When Mexican curator Maria Guerra begins talking about "Las Nuevas Majas," an exhibition of work by 11 female artists working in Mexico City, she is composed and erudite. As the conversation continues about the show she organized at Otis Art Gallery, Guerra's surface cool gradually peels away and she becomes animated and ardent.
She believes that her exhibition might shake national distinctions and rattle gender divisions. "The work in the show is not feminist or post-feminist, it is made by women, and that's just the way it is. It needn't be so purposeful or definitive. I want the exhibition to be read as you read any other exhibition without focusing exclusively on gender."
The show's title, "majas" is difficult to translate. It means women who are elegant and confident with significant depth of character. It also plays on the title of Goya's famous paintings "Las Majas," which depict the woman as muse and \o7 provocateur\f7 . So, Guerra's title might loosely be translated as "The New Contemporary Women," with myriad connotations.
The 11 artists in Guerra's show live and work in Mexico, but are natives of Cuba, England, Mexico and Spain. Guerra notes that "there's a big history of foreign artists in Mexico and we adopt them, they are part of the scene. It's not necessarily important to distinguish their original nationality."
A former sculptor and performance artist, Guerra, 36, has become one of Mexico's most innovative curators. Her enthusiasm and keen intelligence are infused with large doses of humor and irony, which feed into her effusive character and professional endeavors.
Guerra is something of a cultural maven. Elegant and flamboyant, with curly red hair framing her twinkling eyes and generous smile, her graceful silk outfit and diminutive stature contrast dramatically with her determined gait and rapid-fire pace. A self-appointed cultural ambassador and aspiring institution-builder, her goal is to break down artistic and social barriers.
Born and raised in Mexico, Guerra has spent almost half her life in the United States and Europe. She studied at UC Santa Cruz, the Kansas City Art Institute and briefly at Harvard. During the past decade, Guerra has moved between Mexico, New York, London and Zurich, where she has been both an artist and a curator.
In 1990, the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena invited Guerra to curate a show coinciding with the artistic extravaganza "Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries," then at LACMA. By showcasing artists who live in Mexico, but whose ideas are not limited to national identity, Guerra's show "Another Mexican Art" undermined the expectations of a traditional art in Mexico, a history steeped in pictorialism and folklore. It also stood out amid the plethora of Mexico-inspired exhibitions, and was the beginning of Guerra's relationship with Los Angeles.
In her typically ebullient fashion she explains, "You have to begin establishing links because they start to build up. I am particularly interested in the connection between Mexico and Los Angeles because I want the art world to shift a little bit west (from New York). It's time and there are a lot of really good things going on in Mexico."
Exhibitions like Guerra's are changing the way art from south of the border is seen and interpreted. Frequently thought to be mythical and strictly representational, art from Latin America has actually paralleled movements in the United States and elsewhere. Guerra seeks to break down preconceptions of what Mexican art is about.
Guerra is now working on several shows of new art from Mexico, which she plans to bring to Los Angeles. She is also organizing an exhibition of painting from Los Angeles that she hopes to bring to Mexico City in 1995. Most of the cutting-edge art coming out of Mexico is object-oriented because, Guerra believes, there is a built-in bias against painting.
"In Mexico, we have a pictorial tradition of painting, and now it's a pity because there are so many good painters there, but they believe that they are not allowed to think. In the art schools in Mexico, the teachers tell the students, 'Don't think! Let the brush think for you.' This is the complete opposite of L.A.--people here are painting and putting lots of thoughts and ideas and concepts into painting. I think it's important that in Mexico they see the exciting work that's going on. I want to restore the faith of painting in Mexico!"
Such a sentiment is typical of the goals that Guerra sets for herself. Over the past few years, she has been trying to establish a foundation of contemporary art in Mexico City. She envisions an organization that will promote the exchange of art and ideas, importing and exporting artists, critics and curators. Attempting to bridge government and private interests and to overcome deep-seated prejudices, Guerra is forging forward.