth. This occupied her thoughts and work for a time. She made her own paper and constructed objects using seeds and other natural materials. During another phase she painted male torsos which she covered with graphs and measurments of things like money, efficiency, work, and yield. This was an artifice she explains, and nothing to do with what she was really saying which is that what truly counts is inside a person and is something that can’t be quantified.
During one stage Estela worked on what she calls ‘arte mestiza’. Picking up on an earlier conversation provoked by my using the vexing expression ‘Latin American’, Estela emphasised that she did not consider this art to be Latin American, a Europeanising term in her view. To her mind indigenous groups in diverse regions across the Americas brought their beliefs and their reading of Spanish beliefs together. Their religious art with saints and sacred objects and the natural world captured her imagination and inspired her to research, travel and take photos.
Estela likes to have a three-dimensional space to express herself and a place to afix objects and mix elements. For the series of boxes and sketchbooks created for the exhibition Mujeres: Conquista and Descolonización Estela researched at the Biblioteca Nacional (Argentina’s National Libray) and the Fundación Espigas, a library of visual culture in Buenos Aires. The boxes represent variously Juana Azurduy, Mariquita Sanchez de Thomson, Juana Manuela Gorriti and Juana Manso. The title of her work is ‘Apesar de todo’ (In spite of everything) meaning, she explains, that in spite of a patriarchal society, in spite of a host of obstacles, certain women made a name for themselves fighting, organising, writing, teaching, and studying when it would of course have been easier not to. Estela says that they are a reminder that ‘si uno quiere, puede’ (If you want to, you can).
Estela tells me about a previous exhibit of hers in the Museo entitled ‘Profesión. Sus labores’ (Profession: Her tasks). The name, which inspired her to publish a book on the topic, comes from a time when women used to fill in their occupation on identity cards with the words ‘sus labores’ if they did not do paid work. Estela comments that this was a very negative form of expression which ruled out any notion of skill. The piece was a ‘tela participativa’ (participatory cloth): a huge piece of embroidery and appliqué which the public, both men and women, were invited to work on. They used a large bastidor (embroidery frame) which belonged to Estela’s grandmother. Estela started off the piece knowing that people can be intimidated by a blank space. She provided boxes of coloured thread, bits of lace, ribbons, and scraps of material, and decorations such as feathers, stamps, figurines, flowers, butterflies, combs, little knick-knacks for children, snails and other natural objects, for people to sew onto the cloth.
To Estela sewing is simplicity. In the past it was essential, a part of life that was never over, a constant; if a button fell off you had to sew it back on. But sewing is also an action, ‘algo entranable’ (something visceral). Of course this is not now the case in what she calls this crazy materialist society. But Estela was brought up to make, not to buy. In her family they made everything except their shoes. She could find materials looking in any old drawer at her mother or grandmother’s house. Estela says of these odds and ends from alfileres de gancho (safety pins) to medallitas (saints medals) ‘o las tiras, o las amas’ (you either throw them away or you decide to love them).
Estela’s website is: www.estela pereda.com.ar
The exhibition will run from 16 August until 22 September at the Museo de la Mujer, Pasaje Dr. R. Rivarola, 147, Buenos Aires.