Yohanna M. Roa / solo show / Valenzuela Klener Gallery
Revaluing Feminine Trajectories and Stitching Alternative
Genealogies in the Work of Yohanna Roa
By Karen Cordero Reiman
Spanish, Article published by the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia
“As a verb […], ‘to craft’ seemingly means to participate in some small-scale process. This implies several things. First, it affirms the results of involved work. This is not some kind of detached activity… To craft is to care…. [It] implies working on a personal scale—acting locally in reaction to anonymous, globalized, industrial production…. It may yet involve the skilled hand. Hands feel, they probe, they practice.” –Janis Jefferson
109th CAA Annual Conference, Feb. 10-13, 2021
This paper will focus on the work of Colombian-born contemporary artist Yohanna M. Roa (Bogotá, 1978), who takes up the family tradition–her great grandfather was a tailor and her grandmother a seamstress and self-taught clothing designer–creating pieces that both question patriarchal hierarchies in the arts and weave new relations that trace and celebrate distinct genealogies.
Roa lives and works in a transnational and interdisciplinary mode; she grew up in Colombia and studied art there, then pursued graduate studies in art, anthropology and screenwriting in Mexico and is currently simultaneously completing a doctorate in Art History in Mexico and an M.A. in Women’s and Gender Studies in New York, while also continuing an active career as a visual artist with exhibitions and ongoing projects in Colombia, Mexico and the U.S. These seemingly diverse spheres of activity are intertwined in her creative process, which draws on a firm sense of a maternal genealogy, as well as a fascination with the relationship between the materiality of art and archives, and the possibility of transforming social consciousness by making visible, intervening and articulating apparently opposed realms of material culture from the perspective of women’s experience and subjectivity. Her relationship with her grandmother is a key influence in her work; Helena Hernández de Roa created a unique design for nightgowns based on the clothing worn by women in the Guajira region of Colombia, and named the business she founded to produce and market them Creaciones Johana, for her first granddaughter. Growing up in this context, Yohanna Ro learned to sew and design clothing seemingly by osmosis, while at the same time honing her intellectual and conceptual skills, and questioning the conventional limits between spheres of knowledge and action.
Roa’s work reincorporates into Art History the materiality that its disciplinary trajectory has wrenched from it, in its effort to rationalize the sensorial quality of art in verbal terms, to provide it with a structure and a canon, and to integrate it into The History of the Western World, with capital letters. In her series The Past, Instructions for Use: Imbrications and Erratas (2017-2018), she literally dismembers books containing canonical images of art, and reconfigures them in new formal and conceptual relationships (among them, as domestic textile objects and clothing) through interventions using embroidery, crochet, collage and painting. Through this process they come to constitute a “virtual feminist museum” in the sense enunciated by Griselda Pollock : a construction that subverts the rules of chronology, gender, style and geography that sustain hegemonic narratives and definitions of art, inviting new readings or modes of experiencing history through the corporeal acts of inhabiting, touching and manipulating the pieces.
The decisive accent that the works in this series place on physical experience and its specificity, makes the act of writing about them almost an act of sacrilege. They allude forcefully to the limits of verbal language and the categories that structure aesthetic experience, denouncing the poverty of a construction that denies female participation, as well as that of folk art and applied arts, non-Western aesthetic conceptions and other artistic creations that are distinct from or in resistance to art historical tradition and the geographic and political dominance of Europe.
With exquisite technical precision that reveals a masterful (or—rather–mistressful) handling not only of conventional academic techniques but also of sewing, weaving and restoration, Roa’s pieces cut across borders to construct a new artistic continent that we can inhabit and manipulate. She uses the pages from books to create tablecloths, dresses based on traditional designs of indigenous groups and other objects that reveal a hybridization between fabric, paper, thread and yarn, in a deliberate dismantling not only of the hierarchies that have separated the Fine and Manual Arts since the Renaissance, but also of our conventional habits of perception and presentation of art works, that tend to privilege a reflexive distancing from the object.
Works such as Vestido Mazahua con Huipil (Mazahua Dress with Huipil) and Vestido Gunadule con Mola (Gunadule Dress with Mola) remind us explicitly of the dimensions of the aesthetic and artistic experience that we lose if the body is not present. Ruana Book, for example, is a volume that unfolds to become a poncho style outer garment typical of the Colombian Andes that can actually be worn; it is made up of leaves from an art history book that have been unbound, recombined in a different configuration and intervened with thread. This and the other aforementioned works, created with similar techniques, underline how our relationship with art changes when we take into account that the personal is political. Roa takes this fundamental teaching of the history, theory and practice of feminist art, and its implications when approached from a female, Latin American body, to its ultimate consequences, inviting her public to wear canonical art that has been converted into clothing inspired by indigenous cultures of Colombia and Mexico, to involve their bodies in the visual articulation of the contradictions that this encounter produces.
Through a subtle, eloquent and elegant procedure of montage and superimposition, Roa produces in her works a palimpsest of design elements from diverse cultural traditions that impedes our unmediated access to the European images from the Renaissance and Baroque periods in the books that are the material basis for her creations, making palpable the fact that our perception is always situated and incomplete. Our vision of the world emerges as a sensory act tied to the specificity of our bodies as cultural and gendered constructs, and Roa’s work articulates its fragmentary, imbricated, contradictory and incomplete quality, precisely the quality that the homogeneous and harmonious construction of conventional Western art history seeks to hide.
The perforation of the paper with a needle, the act of cutting, the erasure or veiling of the identity of the works and their subjects, also refers us, subtly and yet explicitly, to the systematic violence exercised by an art history that claims “universality” when in reality it has naturalized the invisibilization of the other effectuated by colonial, patriarchal and racist power relations. And at the same time the new aesthetic possibilities that emerge from the combinations created in Roa’s work reveal a distinctive beauty that suggests the rich potential of different forms of encounter.
In the work The Past. Instructions for Use that gives its name to the series (a name adopted from a book by Enzo Traverso that deals with the nature of memory and the politics of use of the past ), the artist has intervened a book of miniatures, cutting out the images, writing over the text with a marker, and remounting the images in a polyptych with their faces carefully erased with oil paint, reflecting her lack of identification with the history they represent. Similarly, in Retratos familiares (Family Portraits) she cuts out portraits from art history books and embroiders on top of them, adding new elements and ornaments to the models’ attire and enclosing them behind a delicate grid of thread, as if to make visible how their codified representations imprison them, while at the same time appropriating these historical figures and making them familiar through artistic interaction with them. Roa also adds a crocheted frame or border to each image, feminizing and converting the paintings into a type of doilies that could be comfortably integrated into a domestic context, thus once again challenging the fine art-manual art dichotomy.
This domestication of the history of images, in deliberate defiance of the conventional separation of high and low culture, or the so-called “fine arts” and “popular arts”, is also a fundamental element of Yohanna Roa’s proposal, since she uses the transformation, intervention and recontextualization of the pages of art history books to create objects–tablecloths, dresses, doilies–that are located in the semantics of home and everyday life, traditionally identified with women’s context. Roa has noted that this questioning of aesthetic hierarchies, as well as the collaborative and community-based character of a significant part of her work, has roots in her experience of her mother’s long-standing career in various aspects of public radio, and her own early involvement in that area as a result. One of the most eloquent and incisive examples in this sense is Mantel (Tablecloth), in which cross-stitched designs identifiable with a child’s environment are superimposed on the reconnected book pages, along with embroidery of flowers and a map of the Americas, once again dislocating the images and relocating them in a dialectical relationship.
Thus, in the serie The Past, Instructions for Use interrogates the history of art from a critical and anachronistic perspective , and at the same time, through her creations, exercises the act of mending and reconstructing a suggestive history of the images from a perspective of difference, alterity and multiplicity, not as another fixed proposal, but as a performative act in which the body—her body and our bodies–plays a leading role as a site for the construction of meanings and subjectivities.