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Interview

María Feminista: An Interview with Sylvia Lucero

Argentina

Lucero's sculpture featured the Virgin Mary with her face covered by a green scarf, a common symbol of legal abortion.

In this interview, ARC’s regional representative in Latin America, Alessandro Zagato, talks with Argentinian artist Sylvia Lucero. Lucero’s work “Maria Feminista” (Feminist Mary), also known as “Virgen Abortera” (Abortionist Virgin), was censored and removed from an art exhibition last year for combining a religious icon with symbols having to do with feminism and the popular struggle for safe and legal abortion. The sculpture featured the Virgin Mary with her face covered by a green scarf, a common symbol of legal abortion. Lucero suffered attacks from an anti-civil rights group, led by a member of the Christian Democratic Party who is known to actively oppose democratic rights and demands for freedom. 

Lucero reflects on her artistic practice and how it has been shaped by activism, as well as the role that art can play in highlighting tensions and power struggles related to gender equality and reproductive rights. Alongside Lucero, Andrés Lopez, the lawyer who supported Lucero in this process, and Anabella Museri, a representative of the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), join the conversation to provide insight on the current challenges shaping freedom of artistic expression in Argentina.

ALESSANDRO ZAGATO: Sylvia, can you please describe the context of the censorship and violation of freedom of artistic expression that you suffered?

SYLVIA LUCERO: The censorship happened in the context of an exhibition titled “Para Todes Tode. Plan de lucha” organized by curator Kekena Corvalán, who usually works with LGBTQ-related topics and people. The idea was to give visibility to the fact that there are many dissident women doing art, which is not always recognized in the arts world. She was invited by the Center Haroldo Conti, in a building that operated as a clandestine detention center during the last dictatorship. The idea was to pull together 150 artists from Argentina. I was invited to present my work “Maria Feminista” or “Virgen Abortera,” and we thought that we could do a sort of procession with the Virgin, from the corner outside the building into the exhibition. 

The day of the inauguration, some people appeared asking why the virgin was wearing a green handkerchief [symbol of the feminist struggle and the demand for free and safe abortion], and in the next few days we started to receive threats and requests to remove the artwork. Thereafter, some lawyers showed up, belonging to an anti-civil rights group called “Marcha de Los Escarpines.” They presented a legal demand asking the cultural center to remove the work from the exhibition. Initially, the direction of the center, which was politically close to the government of Mauricio Macri, pressured the workers and the curator to remove the work. The director did not intervene too much in the production of the exhibition. However, as the staff decided not to remove the Virgin, the judge working on the case ordered the work to be separated from the exhibition and closed in an office so that visitors could access after asking permission. They also forbid the entrance to minors. In the meantime, I started working on the case with CELS, and after a few days somebody made the unilateral decision to remove the Virgin without saying where it was taken and why.

“The idea was to give visibility to the fact that there are many dissident women doing art, which is not always recognized in the arts world.”

A.Z.: How did CELS become involved in this case?

Anabella Museri: Initially, we saw what was happening in the media. However, at the time, we were working with people from the education sector of MALBA Museum- we were organizing guided visits - and we received Sylvia’s contact to see if we could support her in this process. This is how we started engaging with her.

A.Z.: How is the legal case developing now?

Andrés Lopez: We lost the legal case. The decision of the judge to separate the work from the exhibition happened just before Easter week – and that was one of the reasons why they asked to hide the Virgin. We demanded several things from the court. First, that we could be part of the judgement, which was initiated by a catholic lawyer from the Christian Democratic Party of Buenos Aires, somebody who is well known and who already did these sorts of interventions, attempting to block some public policy initiatives related to healthcare and non-religious education. Initially they were just suing the human rights secretary, who is in charge of the cultural center. They did not sue the artist or the curator. However, we thought that Sylvia needed to be part of this process, especially because the state immediately surrendered to the demand to remove the work with no opposition of the human rights secretary. Nobody was defending freedom of expression there. 

We demanded to be part of the process and at the same time to invalidate it because Sylvia could not even defend herself. We also demanded that the measure [separation of the work from the exhibition] be revoked. They rejected everything. Plus, while we were having this discussion, the Virgin was completely removed. The judge said that the accusation was directed against the state [the human rights secretary], therefore Sylvia had no reason to get involved – and if she wanted to participate, it could be just by following the state’s defense line. However, the state did not appeal the removal measure, and therefore Sylvia could not do that either. This is absurd, because between Sylvia and the state there were conflicting interests – the state agreed with censorship, while Sylvia wanted to keep her work displayed. Meanwhile the exhibition ended and the court decided that there was no more reason to rule out a final decision – and it rejected Sylvia’s demands. In order to bring the case to the Supreme Court, we would have had to deposit a consistent amount of money, which we could not - and did not want - to do. This is how we lost the case. 

“I felt that the state immediately left me alone in this.”

A.M.: Various topics converged in this case that we deal with at CELS, including freedom of expression, reproductive rights, and artistic expression. Therefore, we decided to show Sylvia’s work in our office. One afternoon, we set up an open exhibition where we were also showing work by Leon Ferrari, a recognized Argentinian artist who also works on freedom of expression, reproductive rights, and so on. Even the family of Leon visited. We were attempting to back up legal action with a more communicative project. 

A.L.: Previously Leon Ferrari was also attacked by a religious organization. However, in that case, the governmental approach was completely different. Indeed, they defended the exhibition and Leon’s artistic freedom. There is a sentence by the court of Buenos Aires rejecting the accusations, while in Sylvia’s case the state supported the accusations and the demand to remove the work. The National Institute Against Discrimination also intervened in Sylvia's case, arguing that the work could offend religious feelings. There is a debate about if these types of work incite hate speech and discrimination. We consider that not, but in the human rights field there are tendencies to restrict freedom of expression, justified by the idea of hate speech. 

S.L.: The first thing that I thought when all this happened was that the human rights secretary would defend me as they did with Leon Ferrari. However, after the inauguration of the exhibition, they declared that they did not agree with the content and that they somehow felt betrayed. I felt that the state immediately left me alone in this. 

A.Z: Talking more directly about the art work, how did you conceive it and how does, in your perspective, this overlap of symbolisms - the Christian figure of the Virgin and political symbols - operate, and why is this work legitimate for you?

S.L.: The work is part of a series called Subversiones, which I produced for my thesis in the Arts Faculty of La Plata. I wanted to represent the transition from a religious icon to a popular one. It was an attempt from the artistic field to approach a religious icon that was always present in my life, for example in the house of my parents, as small statues or prints, and which never reflected a rigorous religious practice, holding instead an almost superstitious function of protection - this is how I lived it. Therefore, I had at the same time an affective tie with this image and a rejection, due to what it represents, the institution it belongs to, and the role it plays against the campaign for safe and legal abortion. In this series, I approach the figure of the Virgin by providing it with symbols that have to do with popular struggles. The series also includes other Argentinian saints represented as piqueteros. In the past I also sent the Virgin to a women’s meeting (Encuentro Nacional de Mujeres), where it was taken as an icon, and renamed as “Virgen Abortera” - and now I am using that name because it was given to her by the people. It somehow closes a circle.

A.Z.: How do art and politics/activism interact in your work? Had you ever experienced censorship before?

S.L.: Previous attacks happened through social networks and were always related to this series of intervened religious figures. In my work, politics is always present because art is my way to be engaged. Once I participated in an art exhibition in UCA (Catholic University) and I was presenting the images of protesters at demonstrations in Argentina. One of them was a girl wearing a green handkerchief who was hit on her head by a rubber bullet. When I went to the inauguration, I saw that this work was not included.

“This case reflected an approach typical of the past that consisted in using the state apparatus to censor artistic expression.”

A.Z.: How is the current situation of freedom of expression in Argentina? Are artists who challenge common sense or religious/cultural feelings systematically attacked? 

S.L.: I am not a recognized artist like Leon Ferrari. This, and the fact that the people attacking my work belong to powerful groups, made the state lean toward removing my work. 

A.L.: I think that in general there are not that many problems in terms of artistic freedom in Argentina right now. Cases like the one of Sylvia are quite exceptional, and that is why it was so worrying. This case reflected an approach typical of the past that consisted in using the state apparatus to censor artistic expression. 

A.Z.: Sylvia, after what happened to you, do you feelmore controlled or that you need to filter what you produce and publish? We know that censorship has not just an immediate effect, but it may discipline one’s practice in the long term. 

S.L: Although this series is a concluded work, I am now aware and somehow careful with what I do, knowing that when I will be displaying my work again, I will need to think twice where - and I will definitely ask for CELS’ support. What I find worrying is this discourse that combines the idea of expanding civil rights and of limiting them based on the concept of hate speech – applied in my case to the demand of safe and free abortion.

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