Sis­ters in arms

Nao Bus­ta­mante’s mul­ti­me­dia show pays trib­ute to Mex­ico’s fe­male sol­diers, ru­mi­nates on war’s role in ev­ery­day life


On the sur­face, the lemon­col­ored out­fit that re­sides on a man­nequin in artist Nao Bus­ta­mante’s stu­dio is the very pic­ture of fem­i­nin­ity. A late-Ed­war­dian en­sem­ble, it con­sists of a f loor-length skirt and a fit­ted jacket with dainty puff sleeves. It is the sort of f ine frock you might ex­pect to see on the sub­ject of a late-Im­pres­sion­ist paint­ing. Ex­cept this grace­ful dress is made en­tirely out of bul­let­proof Kevlar.

For five years, Bus­ta­mante has been re­search­ing the role of women in the Mex­i­can Revo­lu­tion — in uni­ver­sity ar­chives and re­search fa­cil­i­ties and through first­hand re­search in Mex­ico.

“It’s in­ter­est­ing to me how women get in­volved in a conf lict, and this was a ter­ri­ble conf lict,” Bus­ta­mante says. “So I wanted to make dresses that would pro­tect th­ese women metaphor­i­cally.”

She also wanted to high­light the im­por­tant place they held in the Mex­i­can Revo­lu­tion — even if it hasn’t al­ways been rec­og­nized by his­tory.

“There is a vul­ner­a­bil­ity there,” she says. “They are not in as many of the pho­tos. Their story isn’t al­ways told.”

And yet, she points out, women were in­te­gral to the fight: “They were cooks, they were la­bor­ers, they were fighters, they main­tained sup­ply lines.”

Now the role of the sol­dadera (fe­male sol­dier) in Mex­ico’s decade-long strug­gle is at the heart of a new solo ex­hi­bi­tion by the artist at the Vin­cent Price Art Mu­seum at East Los An­ge­les Col­lege.

The show is a mul­ti­me­dia in­stal­la­tion that in­cludes film, sculp­tural ob­jects, his­tor­i­cal ar­ti­facts, archival images and, of course, the Kevlar dress (one of five that fea­tured in the show).

“Sol­dadera,” as the ex­hi­bi­tion is ti­tled, fuses bits of fact with fic­tion to tell a big­ger story

“Ca­plan con­tin­ues to de­liv­era per­for­mance that is gor­geously sharp.” THE WASH­ING­TON POST

about the ways in which women’s con­tri­bu­tions can of­ten get over­looked or dis­torted, but also the ways in which war pen­e­trates even the most mun­dane as­pects of daily life.

“I have mil­i­tary in my fam­ily, but a lot of peo­ple don’t,” says Bus­ta­mante, sit­ting amid dresses and other in-pro­duc­tion ob­jects at her High­land Park stu­dio. “War is not a part of their lives. For many peo­ple in the U.S., war is sep­a­rate from their daily lives. That’s some­thing I want to look at and think about too.”

Bus­ta­mante was born and raised in the San Joaquin Val­ley and stud­ied at the San Fran­cisco Art In­sti­tute. She divides her time be­tween Cal­i­for­nia and up­state New York, where she teaches art at Rens­se­laer Polytech­nic In­sti­tute in Troy. But she is best known in art cir­cles for her work as a per­for­mance artist — which has spanned the range from the com­i­cally out­ra­geous to the dead se­ri­ous.

In one well-known early 1990s per­for­mance, she took to the stage in a skin-bar­ing Aztec-in­spired out­fit and got white men in the au­di­ence to take bites from a bur­rito that she’d strapped to her hips. For an­other piece from that era, she ap­peared on “The Joan Rivers Show” as a fic­tional char­ac­ter (un­be­known to the show’s pro­duc­ers), an ex­hi­bi­tion­ist named Rosa.

But she has also ad- dressed dif­fi­cult top­ics in se­ri­ous ways. In the late 1990s she col­lab­o­rated with cel­e­brated per­for­mance artist and writer Coco Fusco for a piece that dealt with is­sues af­fect­ing women in Latin Amer­ica, such as sex tourism.

Oth­ers may likely rec­og­nize Bus­ta­mante from her short stint on re­al­ity TV. In 2010, she ap­peared as a con­tes­tant on the Bravo net­work’s art re­al­ity show, “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist.” That, too, she says, was a work of per­for­mance, in which she played the ar­che­typal re­al­ity show vil­lain.

“I was on there as a more evil ver­sion of my­self,” she chuck­les. (To be cer­tain, in per­son Bus­ta­mante can be acer­bically witty, but she is also ref lec­tive and thought­ful — noth­ing like her brassy char­ac­ter on the show.)

In­ter­est­ingly, it was her stint on “Work of Art” that ended up in­di­rectly feed­ing the whole “Sol­dadera” project.

“I got a lot of at­ten­tion in both a pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive way for do­ing that show,” Bus­ta­mante ex­plains. “And the neg­a­tive had a lot to do with my body. So I started think­ing about mak­ing a gown — a tal­is­man — that would pro­tect me from the ar­rows of the me­dia.”

Shortly af­ter that she was ap­proached by a now-de­funct Los An­ge­les gallery about a Mex­i­can Revo­lu­tion-themed show. As she be­came im­mersed in the re- search, she de­cided to trans­pose the idea of a protective gar­ment to the women who had sup­ported the cause of revo­lu­tion — and she pro­duced her first Kevlar dress.

At one point, she even tested the ma­te­rial’s re­silience with early 20th cen­tury weapons. “I worked with a gun dealer from up­state New York,” she says, to lo­cate an era-ap­pro­pri­ate hand-loaded rif le that she em­ployed to shoot at her dress. “I grew up in the Cen­tral Val­ley,” she adds. “Guns were pretty com­mon. I’m not a hunter or any­thing, but I grew up shoot­ing guns.”

That orig­i­nal dress now has two 9-mil­lime­ter slugs em­bed­ded in the apron. To be cer­tain, it wouldn’t pro­tect any­one from con­tem­po­rary weapons, which are much more pow­er­ful. “I’d have to do some­thing much more for­ti­fied,” the artist ex­plains.

Over time, the idea of pro­duc­ing a sin­gle Revo­lu­tion-era dress has turned into a full-f ledged project with many mov­ing parts.

Bus­ta­mante spent time in the ar­chives of the Ben­son Latin Amer­i­can Col­lec­tion in Austin, Texas, study­ing the ways in which “Adeli­tas” — as soldaderas are af­fec­tion­ately known — were por­trayed in the ed­i­to­rial car­toons of the early 20th cen­tury. (The revo­lu­tion lasted roughly from 1910 to 1920.)

“It went from images of th­ese chaste, al­most Vic­to­rian fig­ures with del­i­cate fea­tures, and over time, she be-

came beastly, with an over­sized head,” Bus­ta­mante says. “Even­tu­ally, she be­comes nor­mal­ized.”

Th­ese days, the fig­ure of the Adelita has been ren­dered into a pinup icon — em­ployed by restau­rants, graph­ics com­pa­nies and mag­a­zine cov­ers. “She is a sex­u­al­ized thing,” ex­plains Bus­ta­mante, “with the loose white blouse, the breasts out, hand firmly planted on the flag.”

For more re­al­is­tic images, Bus­ta­mante dug through through pho­to­graphic ar­chives at UC River­side, which con­tains an ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion from the Mex­i­can Revo­lu­tion. There, she found the pho­tos of women she used as mod­els for the Kevlar fight­ing cos­tumes she made for the show.

“Some schol­ars say it was the most pho­tographed war be­fore the Viet­nam War,” says Jen­nifer Doyle, the UC River­side pro­fes­sor who guest-cu­rated Bus­ta­mante’s show at the Vin­cent Price mu­seum. “It lasted for 10 years and it was a site of popular in­ter­est in the U.S. and in­ter­na­tion­ally.”

The out­fits, made with the as­sis­tance of cos­tume designer Sy­bil Mose­ley, are more than sim­ple sculp­tural props. Bus­ta­mante used them in a short film she cre­ated, which reimag­ines a por­tion of a movie by Rus­sian avant-garde film­maker Sergei Eisen­stein. In the early 1930s the direc­tor, al­ready well known for epics such as “Bat­tle­ship Potemkin,” started work on a project called “¡Que Viva Méx­ico!” The project was never fin­ished and among the un­filmed se­quences was one ti­tled “Sol­dadera.”

For her ex­hi­bi­tion, Bus­ta­mante uses Eisen­stein’s script as a point of de­par­ture for a six-minute video that imag­ines what that footage might have looked like. It’s not a lit­eral re-cre­ation of Eisen­stein, she says: “I like to say I dipped a la­dle into his work and aes­thetics.”

Per­haps the most mov­ing por­tion of the en­tire “Sol­dadera” project was the jour­ney Bus­ta­mante made to Mex­ico to meet with Le­an­dra Be­cerra Lum­br­eras, who, by var­i­ous ac­counts, turned 127 in 2014 — which meant she would have been in her 20s when the revo­lu­tion went down.

“Touch­ing her was like trav­el­ing in time,” says Bus­ta­mante, with a touch of awe in her voice. “She had sur­vived all of her chil­dren. She was this foun­tain of love.”

Bus­ta­mante spent two days film­ing the frag­ile cen­te­nar­ian as Be­cerra acted out episodes of her life and drummed on a cookie tin. Dur­ing the revo­lu­tion, she had served as a sol­dadera, help­ing main­tain sup­ply lines.

“She was like in her own time zone,” re­calls Bus­ta­mante. “She was strad­dling this divide, talk­ing to the dead but be­ing present with us at the same time.”

Doyle says that when Bus­ta­mante showed the raw footage at a work­shop at UC River­side “half the room was re­duced to tears.”

Be­cerra passed away in March. But the footage from Bus­ta­mante’s visit will make its way into an­other video piece that will also go on view at the Vin­cent Price.

Doyle says the whole project has made her think a lot about the ways in which so­ci­ety re­gards women.

“You see the dress and you know it’s made out of Kevlar and you imag­ine that the woman is go­ing to be shot,” she ex­plains. “It iden­ti­fies her as a mov­ing tar­get. It speaks pow­er­fully to the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing an ob­ject of vi­o­lence. It also gets at the way that the world of the woman gets nar­rated in terms of risk and harm: don’t walk down the street at night, don’t take risks, don’t ex­pose your­self — that sense of be­ing re­ally limited.”

For Bus­ta­mante, “Sol­dadera” is now an on­go­ing piece of her life. She wants to do a mock battle reen­act­ment in the desert with sol

daderas. She is work­ing on in­ter­view­ing refugees and women sol­diers about the things that pro­tect them. There is talk of a doc­u­men­tary. And through­out the course of the ex­hi­bi­tion, she, along with stu­dents and fac­ulty from UC River­side, will pro­duce a se­ries of blog posts for KCET’s arts web­site Art­bound about the is­sues she ex­plores in the show.

For Bus­ta­mante, who is Mex­i­can Amer­i­can, all of this has also been a way of re­con­nect­ing with her own past.

“Ev­ery Mex­i­can fam­ily has a mem­ber that fought in the revo­lu­tion,” she says. “There are sto­ries in my fam­ily of two great un­cles who fought on dif­fer­ent sides and they would meet at my un­cle’s land to share a meal and then they’d go back to the fight.”

“The revo­lu­tion,” says Bus­ta­mante, “it di­vided fam­i­lies.”

“Masters is a por­trait of a man ruled by con­tra­dic­tions and com­part­men­tal­iz­ing, which Sheen plays to an un­der­stated per­fec­tion.”


Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

NAO BUS­TA­MANTE says the dresses she fash­ioned out of Kevlar for her new ex­hi­bi­tion are a way to tell the story of fe­male sol­diers.




“FOR MANY peo­ple in the U.S., war is sep­a­rate from their daily lives. That’s some­thing I I want to look at and think about too,” says Nao Bus­ta­mante about her solo ex­hi­bi­tion.




Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

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