A woman sits on a bed gazing between her legs, where she appears to have given birth to a cubed watermelon. On the opposite wall, a faceless figure takes a pair of garden shears to a grassy garden growing between her thighs. Meanwhile, in the next room, a heavily pregnant, gold-sheathed belly tapers into the toned legs of a ballet dancer, wearing shiny, red dance shoes.
These are just a few of the arresting images that comprise a new exhibit at the Art Museum of the Americas. Titled “Femininity Beyond Archetypes,” it showcases the work of Colombian photographer Natalia Arias. Though the title might suggest a one-note, third-wave feminist, heavily conceptual approach, the photographs in fact encourage a broad meditation on the meaning of femininity, be it from a feminist or simply artistic perspective.
The exhibit features works from two of the artist’s series: “Taboo,” which she worked on from 1999 to 2005, and “Venus,” which spanned 2005 to 2010. Though the series differ in content and concept, the visuals are consistent throughout: The photographs are of women — many of whom conceal their faces in some manner — and their bodies are canvasses, whether gilded in gold or painted into a reincarnation of the deity Quetzalcoatl.
The “Taboo” series, according to text displayed in the exhibit, “exemplifies [Arias’s] departure from rigid discourses on femininity, where social values champion perfect physiques while religious ideologies dismiss the natural processes of women.” And the photographs are taboo, indeed: Ranging from the comical to the grotesque, they confront oft-avoided topics such as female anatomy.
In “Virginidad,” a woman reclines, nude, on a bed; the crop is close, and only a portion of her torso and hips are visible. Were it not for the deep red blood that stains the sheet beneath her, the photograph might appear almost prosaically innocent. The effect is surprisingly beautiful. Here, the blood often associated with a woman’s loss of virginity becomes an accent of color to an otherwise monochrome image. It challenges the silence surrounding virginity, instead asserting it as something natural and beautiful, whose taboo is socially constructed.
This theme is prevalent throughout: Natural processes, such as the loss of virginity, pregnancy and birth, are hailed, rather than hidden. Arias celebrates the experiences implied in femininity, pointing to the beauty that lies in imperfection and bodily change.
Things take a turn for the bizarre in “Life,” in which a woman peers between her legs to find cubed watermelon, to which she has apparently given birth. This work was inspired by one of the artist’s teachers, who told her that “giving birth is like pushing a watermelon through a lemon.” The piece has a nightmarish quality — rather than a child, the product of birth is chopped fruit — and the pinkish-red watermelon’s resemblance to blood or bodily matter is a bit too close for comfort. The piece has a cringe-worthy effect that seems almost intentional. The underlying theme of the watermelon as a metaphor for fertility and reproduction pales in comparison to the stark image of a woman confronting, perhaps in horror, the unexpected fruits of her labor.
Then, there are the photographs that could double as covers of beauty magazines. In “Flower,” for example, a woman in a floral bathing cap blows a kiss at the camera, her makeup artfully done and white feathered eyelashes lending her an ethereal quality. The model herself seems to be the flower, blossoming out of the frame; the symmetry of the photograph, coupled with the unmistakable beauty of the piece, make it positively Vogue-worthy.
The “Venus” series takes a quite different approach to exploring femininity, as Arias reimagines the hallmarks of female beauty in art history, producing her own take on iconic works. Here, famous Venuses that have appeared in art for millennia are reborn, taking the form of modern women and examining how concepts of femininity have both changed and remained stubbornly static.
The ancient “Venus of Willendorf,” one of the earliest known representations of the female form, is reincarnated in Arias’s “Woman from Willendorf,” in which a braid wraps itself around a woman’s face, mimicking the effect on the Paleolithic statue. Both women are full-figured, but whereas the original statue’s fleshiness was at the time regarded as a symbol of fertility, “Woman from Willendorf” takes on the controversial notion of a “real woman” who embraces curves and is unconcerned with thinness.
Viewers may be more familiar with Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” which Arias reimagines in her “Venus of Botticelli.” A nude model rises out of a painted paper flower, which is scattered with packing peanuts at its base. Her long hair flows down to her legs, and her figure is conventionally attractive. Like Botticelli’s “Venus,” she exudes sexuality and femininity, yet a comparison of the two reveals how time has changed what is generally considered attractive and feminine: Botticelli’s “Venus” has a softer body; she is pale-skinned, not tan; and she is demure, while Arias’s model is confident. The juxtaposition suggests that while norms of beauty may change over time, norms themselves nonetheless persist.
“Femininity Beyond Archetypes” engages theoretically with concepts of feminism, femininity and beauty, yet one can also enjoy the exhibit on a purely aesthetic level. The photographer’s sense of symmetry, light and color makes the photographs a pleasure to behold. Arias honors the female body in all of its forms, celebrating pregnant bellies alongside fleshy women and conventional beauties, all while shattering taboos and highlighting the power of imperfection.
Femininity Beyond Archetypes: Photography by Natalia Arias
through Oct. 5
Organization of American States Art Museum of the Americas
201 18th St., NW
For more information, please call (202) 370-0147 or visit http://museum.oas.org.
About the Author
Miranda Katz is an editorial assistant for The Washington Diplomat.