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Magazine

10 October 2011
Million Dollar Baby

Haizea Barcenilla

Equality? Is art a context where everything is possible? Are we extremely tolerant and forward thinking? Focusing on a certain place and a specific situation can demonstrate that no, there is still a huge amount of ground to be covered to overcome the historic inequalities, the unquestioned assumptions of power and ways of doing things that are just more of the same. An example? Women and Basque art, or the second division league.


I don’t really like the law of equality. On the one hand it seems to me that it hides like a weak rivet the true hole that is the question of why it is so hard for women to reach representative places. On the other, it makes it easier for people, who think that feminism is a paranoid conspiracy theory of uterine hysteria, to vindicate out loud that in the place of all these women, taken on solely for statistics, there could be a man who merited the role for his abilities.

And what is more, in many cases, as in art, it isn’t even representative of the reality: for several years now, the number of female graduates in Fine Art in the faculty of Bilbao has been double that of the male ones. Why then, is the number of women in competitions such as Ertibil, to which artists who have finished their course in the last ten years approximately apply, has the number of women on only one occasion (2010) been greater than that of men? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to analyse in depth what causes women not to dedicate themselves totally to their professional work as artists, why they don’t show in these visible spaces, or what are the reasons that lead a jury to prefer some works to others, before simply eradicating the four boys and selecting the corresponding girls?

However, when one discovers cases like the one I mention today, one realises that something has to be done, because the situation is really critical, however much it might be hidden behind a thin veil of illusion. Friends, male and female, I’m going to talk about the Museo de Bellas Artes of Bilbao. After the creation of the Guggenheim, many people may have overlooked the fact that the public museum charged with creating a collection of public art (sorry to reiterate) is in reality the Museo de Bellas Artes of the most honourable town. After its fusion in 1945 with the Modern Art Museum, it has been the responsibility of this institution to buy not only historical pieces, but also contemporary ones. And if anybody has visited, they will know that it has the self-proclaimed best collection of Basque art from the 19th and 20th centuries, with the intention of intuiting shortly the “21st”.

It is no novelty for those of us who regularly cross its doors that the programme has been, above all since the incorporation of Javier Viar as the director in 2003, fairly classical and safe, except for the few eccentricities that I will shortly comment on. And the acquisitions have been just like the exhibitions. The purchases of museums are usually evaluated at a public level from one point of view: the economical one. The fact that they conform to a narrative about artistic culture, that they form an official history, seems absolutely secondary. Whatever international museology might have to say about public programmes and debates about acquisitions, the vision of cultural reality that our money is invested in is never critically analysed.

The Museo de Bellas Artes received a loan from the BBVA, with which, during the last ten years, it has acquired pieces with which to complete its collection. These acquisitions were publicly presented a few months ago, with great fanfare by the mass media. A total of 269 pieces; 64 made since 1945, and exactly half, 32, made between 1990 and today. Of the more contemporary pieces, only 3 correspond to women: two by Mari Puri Herrero and one by Susana Talayero. It is not even 10%. From Mari Puri Herrero is also the only piece by a woman before 1990. There is also a piece by CVA (Juan Luis Moraza and Maria Luisa Fernández) from 1982.

To be fair, I have to say that the segregation in the museum doesn’t extend solely to women: there are no photographs nor videos, and there are only two or three installations. Here the Fine Arts maintain the easel. And of course there are no pieces, not made by women, with feminist or homosexual subject matter or representative of any other type of social vindication.

It seems hard therefore, that the museum should communicate in this respect that its priorities at the moment are contemporary art and Basque art, as if this didn’t make their marginalisation even more obvious, given that in these times and ambits it is precisely where these proposals flourish. What kind of collection of Basque art has work by Sergio Prego and not by Itziar Okariz; by Xabier Salaberria and not by Abigail Lazkoz; by Chillida (enough for the room to bear his name) and not by Esther Ferrer; one single piece by Elena Asins and two by Mari Paz Jiménez, bought in times of yore and lost to the registers so that they don’t even appear in the online collection; nothing by Marisa González, nor Begoña Zubero, nor even by Ana Laura Alaez, or Azucena Vieites, or by any other female artist currently active in the Basque country?

But then exactly every five years an exhibition is dedicated to the “theme of women”. Ten years ago it was an exhibition of female impressionists, based on a painting by Cassat, that for some strange reason the museum bought at one time; five years ago, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”, the one exception, curated by Arakis and dedicated to feminist art, that enabled them to give a huge sigh of relief and to close the chapter on any vindications for at least a couple of decades. And this year, “Hay más en ti” (There is more in you), an exhibition about the image of women in the early Middle Ages in which the title itself shows that the viewpoint does not come from women, but limits itself to their objectified representation. Obviously of the 24 solo exhibitions realised in the last ten years not one has been by a woman. Because for the Museo de Bellas Artes of Bilbao, woman (be it as an object of desire, of religious representation, or as a loud overbearing feminist) is a theme like any other that can be interspersed with still life, mythology or Dutch landscapes, but not as an active subject nor as a generator of debate.

It is understandable, on the other hand, that they can’t dedicate money to buying work by women: one has to invest in the ratification of a material tradition and the creation of a specific identity. What have not been missing from the purchases have been; the Badiola, the Irazu, the Lazkano, the Moraza, the Morquillas, the Bados, the Chillida (at huge expense I’ll have you know), the Oteiza and the Mendiburu. Traditions have to remain firmly established and curiously in our region this tradition doesn’t include women.

One asks how many more times will one have to witness the self-congratulations for their great coordination and better programming that the politicians and top executives of museums and foundations mutually distribute amongst flashes of the jubilant press, while we, the subject, wait amongst the public for them to grant us a commiserating smile.

For Haizea Barcenilla art doesn´t seem to exist on its own, but as being interlinked with various social systems, embedded between ideologies and forms of looking, included in exchange networks of, buying and selling, production and exhibition. When she writes criticism, she likes to extend her object of study as much as possible, understanding it through being part of it, considering what her position is. For her, it is impossible to see art without everything else, and everything else without art. And sometimes she manages to interweave the two sides.

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