’400 Women’ exhibition opens in Shoreditch

'Helena' by Julie Bennett. Photo: Cat Wiener

Since 1993, more than 400 women have been brutally raped, mutilated and murdered in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez in the region of Chihuahua. Hundreds more have simply disappeared. Now, in a new exhibition at Shoreditch Town Hall, images of many of them, by British artists as diverse as Maggi Hambling, Paula Rego and street artist Swoon, have been commissioned and brought together by artist Tamsyn Challenger in what she hopes will be both an extraordinary artwork, made up of so many voices – and a permanent statement against violence against women everywhere.

The exhibition is the culmination of a five-year project, inspired originally, she says, by an Amnesty International report into the ‘femicide’ in Ciudad Juarez. She then traveled to the region and met some of the mothers of the missing and murdered women for a Radio 4 Women’s Hour programme. One of the mothers laid postcards of the young women in her hands, and Challenger was overwhelmed. “I froze,” she tells me, “but at the same time I was horrified by myself for feeling so nervous when this woman’s daughter had been missing for so long, and I felt ashamed…visually everything was bright for me, It was a heightened moment. I looked at the postcard, this three-colour print, so poorly produced – inevitably, because there’s no money –  you can’t see noses, sometimes you can’t see the eyes, they’re really blurry, they’re reproduced and reproduced from a photocopy and the face was just lost. It was so sad. And that’s when the idea sparked in my mind, I think, and a part of me was eager to bring that person back, to confront society”.

Challenger says she has tried to link up the images with the artist, such as matching initials, or ages, or a particular photograph that is very bright and relates to an artist who uses bright colours.

Portrait artist Julie Bennett has contributed an image of ‘Helena’ who has been missing since 1997; despite her mother’s ceaseless campaigning, Mexican police closed her case in 2006. Working from an grainy, blurred photo provided by the girl’s mother, she has transformed her subject, saying of the heightened colours and glossy, almost glamorous pose of her portrait: “I wanted this to be a celebration of Helena. I didn’t want you to feel sorry for her, but rather to make her iconic, like a celebrity. I’ve pushed the colours to bring positivity to the painting”. She too sees the exhibition as part of a universal stand against violence against women.

Challenger hopes the exhibition will travel, after its time in Shoreditch, hopefully also to Mexico, and be kept together as a single work made up of many voices. She stresses that the ‘400’ of the title is in fact arbitrary, taken from a report from Amnesty looking at 1993-2003; in reality, a further 300 women have been murdered in the Juarez region this year alone, 30 of them in extreme sexual violence. She feels that we are obligated to try to do something, to try to change things in society and says “We shouldn’t just accept this state of affairs. Violence against women, gender politics, it’s sidelined and sneered at and not seen as sexy, or even readily acknowledged.”

400 Women runs from 12-28 November 2010 at Shoreditch Town Hall Basement, 380 Old Street, London EC1V 9LT. The exhibition is curated by London-based writer and curator Ellen Mara De Wachter and supported by Amnesty International.

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