This exhibition features works by 30 artists and collectives that emerged in the 21st century and which work from feminist perspectives, broadening a debate that gained visibility in the visual arts in the period spanning from the 1960s through the 1980s, and which continues to intersect struggles, narratives and knowledges. To address feminist histories in the 21st century means starting from the present moment, in the midst of its construction and urgency. Addressing them at MASP involves a further factor, insofar as they are being told at a museum located in the Global South, with one of the most important collections of European art in this hemisphere, and located on one of the main avenues of the city of São Paulo, the stage for demonstrations and political, social, economic and symbolic struggle. It is a museum designed by architect Lina Bo Bardi, with a suspended structure sheltering a public plaza at ground level, thus resulting in a museum shot through by the public space, with all its contradictions. Therefore, this exhibition considers the possible relations between the museum and the street, between art and activism.
Ophelia is a fictional character in the play Hamlet, written by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) between the 16th and 17th centuries, whose name gives title to the performance and installation of Ana Mazzei and Regina Parra.
The figure of Ophelia became a symbol of a fragile and irrational femininity, being used as a reference to the also fictional disease of hysteria, created by the French doctor Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) in the 19th century, responsible for the famous Hospital da Salpêtrière, in Paris. She became the exemplary image of the “crazy” woman, as opposed to the supposed rationality of the male characters in the Shakespearean tragedy. In the play, Ofélia is a young noblewoman, in love with the protagonist Hamlet, who finds herself in the midst of political and affective disputes that plague her mind and spirit, leading her to mental degradation and an iconic suicide ornamented by flowers and water - scene widely represented in art history.
But for Mazzei and Parra, it is not the morbid image of the female body carried by the waters that matters in Ophelia’s story, but the fragments of her monologues and dialogues, indexes of the progressive fraying of her subjectivity due to the condition of plaything to which she was subjected by men of your life. Starting from this symbolic reference, the artists hold a silent march, in which nine women carry pieces of wood as signs, where selected fragments of Ophelia’s speeches are inscribed from the beginning to the end of the tragedy.
Taken out of their original context, these phrases are confused with slogans, threats or signs of submission and dependence. In this kind of silent procession, wooden pieces sometimes make banners, sometimes battle shields. Some women display small objects that resemble bladed weapons, in the permanent imminence of a confrontation with the public. The performance is at the threshold between the theater - one of the main references of the artists - and a political manifestation, in which the figure of Ofélia is re-enacted no longer as an alienated and passive character, but as a presence that returns to disturb the order patriarchal law.
Text by Isabella Rjeille, curator of the Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo (MASP). On the occasion of the exhibition Feminist Histories, MASP_Museum of Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo, 2019.