Glitter Conservators: Thinking Conservation through Feminism

“For the women who didn’t return” / “Por las que no volvieron.”
Graffiti on Angel of Independence, Mexico City, August 16, 2019

A golden sculpture of a winged woman holding a laurel wreath with her right arm and a broken chain with the other rises stoically above Mexico City. She is standing on her toes, bare chested, on a stone column erected over a base with five male figures known as the “Apotheosis to the Father of the Nation” (“Apoteosis al Padre de la Patria”). Miguel Hidalgo, a hero of Mexican Independence, sculpted in white Carrara marble is at the center of the composition.

On the morning of August 17, 2019, the whole nation saw the apotheosis covered in graffiti. Feminist groups had spray-painted phrases on the Angel of Independence like “Assassin Nation” (“La Patria es asesina”) and “Mexico is a rapist state” (“México es un estado violador”) as part of one of the largest feminist protests in the country’s history. On the surface, the actions appear to be blunt vandalism, but the event has catalyzed a larger conversation about heritage, identity, conservation, and feminism.

The Mexican Glitter Revolution

Ángel de la Independencia. August 19, 2019, Mexico City. (Santiago Arau/published with permission from the photographer).

On August 16, 2019, thousands of women took the streets in Mexico City to protest the sexual abuse committed against two minors by police officers. This was the breaking point for a larger problem of systemic violence against women. As reported in June 2019 by the Mexican newspaper El Universal, in the first quarter of the year, there had already been 1,119 femicides, which means that on average 10 women were murdered in Mexico every day. That August afternoon, as groups of women flooded the streets of the Mexican capital, the Angel of Independence, one of the city’s most iconic monuments, materialized into what came to be known as the glitter revolution.

In a way, the winged victory became an accomplice of the protesters who painted slogans on the lower part of the monument, pasted posters, and covered the sculptures with purple glitter. The feminist groups used glitter bombing as a protest strategy throughout the city, a strong political statement that “feminized” public space.

The choice to vandalize this particular monument seems hardly random, since the monument itself embodies Mexican patriarchal hierarchies. At the turn of the twentieth century, dictator Porfirio Díaz was building a Mexico that embraced European values of nationhood, which championed male foundational figures. One effective way to achieve this was to construct public monuments. Díaz inaugurated the Angel of Independence in 1910. Throughout the twentieth century, the monument became a mausoleum for the remains of several historic Mexican figures and war heroes. Today, the Angel of Independence is a site for encounters, where protests end or start and where sports victories are celebrated. After all, the colloquial name “Angel of Independence” is wrong since the winged sculpture is not an angel, but Nike, Greek goddess of victory. The Mexico City government has also used the goddess’s image as their promotional logo.

Soon after the glitter protests, the majority of the Mexican media focused on the fact that protesters had vandalized and damaged the monument. According to PopDataMX, around fifty articles were published online daily between August 16 and 20 that reported on the 1910 monument, while no more than ten articles focused on the subject of rape in the same period. The front page of a local newspaper read: “Protesta, furia y vandalismo” (“Protest, Fury, and Vandalism”). The press portrayed feminist groups as violent radical cells and the outrage on social media followed. Arguments from detractors were along the lines of “this is not how women should protest.” Hashtags like #AsiNo (Not like this) and #EllasNoMeRepresentan (Those women don’t represent me) became popular on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, accompanied by images of the Angel of Independence juxtaposed with angry protesters and broken windows.

Glitter Conservation: A Critique to the Notion of Heritage?

As I followed the unfolding of events on my news feed, the word “heritage” started to come up. For some people, the damage done to our national heritage was so outrageous that it discredited the whole feminist movement. Professionals working in the field of cultural heritage conservation started to speak up: What does heritage even mean when thousands of women are at risk of being raped and murdered everyday?

2018 March Against Violence Towards Women on the International Day of the Woman in Oaxaca, Mexico (©Thomas Aleto)

What started as some scattered opinions and comments on social media from women conservators rapidly became an organized group on Facebook called Restauradoras de Glitter (Conservators of Glitter). A colleague in Mexico City invited me to join, and what I found was truly inspiring.

At first, professional conservators within the group wanted to offer free specialized labor to remove the graffiti. Although this idea arose from a sentiment of solidarity with the survivors of violence, it consequently led group members to ask questions around identity: as a Mexican woman conservator, what action would be an act of real sisterhood and sorority?

As feminist philosopher Karen Barad has argued, “matter and meaning are not separate elements.”1 Matter is shaped by meanings and doings. In this entanglement of significance production, removing the graffiti would mean erasing the actions that took place on August 16. In this sense, the symbolic and political intervention on one of the most iconic monuments of Mexico embodied the outrage, fatigue, and helplessness of women in a country where the state does not guarantee their safety.

Much of the writings on gender and heritage center on the inclusion of content by women – or about women – in curatorial and historical discourses. However, scholars have not explored the agency of conservators as political actors. Art and heritage conservators sometimes assume themselves as practitioners that deal with objects and not with people, thereby presuming to be “neutral” toward the object. This perceived neutrality is legitimized by the use of scientific methods to study the objects, which has removed the embodied subjectivity of the conservator — including gender — from heritage discourses. But heritage is not gender-neutral, as scholar Laurajane Smith has articulated:

It is gendered in the way heritage is defined, understood and talked about, and, in turn, in the way it reproduces and legitimizes gender identities and the social values that underpin them.2

The Angel of Independence is not only an iconographical representation of the nation’s foundational fathers, but today it is categorized as historical and artistic heritage. In Spanish for example, the word used for heritage is “patrimonio,” which literally means the inheritance from the father. Moreover, patriarchal institutions are the ones that have classified what is considered heritage, and therefore a conservable object, and what is not.

Thinking about heritage conservation from a feminist perspective requires rethinking the whole notion of heritage in the first place, which historically has been bound to heteropatriarchal categories of culture. As pointed out by one conservator theorist, conservation practices under the “heritage paradigm” have reinforced, consciously or not, dominant ideologies.3 Making conservation decisions, such as removing or ignoring political graffiti, can enact narratives of violence and/or erasure. In Mexico, heritage conservation is a female-dominated field. Rethinking the masculinist world of heritage, however, is only one aspect of a feminist perspective on conservation. We also have to account for the embodied experience of the conservator, which means to acknowledge her agency.

Taking a Stand: The Potential of a Feminist Approach

After the glitter protests, women conservators who had experienced gender violence personally or who had supported family members who have, started the group Conservators of Glitter. The first question that came to mind after seeing this initiative was how to negotiate one’s identity as a Mexican woman conservator, transiting through systemic and normalized gender violence with the “professional duty” that is to “protect” heritage? What should be the position of a group of professionals that would normally have cleaned the vandalized monument?

The collective agreed to write a letter addressed to Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and to Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico City’s mayor. In it, the collective changed its name to Conservators with Glitter, denoting a more active role than Conservators of Glitter. They also had a series of demands.

First, the group defined the notion of heritage as a non-fixed medium in which questionings, meanings, and ideas are manifested. Understanding heritage as a dynamic entity that participates in socio-cultural processes places the figure of the conservator as a facilitator of those dynamics. The conservators addressed the media, asking that the focus stay on the femicides and rape survivors that originated the protests. The second demand was that the collective should document the graffiti to preserve the memory of the protests, acknowledging the political graffiti as part of the historical dimension of the monument. Lastly, the group of specialists made an invitation to members of society to take action, but most importantly, they made a call to their conservation and restoration colleagues to not remove the graffiti until authorities had given solution to the protests’ demands.

The plea for leaving the graffiti gained more than 200 signatures from conservators, art historians, curators, archeologists, and architects – all women working in the cultural sector.

After receiving the letter, Mexican authorities decided to remove the graffiti but the local government has allowed the collective to document and archive it. Assuming a feminist perspective on conservation invites us to re-imagine the future of the profession that we want to become. The Conservators with Glitter have reminded the Mexican government that conservation decisions of the built environment need to be made in a conscious way. In this case, the removal of graffiti means to erase a layer of significance, of new configuration of meanings, that embodies the voices of those seeking justice.

Notes

  1. Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 3. Return to text.
  2. Laurajane Smith, “Gender and Identity,” in The Ashgate Research Companion to Heritage and Identity, eds. B. Graham and P. Howard (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), 161. Return to text.
  3. Alfredo Vega, “¿Es la restauración una disciplina patrimonial? Notas acerca de un cambio de paradigma,” Conserva 22 (2017): 14. Return to text.

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One Comment

Alicia Bjornson

Thoughtful article. Written to provoke and allow for critical thinking about the perspectives in keeping historical features, political memory, feminism and understanding the role of women in the conservation

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