They say you shouldn't judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Ana Teresa Fernandez, the featured artist in Galería de la Raza’s upcoming video exhibition “La Llarona Unfabled,” (opening Sat/12) has obliged in regards to that feminist foil, Cinderella. For her video installation, Fernandez spent hours standing wearing a melting pair of “glass slippers” made of ice on a dirty West Oakland street. The experience, she feels, left her more than qualified to criticize the social constructs embodied by fairy tale's scullery maid-cum-princess.
Originally conceived by Galería’s executive director Carolina Ponce de León, “La Llorona Unfabled” will include work from four other artists: Monica Enriquez-Enriquez, Geraldine Lozano, Rosario Sotelo, and Tanya Vlach. The five will respond to issues of gender, class, identity, and migration in an effort to re-craft cultural narratives into feminist and Latina perspectives.
Which is not to say the exhibition won't speak to all women. “It isn’t about brown, white, rich, poor,” Fernandez affirms. “It is about the self, learning to find your true voice and talents and making that voice the thing which sustains you in life.”
In her art, Fernandez uses lessons from her own life to challenge feminine mythologies -- from the Mexican folktale of La Llorona, the weeping woman, to the story of Cinderella – to “show little girls that they can be the protagonists of their own stories,” she says. Born in Tampico, Mexico, Fernandez was recruited by San Francisco Art Institute with a full scholarship – an opportunity that she met with amazement, and which enabled her to do the art she loves for a living. But Fernandez didn't have a Prince Charming to make her dreams come true, or a fairy godmother for that matter. For that, she had to rely on talent, hard work and a passion for subverting the macho norms of classic art.
Growing up, the artist experienced very clear ideas about where women belonged. Her mother, a runner, was chastised for wearing short-shorts and sneaking out of the house to race with men. Ana, also an athlete, broke four national swimming records by the time she was eight. “They had to train me with the boys,” she recalls. Now 29, the artist has traveled the world but still feels that by supporting herself through painting, she is swimming against the current.
Like many children in Mexico, Fernandez grew up hearing the story of La Llorona, the colonial-era fable of a beautiful peasant girl who is abandoned by her noble (read: white) husband. She drowns her two children, and then herself in the river and is condemned to forever wander its banks, wailing for her lost sons. To Fernandez, the story was a clear message that a woman need to rescued by a man or else face a life of desperation. “What’s that game?” she asks, snapping her fingers. “Old Maid. If you’re not chosen, you’re nobody.”
Even as the child of educated parents from a big city, Fernandez feels she has to fight the story's notions of class and race, isolation and empowerment. “There is something to be said about changing the incredible enlaid guilt of how you must act or what you must do as a woman where I grew up – which sounds so incredibly old-fashioned.”
Inspired by the “strong, elegant women” of her childhood, Fernandez’s paintings – the body of her artistic work up til now – balance the sensuality of the female body with the constrictions that work and fashion place upon it. In "Siren's Shadow," a woman swims in a cocktail dress and heels, literally dragged down by those conventional symbols of femininity. In the “La Llorona” show, these same themes are explored through video and performance art, with water taking on additional meaning as a symbol of La Llorona, weeping endlessly into the river.
"Siren's Shadow" by Ana Teresa Fernandez
With the added dimension of time that video brings to Fernandez’s work, its dismantling of the ideals of femininity encoded in myth and art is shown more dynamically. As she stands over sewage in her ice shoes cast from the exaggerated stilettos worn by exotic dancers, waiting for her prince to come, Fernandez's "glass slippers" and the mythology they imply literally melt away.
Fernandez is reluctant to align herself with the tradition of Chicana painters working in San Francisco. Her paintings are a far cry from the bold, primary colors of Mujeres Muralistas, the Mission’s famous group of female street artists who lit up Balmy Alley. While she says the Mission feels like her “home away from home,” with its pockets of Mexican culture, Fernandez admits that her work relates more to the European masters and is “much more influenced by male painters.”
Which seems a little incongruous, given her subject material, but Fernandez argues that the virtuosic style of her painting is in itself a subversion, given that the role of the virtuoso painter wasn’t always available to women. Many female artists, especially Latina artists, committed “rebellious acts” against virtuosic tradition in order to get noticed, creating Kahlo-like fantasy worlds rather than create art in the patriarchal classical vein.
By contrast, Fernandez’s figures, richly constructed out of layers of oil on canvas, glow with heat and realism. “Michelangelo and Botticelli and Brunelleschi were all men that fascinated me,” she says.
In fact, to someone not paying attention, the muscled, sculptural bodies in Fernandez’s work may not seem so different from the sexualized objects they are meant to replace. But “hyper-sensuality is not the same as sexuality – it oozes, rather than blurts out,” she explains. “It’s quieter, it lingers longer. That’s what I try to play with."
She hopes to balance the tradition by adding a female voice without compromising the work’s aesthetic qualities. “In painting women have always been interpreted by men.” As in her life, in her art Fernandez chooses not to retreat into the realm assigned to her by men. She would rather beat them at their own game.
"La Llorona Unfabled: Stories to (Re)Tell to Little Girls"
Artist Talk Sat/12, 2-4 p.m., free
Opening Reception Sat/12, 7:30 p.m., free
Through April 16
La Galería de la Raza
2857 24th St., SF